Monday, December 21, 2009

The Early Years

The point of impact for Project Coach is adolescence. We are designed to work intensively with teenagers. While our teenagers work with elementary-aged youth in the sports program, the focus of our efforts are on supporting and teaching our teenaged youth.

While I'm clear about why we work with teens, when I read an article such as "Brain Power: Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them," which profiles a math-based preschool program that focuses on explicit teaching of math concepts, I think that while teen programs are crucial, these early intervention programs are more than crucial.

Programs like Building Blocks emerge from relatively new findings and insights from the realm of cognitive neuroscience. The premise of these programs aims to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class and it appears turning on the brain's ability to engage in more sophisticated academic work than many believed young minds were capable of handling.

After reading the article, several thoughts:

a.  Brain research is changing the way educators understand learning. Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard had a wonderful quote in the article, “Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain, Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”

b.  Early intervention programs focused on poor children can preempt achievement gaps. The data reported in the NY Times article is formidable.  
In math, there is no faking it. Children either know that five is more than three, or they do not. Either they can put number symbols in exactly the right order, or they cannot. In their studies, Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama test children one on one and videotape the results for comparisons.

Over the past four years, the couple has tested Building Blocks in more than 400 classrooms in Buffalo, Boston and Nashville, comparing the progress of children in the program with that of peers in classes offering another math curriculum or none at all. On tests of addition, subtraction and number recognition after one school year, children who had the program scored in the 76th percentile on average, and those who did not scored in the 50th percentile.
What happens after students participate in these programs? Do they enter into school systems where they experience conventional curriculum that does not build on their math ability? Are these early cognitive gains enduring and result in better capacity, performance, and ability later on?

Project Coach focuses on youth development-- and while there is equally convincing and fascinating brain research focusing on the adolescent brain-- I read an article like "Brain Power" and I'm convinced that the most effective way to address the achievement gap is to preempt it. Programs such as Building Blocks engage and absorb preschoolers in thinking that literally 'lights up their brain' through stimulating literacy and numeracy activities. I suspect that many of these types of activities are replicated through the natural processes of middle class parenting.

The NY Times provides a glimpse of the program in action and while the activity was interesting, it felt like the type of interaction that you see so many middle class parents having with their children:
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Makowski center, Buffalo’s Public School 99, Pat Andzel asked her preschool class a question:
“How many did you count?”
She had drilled them on the number seven. She held up a sign with “7” and asked her students what number they saw (“seven!”); had the group jump seven times, counting; then had them touch their nose seven times. As the class finished counting seven objects on a poster, she asked again:
“How many?”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

21st Century Skills and Teaching them in Classrooms and Programs

How do we operationalize the teaching and learning of 21st century skills? This is a question that I love because it's easy to banter about high-minded ideals, but the real challenge involves transforming lofty ideals into action. We heard a bit of this during our class discussion yesterday in our Youth Development and Social Entrepreneurship class. Our students are developing a charter school proposal and in doing so they must articulate a specific educational approach that they believe will result in student academic and social achievement. We spent some time talking about the promise of 21st Century Skills such as those promoted by Tony Wagner in his new book The Global Achievement Gap. The good discussion we had involved translating the ideals into practice and it generated these thoughts.

One of the skills we've talked about involves the capacity to make decisions. To call it a 21st Century Skills probably is a little absurd since humans have been struggling with quandries, problems, and dilemmas from the time they had a semblance of consciousness. Excuse the smug sarcasm, but I suspect that nomadic hominids struggled with the decision to break camp or head across the plains. Anyway, there is a program out of Stanford focused on 

How do we operationalize the teaching and learning of 21st century skills? As I always I leave class turning over the ideas we grapple with and I wanted to share a few perspectives on this as I believe it will be useful as you develop your prospectus for your charter school.

First, one of the skills we've talked about involves the capacity to make decisions. To call it a 21st Century Skills probably is a little absurd since humans have been struggling with quandries, problems, and dilemmas from the time they had a semblance of consciousness. Excuse the smugness, but I suspect that nomadic hominids struggled with the decision to break camp or head across the plains. Anyway, there is a program out of Stanford focused on teaching kids the principles of decision making. What interests me is the intentional instructional focus on teaching what are often called soft skills or what we call the 'supercognitives' in our Project Coach program. 

Decision Education Foundation (DEF) teaches the process in six steps as described in a well-done article in Edutopia "Decision Making Becomes the Newest Life Science."

  • frame the problem
  • think about what consequences matter to them
  • consider the various choices and alternatives
  • do research to uncover information needed to make a choice
  • satisfy themselves that they're using sound reasoning in making a choice
  • commit to following through.

The focus of the program entails utilizing the above protocol to hash through dilemmas. Students have used decision science to hash through everything from how they might have comported themselves as African Americans prior to the civil rights movement to how best to honor the nation's veterans to how to convince motorists to use seat belts and teenagers to eat healthily and exercise regularly.

I spent some time poking around the Decision Education Foundation web site and looked specifically at several of the activities that they have designed for classroom use. The focus of the activities involves investigating a controversial dilemma, doing systematic research on the issue, developing a position and then engaging in a structured debate/dialogue. 

The challenge is always moving from the tightly packaged and elegant curriculum unit to making it happen on the ground. If a teacher or after school program leader can make this come to life in their setting, it's wonderful stuff because students would be:

a. Taking a stand on an issue
b. Developing a complex position derived from their own value system and from research and information they collect.
c. Develop a plan to influence and persuade others
d. Deploy listening skills that result in them having to respond 

If I were a student, I would be engaged by a process that required me to perform and represent my perspective with coherence. 

We may call these 21st Century Skills, but they are probably more eternal than new age.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Friday's NYC Trip

We are taking about 45 students to NYC to visit two remarkable programs. 

On Friday, we'll be leaving at 6:30 am from John M. Greene Hall.

Our first stop will be StreetSquash which is a Harlem after-school youth enrichment program that combines academic tutoring with squash instruction, community service, and one-on-one mentoring. Here is a NY Times article "Using Squash to Put Youth on the Road to College" that highlights how squash is the hook that involves students in a program that supports their development as people and students. As their executive director says in the article, “Squash is the vehicle. It means more to me to help them figure out a math problem than how to hit a serve.”  Here is a Smith College article detailing a visit by StreetSquash youth to Northampton where they spent time experiencing the Smith campus. Our visit to StreetSquash will allow us to think about the role that after school programs can play in positive youth development.

Our second stop will be Bronx Lab Academy-- a school that I have visited many times. I believe that Bronx Lab is an extraordinary school. The story of how it came to be is inspiring and informative. 

For years Evander Childs High School in the Bronx was a large, struggling high school. In 2004, it had a graduation rate of somewhere around 25%. As part of a national reform movement called the small schools movement, Evander Childs was closed down and reopened as a building that housed six stand-alone and autonomous schools. The concept driving the small schools initiative was based on research that small schools can foster personalized relationships between the adults in a school and students. These relationships allow for more individualized instruction and attention that can result in positive outcomes in the social and academic realms. 

 Bronx Lab Academy was founded by Marc Sternberg, a Teach for America alum (he is presently been appointed by President Obama as a White House Fellow read his bio).  It's worth reading a NY Daily News op-ed that he wrote describing the founding of the school.
The Evander campus was unsafe for everyone. Less than 25% of the Evander Childs High School Class of 2004 graduated. Fewer still applied to college. In the greatest city in the world, Evander Childs had become a symbol of the worst in public education: a school turned into a warehouse of neglect and under-achievement.

Five years ago, emboldened by a mayor determined to reverse a remarkable trend of neglect, the chancellor invited me and a generation of school leaders, teachers and reformers to act. He believed in my ability although I was just 30. He empowered me by letting me make key decisions, including hiring autonomy without forced seniority transfers and moreover a considerably bigger budget.
Thanks to the mayor and chancellor, a band of tireless, talented teachers and hardworking students, 95% of Bronx Lab's Class of 2008 graduated with more than 350 college acceptances and $2.5 million in financial aid
We'll be shadowing Bronx Lab students in their classes. In the afternoon, each Smith student will sit with their high school partner and share a portfolio of college work. The college students have assembled a compendium of syllabi, papers, quizzes, tests, and other college projects in an effort to introduce the high schoolers to what college-level work looks like at a liberal arts college.

Read more about the Small Schools Movement

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vote for PC and help us win $25k !!!

Dear Project Coach & SSV supporters,

In a groundbreaking new initiative, CHASE are giving away $5m - in $25,000 increments - to non-profits and charities via essentially a popularity contest via vote-getting on Facebook. As you may well know, both Project Coach and SSV work tirelessly in underserved areas of Springfield to deliver educational enrichment and hope for at-risk youth, and have worked side-by-side for a number of years in helping each other to realize their dreams. This funding opportunity offers both organizations an unparalleled chance to obtain significant funds by simply mobilizing their impressive support bases.

Here's how you - in about 30 seconds - help bring us one step closer to becoming winning non-profits:

1. Go to

2. Click to access the "Chase Community Giving" application

3. Become a "fan"

4. Search for "Springfield School Volunteers" and select

5. VOTE!!!


And that is it....done! There won't ever be an easier way to help these two wonderful causes than this! As of two days ago, the 3rd PLACED organization had 87 VOTES!!! We can easily surpass this...with your help!!

Thank you for all of your support,