Monday, October 26, 2009

Malcom Gladwell Would be a Fan of Project Coach

Malcom Gladwell's best-selling books provoke and capture our imagination. From Blink, to The Tipping Point, to Outliers-- he offers us a way to think about how the social milieu shapes the way we think, behave, and plan our lives.  Aside from writing books that get the public talking, he's also been awarded the inaugural Award for the Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues by the American Sociological Association. The ASA recognized Gladwell's  "rare sociological imagination that illuminates social processes by seeing what social principle they share, that is by discovering unexpected links between disparate situations, links that render deep insights into human interaction."

All of the above is buildup to say, when Gladwell makes an observation about a social phenomenon-- we should take it seriously. This leads to his exciting observation in a Time Magazine interview where in response to a question on the prevailing failure of urban school reform responds by celebrating the core of the Project Coach model, which uses sports principles to guide the teaching and learning that we do in the program: 

Q: You've talked before about the deficiencies of the U.S. public-education system. If you were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who has about $5 billion in discretionary funding and a mandate to fix our schools — what would you do?

There's precious little experimentation in education. Instead there seems to be a desire for greater regimentation, which I think is nonsense. I think we need to try 100 different things. If I were Arne Duncan, I'd think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.
I've always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. They do really, really well in sports. It's not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they're highly functional in certain areas. So I've always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other. I'd like to try that. I don't know whether it will work, but it's certainly worth a shot, and we could learn something really useful.

We use a games approach to both sport and learning activities in the program. In sports, a games approach is best understood by what it is not. Here is an example: in our program when we want to teach  our novice soccer players how to dribble the ball a conventional approach would be to get players into a line, provide some direct and often didactic instruction (for example, use the inside of your foot to control the ball) and then have the players  replicate your instructions while the coach offers feedback.

A games-based approach would involve the coach setting up a grid and telling his/her players-- each of whom has their own ball. "On my count, dribble around the box, but don't let me tag you. We're playing tag and I am IT!" Quickly and without long and detailed instructions, the coach gets a dribble tag game underway. Players are dribbling the ball around a constrained box and deploying a full-range of crucial technical and tactical skills: dribbling with different parts of the foot, avoiding the defense, keeping one's head up to be aware of other players, and changing direction. Skills, techniques, tactics are all taught through a soccer-like game.

Adapting this approach to the classroom is a little trickier, but we do it. For example, our teams meet with their coaches for a pre-practice gathering we call the huddle. In the huddle the coaches lead a variety of activities such as discussions on sportsmanship or having players think about proper nutrition.  A quick example of a games-based encounter during the huddle involves a 'loose competition' between two teams side-by-side on the field. Each team is given the task of brainstorming and prioritizing a list of healthy and nutritious foods. The two groups vie against each other to generate a list. Importantly, the approach does not necessarily result in higher quality work, but it is engaging, motivating, and fun.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Flipping the Switch"

In the latest Coaching Academy, Smith graduate student Greg Rosnick talked to our coaches about the ability to "flip the switch" when adapting to different social and academic situations. Using the neat analogy, and a presentation that showed a "day in the life" of his own encounters, coaches were captivated by the notion that they can present in particular ways to particular audiences in effective and productive ways.

The idea stemmed from a Friday morning staff meeting in which we wanted to really stress the importance of being able to "turn it on" when coaching at PC sports sessions. As a collaboration between the "redshirt" cohort, an interactive lesson was devised encompassing not only Greg's presentation, but a series of experiential role-playing scenarios that allowed coaches to feel at first-hand the importance of creating a lasting, positive, impression on those around them.

A well deserved end-of-session dodgeball game capped off a great start to the Project Coach week....

Project Coach Dodgeball Tournament

Project Coach, in conjunction with Smith College, proudly presents its first annual Dodgeball Tournament!!




CHECKS/CASH for $40/team should be dropped off or sent via inter-campus mail to:


Project Coach

Education Department

Morgan Hall, 37 Prospect Street



  • 8 players
  • $5 per player



  • Group stages - Round Robin [each team guaranteed 4 games]
  • Last 8 - Single elimination bracket



  • Set of Championship t-shirts
  • Personalized trophy to be kept for the year
  • "Battle of the Colleges" final championship match vs. Mount Holyoke winners during half-time of the Smith - MHC basketball game @ Smith on December 9th.

Come out, have fun, and support a great Smith College community outreach program!

Project Coach - Smith College

Project Coach - now in its 6th year - is a not-for-profit community initiative founded and operated by Smith College.

Using undergraduate and graduate students, the program trains, teaches, and employs high school youth from underserved communities in Springfield to work as coaches and mentors for elementary school student athletes.

Aside from coaching training, participants receive valuable academic assistance, leadership training, and life-skills curriculum, all focused on making home-grown community leaders in places desparate for positive role-models.

For more, check out our website and event registration:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quick Links in Reference to Conversations

Hi folks,
Over the week a number of conversation strands unfolded and here are some pertinent links...

2. Paul Tough on What it Takes to Make a Student-- a piece that he wrote for the NY Times in 2006 that I suspect inspired him to take on the book project involving Geoffrey Canada. The paragraph on vocabulary and language acquisition that was referenced during the discussion on closing the achievement gap.
Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. Ten years earlier, they recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.
For more background on Hart and Riseley's work here is a good summary in the American Educator titled The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. The American Educator is the professional journal for American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and I've found it to be an excellent read.

3.  The Forbe's article on America's Fastest-Dying Cities. Springfield is on this list.

4.  City Thinks 2009: Springfield Public Forum. Education, Poverty and Hope. We will be attending many of the events including Paul Tough's lecture this Thursday 10/15, 7 pm at American International College. 

5.  2007 Report from the UMass Donahue Institute on Springfield's rank as the sixth-worst city in the nation for children living below the poverty level.

SPRINGFIELD - With troubling implications for the city's future, Springfield ranked sixth worst in the nation for the percentage of its children living in poverty in 2006, according to recent census figures.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey found that 44.6 percent of people under age 18 in Springfield lived below the federal poverty line in 2006. That was more than three times higher than the state's child poverty rate, 12.4 percent, and well more than twice the national rate of 18.3 percent in 2006.

In 2008, Springfield Republican article on the rising poverty rates in Springfield and Holyoke Schools.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Teaching Attentional Control and Listening

One of the formidable challenges that our teen coaches face occurs when they gather their team for a huddle. Anybody who has ever coached knows how difficult it can be to muster the attention of 12 nine-year olds who prior to the summons were ripping around the field with their friends. The old saying holds true, 'that was like herding cats.'

Once the players are assembled, the coach must give some direction or teach something. It's that moment that we focus on as a critical teaching moment. We ask our teen coaches: "When you start teaching, what kinds of behaviors and attitude do you hope your players use in the circle?"

Invariably the teen coaches, will identify all those habits that every teachers yearns for in their students: "I hope that my players keep their eyes on me," or "I hope that they listen carefully," or "I hope they show me that they care what I'm saying."

Their insights are crucial because we are getting the teenagers to articulate and define what constitutes exemplary presence in a classroom or a huddle. The teenage coaches draw on their direct experience  and in doing so they are being asked to consider what type of student/player does a teacher/coach appreciate the most?

At this moment in the process, we strive to connect a chain of insight:

As teenage coach/teachers we appreciate and value those players/students that exercise attentional control with us. We hope our players will make eye contact, listen, ask questions, and respect our team by paying attention.

When I am not coaching, I am a high school student. My teachers at the high school have the same feelings and hopes that I do. They want me to make eye contact, listen, ask questions, and respect my classroom by paying attention.

As you can see, Project Coach strives to cultivate these habits through a model that emphasizes  understanding how others experience our behavior. Our coaches are put into a position where they must 'teach' certain qualities and virtues. Our hope is that through activities, reflective exercises, and feedback they internalize these qualities in ways that allows them to deploy them in other contexts such as school.

Here is an accompanying activity. We take a photo of our coaches during an activity that they are undergoing. The picture captures a presentation by a Smith student who will be conducting a research study on Project Coach. She is explaining the methodology. After taking this photo, I will sit down with the coaches and ask them to evaluate their presence as a student/learner/leader in this photo. As you can see, the attributes they describe as important for their players to possess are being exhibited in the classroom setting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Presence, Enthusiasm, Energy

"Knowledge is not enough to get desired results. You must have the more elusive ability to teach and to motivate. This defines a leader; if you can't teach and you can't motivate, you can't lead."

Coach John Wooden

As we move into the third week of our sports program, we are still looking for those vital missing ingredients that will continue to push the program forward to the level of excellence that we desire. Inspired by the words of Coach Wooden, we wanted to focus a concerted effort on allowing our coaches to make their "Presence, Enthusiasm, and Energy" felt in meaningful and powerful ways. We pride ourselves on giving our coaches the tools that they need to succeed, and helping them develop the ideas and concepts that will serve them well in their leadership roles. But what use are these ideas and concepts unless they can be delivered in a manner which inspires, motivates, and energizes players? Once in a while, you just have to get back to basics....

On a windswept field late this Monday, 22 coaches were humming, singing, bellowing, and contorting their diaphragms in all other kinds of unique ways to really feel what it's like to exercise a powerful coaching voice. We had talked about it, seen it on video taped footage, and modeled it ourselves, but nothing really says "wow....THAT makes a huge difference" than experiencing it for oneself. After a few more experiential practices - including holding a conversation with a partner at 50 feet - and a whole lot of laughs, it was time to put our new found coaching voices to the test....

Test 1 - Deliver a personal statement before leaving on Monday describing your proudest moment in Project Coach thus far with "Presence, Enthusiasm, Energy"....Result -- A big improvement on the previous week.

Test 2 - Describe today's sports session plan to twelve 3rd graders bursting with energy, in a way that says "I'm a confident coach that's ready to match your energy...and then some..." -- A knockout success!

Seeing coaches make the realization that they can be a coach that exudes "Presence, Enthusiasm, and Energy" - and the added power that this then gives their ideas and concepts - is a wonderful reminder about why we do what we do.

Pitching the Program

Andy, Don, and I met with the athletic director and the head of parks and recreation for a nearby city. They had heard about Project Coach and they wanted to explore a possible collaboration with us. Prior to the meeting, we sent over some materials, a link the website, and several of the youtube videos. We had a substantive conversation and in reflecting on what ensued I was left thinking about how we frame our work in Project Coach

Every organization needs a really sharp, compelling elevator pitch. I don't think Project Coach is there yet. A pitch is concise, simple, and focused. Running a program is the antithesis of those qualities and the nature of our everyday work is complex from the range of outcomes we pursue to the complicated logistics of running an afterschool program. In talking about  PC it's tempting to try and explain everything about PC from how it started, to what we do, to how we do it, to how we understand the outcomes of all the facets of the work.  In reading the above, I think I believe we either need a simpler way to describe our work-- or a simpler program!

In the spirit of trying to learn something from every experience, I find myself turning to that oracle of all knowing: google. I search, "elevator pitch business school" and the first hit is the Harvard Business School Elevator Pitch Builder. The front page reads,

You have one minute to explain yourself, your business, your goals, and your passions. Your audience knows none of these. Are you prepared? Can you present your vision smoothly, enticing them to want to know more?
This will be a good team exercise for us during our Friday staff meeting. Can we collectively build a pitch? What will we learn through trying to sharpen our presentation of what we do and how we do it?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Be clear on the rules of the game

Bob Hebert ends his NY Times column on the efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates to use the financial power of the Gates Foundation to transform American education with a quote from a Charlotte high school student:
A student in the Algebra 1 class at West Charlotte High summed up the matter cogently when she said to the Gateses, in a voice that was not the least amused: “People seem to think it’s cool to be stupid. But it’s not.”

I generally believe that Hebert's column at the NY Times illuminates the hidden issues in our society. He uses his column to probe race, class, and gender and I genuinely respect his perspective and analysis of the world. However, I wonder why he ended his column on America's sagging educational system by having a teenager indict her peers. She threw her cohort under the bus.

My experience with our youth in Project Coach and beyond suggests that the issue is not one of adolescents intentionally and rationally choosing 'cool' over hitting the books or embracing a persona of 'stupid' -- but that most youth have a hazy, foggy, suspicious notion of the causal chain: working hard in school translates into learning those crucial skills and knowledge that will enable me to create choices in my life. In other words, why should I endure the daily nuisance of school if I  have not internalized the link between what I do in English class, my present life, and my future? There is a long tradition of scholarship that concludes that school failure can be tracked to a youth's inability to understand what Ogbu calls the "link between educational achievement to jobs" (See for example, Ogbu's Minority Education and Caste (1978) and Kao and Thompson's 2003 paper in the Annual Review of Sociology).

We traffic in the present moment in Project Coach. We try and create a culture where it's "cool" to be a leader. The role of coach has status in our culture and we capitalize on that  by conveying to our teens that you have to learn and practice a set of skills and capacities in order to be a high-impact and effective coach/leader. We-- the adults in the program-- may have high-minded ideas about the link between performing in Project Coach and a coach's future both personally, but also as Hebert points out "societal success," but I suspect that our teen's focus more on "I need to learn to communicate because tomorrow I'm going to be standing before 14 third-graders and I need to be effective."  Typical exhortations of youth focus on convincing them to delay  gratification and work hard for an elusive long-term goal. The notion of PC is to  provide an authentic and formidable challenge that exists in the moment-- you better learn to communicate, organize, resolve conflict, and work as a team because if you do-- you'll be a better coach today. They probably have some hazy idea that this will help them in the future, but I sense that's not as prominent a motivating force...

See Bill Gates on the role of education in making lives and society better. His work is worthy of admiration.