Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Problem Solving...The Project Coach Way

Project Coach teaches its students about a myriad of different things, from sportsmanship to how to dribble, from study habits to how to talk to your teacher, and much more. The program covers a wide variety of skills, and one of the beauties of PC is that it teaches its students these skills and messages both explicitly and implicitly. While much of Project Coach is dedicated to tutoring, it is through the presence of engaged and intellectually-stimulated grad students, community members, and other adults who show the possibilities that come with education that much of the tutoring happens. Though high-schoolers run drills teaching the younger kids how to dribble the ball, it is through successful coaching that the high-school mentors show the middle and elementary school kids how to be a team player.

This past week at Project Coach, something unique happened that doesn't take place at every youth program. Andy, Sam, Don, and other adults of PC turned to the students and asked, what can we do for you? Instead of talking amongst themselves about what is best for the students, the PC staff decided to be open, honest, and candid with the high-schoolers about how to beef up the academic element of Project Coach.

Though many of the workbook activities and lessons learned on the field as a coach show the high-schoolers how deal with conflict and work as a team, it was this open discussion last week that taught each coach implicitly, through equal engagement with the PC staff, about problem solving.

Andy opened the discussion by talking about wanting to get grades up on the whole, and asked directly for input from the kids about how to make this happen. It was clear from the beginning that PC staffers were not paying lip service to the idea of input from the kids, but instead genuinely sought the guidance and expertise of the high-schoolers as coaches and participants in their own education. Sam addressed the group, all sitting together around round tables, "You know better than us what will work and what won't."

In small groups, the coaches tackled three specific questions: what about the academic side of PC isn't working? What would work for you as an individual? What can the program do on the whole? Each group of three to five kids had much to say on the topic; some comments like "teachers just want to teach and get it over with" showed some of the downsides of the educational system at large, while other suggestions for Project Coach, including a request for MCAS as well as SAT prep and the need for more tutoring time slots, showed definite ways in which PC could extend or rework its program in order to better serve the coaches.

In one small group, a high school sophomore said "If I don't go to college right after high school, I probably won't go," to which a Smith graduate student and PC staffer asked if he wanted to go to college; "of course" said the sophomore, and started talking about his teachers' lack of enthusiasm in the classroom. The Smith grad student took diligent notes and nodded her head vigorously; training to be a teacher herself, she was especially affected by the high-schoolers comments.

In terms of brainstorming, Francesca thought it might be a good idea for Project Coach to withhold the coaches' salaries when their grades did not meet certain qualifications. Cedric asked for more tutoring. Ziggy suggested, "Why don't you start a Project Coach school?"

The common theme among comments from high-schoolers was wanting more from Project Coach--everything that existed was already working well, but it was just a matter of getting more of it.

Another common theme was, as Gabriella said, "resources." Often tutoring sessions or different time slots that Project Coach could offer were not feasible because of limits in transportation and time conflicts with after-school jobs and family obligations.

After the discussion, there wasn't any simple or perfect resolution. Nevertheless, what struck me even more than the topic itself or the particular problem at hand was the way in which Project Coach created a venue for partnership between the coaches and the staff, and how the program demonstrated the process of problem solving: identify the problem, work together, think outside the box. Surely the coaches will take these implicitly learned lessons and messages to the field, as well as to their everyday life.

By Molly Ristuccia

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