Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meet the Blueshirts! Practicing for Perfection in 2011


It was an awesome day for Project Coach Saturday on the fields at Smith College. It wasn’t just the flawless weather though that made this day so special; it was the tremendous effort and enthusiasm of the Project Coach Blueshirts that really shined through. 

The 2011 Project Coach cohort was in the classroom all morning, honing their coaching philosophies in both small and large group settings, discussing different hypothetical coaching dilemmas and how to handle them. The Blueshirts then took the theory and knowledge they had been covering in the classroom, and took it directly to the fields. They were thrown into the deep end, tasked with running a number of small-sited games for a ferocious team of six-year-olds, which was their first experience working with kids this season. 

As we have come to expect in Project Coach, the Blueshirts rose to the challenge. While it was a little bit difficult for the new coaches to get right in and lead the youth groups, our veteran Blueshirts stepped up big time, and set an example that all coaches could strive to achieve.  All the coaches, old and new, brought phenomenal attitudes to the fields. This was evidenced by the wave of smiles that flooded the fields all afternoon- from players, coaches and even parents! 

After the youth team had left the fields, Blueshirts and Redshirts together gathered to support Smith College’s soccer team and enjoyed some great pizza for lunch. It was very special to see what all of our Blushirts were capable of, and we couldn’t be more excited to kick off the year with the kids from Gerena, Lincoln and Brightwood!

Story by Tom Messinger
Video by Jason Anderson
Photos by Tayor Stevens

All proud 2011-12 PC Graduate Fellows!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Could Adults You Know Pull This Off?

By Sam Intrator, Project Coach

Think about your colleagues in the workplace or some of the adults in your family. Put into mind three adults that you would describe as effective and productive in the circles they inhabit such as the workplace, community, and family. Imagine them as the lead 'coach' in the video below? Could he or she organize an hour of improvised activity in cramped basement space for 36 third, fourth, and fifth graders? What about if I told you this was a Friday afternoon after the kids had spent 8 hours in a classroom?

Let me add some context:

It’s a Friday afternoon in late September and they have agree to serve as a youth sport coach for elementary-aged children. The program involves meeting children at their school. These children attend schools that provide what is called “extended day,” which is a policy initiative designed to provide more academic instructional time as a way to catch kids up. The school has no gym space so children have little opportunity to move or play during their seven hour school day.

At 3:30 coaches arrive at the school and because the priority remains providing academic support, the first responsibility of the coach is to work with several colleagues and provide homework help and academic enrichment to the elementary-aged students. After a grinding week of school and an extended day of being in the classroom-- imagine the simmering energy of these third, fourth and fifth graders. The coaches provide some snacks and then provide some homework help and academic enrichment.

If you can imagine a vat of water on the stove right before it heats to boiling. Bubbles churn up, steam rises, and the lid rattles. Each passing moment more bubbles froth about in random, patternless surges of energy. Yep-- that pretty much describes a classroom of kids on Friday. The promise and anticipation of sport and activity keeps the lid from completely blowing off. The typical plan is to bring them across the avenue to an outdoor field complex for soccer; however, the remnants of a Noreaster have been lashing the city all day and outside activity is not an option.

Now back to those adults that you were imagining. How many would have the patience and energy to keep kids occupied in the classroom?

It’s 4 PM in the schools and a cell phone vibrates. One of the coaches picks up and it’s the Program Director. “Slight change in plans, the gym at the middle school across the street is closed. You have to keep them occupied until 5:30 dismissal.”

Just to recap: the elementary students are now working on 8 hours of classroom time on a Friday. It is the first day of a sport program and they had been told, “we’re going to the gym for sports at 4:15!”  I guess I would describe the situation as daunting. Here is what transpired:

Our coaches are not adults. They are teenagers and here is what they did. I believe they deployed a repertoire of skills and capacities that we want any of our adult colleagues to possess when facing a thorny and difficult situation:

Once they found out the gym was closed they quickly consulted with school people and talked with them about whether they could bring the 36 children down to a narrow basement space. They had prepped a soccer coaching plan, but they figured that they could use the space to do some movement activities. The supervisors in the program watch the teenage coaches problem solve on the fly and intentionally retreat from the foreground. They watch the teenagers exercise problem solving skills, negotiation skills, and make quick and confident decisions.

Thirty-six children, 12 teenagers, and two supervisors clomp down into the basement space and they begin to play versions of the old playground standby, “Red Light, Green Light: 1, 2, 3.” They add dance steps and silly movement sequences into the game. They break the 36 children up and have a team competition where each high school coach has a team of four. The energy surges, the noise level bounces off the basement walls, and the coaches deploy little tricks of keeping a crowd of kids engaged, but sensibly feeling when the energy level is surging too high.

The elementary aged players are dripping sweat. They are smiling. They are high-fiving the teenagers, they are cheering on their teammates, and groaning dramatically when they march back to the starting line after being caught in a red-light, green-light transgression.

Back to my original question: how many adults do you know could pull this off? I know some, but one of the propositions of Project Coach is that teenagers have unique gifts that allow them to thrive in the role of youth sport coach. These gifts such as energy, coolness, ability to build rapport, passion for sports-- are raw and we work hard to develop a skill set that allows them to work with children. It’s a winning combination.

The video highlights some of the core capacities or supercogntivies we try and teach. By supercognitives we mean achievement capacities-- which often get labelled pejoratively as non-cognitives or soft skills. We endow them with the prefix “SUPER”  because in enacting a soft skill such as ‘communication’ you not only have to do the cognitive work upstairs, but you have then have to go public and do something. In other words, having an idea about what you should say is flat out easier than having that idea and then having to articulate it to people and in doing so make judgements and decisions about tone, audience, pacing, modulation, and more!

Xavier and Kiana, the two coaches most visible in this clip are enacting a range of these supercognitives (link to read more @ the supercognitives):

  • Initiative: Rather than waiting passively, passing the buck, or drifting to the background. The team of coaches came together, devised a way forward, and made something happen. Reed Larson (link to pdf of his article) highlights initiative as the ability to be motivated from within to direct attention and effort toward a challenging goal. In addition to being an important quality in its own right, I believe that initiative is a core requirement for other components of positive development, such as creativity, leadership, altruism, and civic engagement. 
  • Communications: They are projecting with their voice, deploying a range of non-verbals and tuning it towards their rambunctious audience. 
  • Teammwork: They quickly devise roles for themselves and switch-- often seamlessly-- letting the focal person change over time. 
  • Problem Solving: Clearly they perceived that something needed to be done. Something was awry in the program and 

Monday, September 19, 2011

We started as a lemonade stand on the corner, now we're going global (sort of)....

Sam Intrator, Project Coach

As with most out-of-school programs, we began as a lemonade stand. Entrepreneurial in spirit, we launch with an idea, a sense of anticipation, and unspoken belief that our intentions are noble, our idea was distinctive, and that we have the skill and perseverance to run a lemonade stand on the corner. Metaphorically, after a few sales and some encouragement-- we start to dream. How can we expand? What else can we offer? What if we were to move to a busier corner and attract more business? In short, the story of Project Coach and so many of our sibling programs -- we start out in the garage or on the corner with a handmade sign, "Lemonade $1" and end up as a 'real entity' with all the promise and complexity of being big.

As we are getting ready to launch PC 7.0 this fall, one of the exciting additions to the PC Lemonade Stand involves us launching an academic enrichment experience for the elementary-aged players that participate in our sport leagues. The core of the initiative involves providing an hour of academic experience at the schools before the players head over to the athletic facilities for their sport experience.

What do we do with that time? Our plan has two elements: first, we want to provide opportunity for the PC team to provide homework help. When we met with the elementary school principals about how to use the time, they lobbied for us to use the time for homework help. As one principal said, “having extra time to support students with their homework would be a great asset to the children and their families.” We agreed, but we also -- in the spirit of always trying to connect to our touchstone-- “using sports as a vehicle to promote academic, social, and community growth”-- we reached for a more ambitious idea.

We are amidst planning to launch a sport-themed children’s book project that would involve developing a series of lessons that would focus on literacy, book chats, and on themes naturally unfold from the realm of sports: perseverance, what does it mean play fair, playing on a team, the role of practice in getting good at anything, and more.  Our curriculum planning is underway, but Greg Rosnick piloted this venture a few years ago and wrote about for our blog and presented what he learned at a Smith College Collaborations conference.

As I think about how we expanded and developed this initiative, I sense that we relied more on our intuitive sense of how to give ourselves the best shot at success. How can we deploy our resources so that our academic program could be a successful complement to what we already do in the gym? We sat down and planned what the program should look like, but there is a robust literature on the linkage between academic achievement and out-of-school time. We didn’t necessarily consult the literature prior to our initial planning, but since we are still in the planning phase, here is what we would have learned:

In a speech delivered to a assemblage of educational and business leaders in Springfield, MA, Geoffrey Canada shared his metaphor of the train -- which he used to explain what he called the “physics and math of the achievement gap.” He describe two trains leaving Springfield. One train left at 8 a.m. heading south. A second train leaves at 1 p.m. also traveling South. His question, “both trains are traveling at the same rate, when would the second train catch the first train?” His answer was sobering, “the physics and math of this problem are simple-- train B will never catchup.”

His meaning is indelible: poor children can’t catchup to middle class children without speeding up the train or running train B longer. In other words, to hearken back to Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. Can a tortoise running slow and steady for longer spans of time catch up?

One policy intervention that has been adopted by a number of reform entities involves extended time, which entails adding time to the school year or school day as a way to improve achievement. This logic of this approach hinges on the the axiom, “more time on task.”  This approach is both promising, but like many policy initiatives carries with it some unintended consequences as Patall et al (2010)  point out in there systematic review of research on the effects of extended day.

Potential positive effects for students
  • Increased learning and better academic achievement
  • More time for learning
  • More repetition of material; deeper coverage of curriculum
  • More time on task
  • More opportunities for experiential learning
  • Deepened adult–child relationships
Potential negative effects for students
  • Wasted time (allocated time does not necessarily translate to increased instruction)
  • Increased fatigue and boredom and decreased effort
  • Increased absenteeism and drop-out rates
  • Less time for informal learning, extracurricular activities, student employment, and free time
Our PC Academic Initiative strives to dance a balance. We are increasing time for learning and focusing on academic outcomes but connecting it to our PC Sport curriculum. We will address literacy elements, but do so through processes and content that students would not necessarily experience during the school day.

This begets the question: if merely extending the school day does not uniformly lead to better outcomes, then what features should be in place in an out-of-school program that strives to move the needle on academics?

Lauer (2006)  and her colleagues conducted a meta analysis of studies that examined the impact of out-of-school programs on academics. They only included studies that included a direct assessment of students’ academic achievement in reading, mathematics, or both. Examples included classroom assessments, standardized tests, and grades in subject areas research and evaluation on out-of-school programs that strive to address academics. Several of their conclusions are of import to our efforts:

  •  OST programs can have positive effects on the achievement of at-risk students in reading and mathematics.
  • OST programs need not focus solely on academic activities to have positive effects on student achievement. Study results indicate that OST programs in which activities are both academic and social can have positive influences on student achievement. This finding supports the belief that OST programs should address the developmental needs of the whole child.
  • Duration of academic component does not matter as much as strong implementation. In other words, high quality instruction can be done in small dosages.
  • OST programs that provide one-on-one tutoring for at-risk students have postive effects on student achievement in reading. This was one of the strongest findings from the meta-analysis and is supported by other research on tutoring of at-risk students during the school day
Lauer et al’s findings corroborate many of the other reports and studies that emphasize what programs can do to help students develop academically. The two elementsthat Lauer does not emphasize as much as other researchers do involves the significance of having engaging content that is distinctive from school content and developing alignment and coordination with the school.

So as we ready to launch, I feel we’ve designed a program that entails many of the elements identified by the research as being important to successfully improving academics:

Research-Based Practice & Our Plan in Project Coach
  1. Focus on academics through an engaging and interesting approach that is distinctive from the syntax and flow of school.  Our sport-themed children’s book curriculum will be intriguing both in terms of content, but also because it will be taught by our high school coaches and college students.
  2. Focus on instruction and delivery not just duration of program.    We have been developing a unique curriculum and we will have professional development sessions for coaches each week where we will address delivery of the program.
  3. Adapt instruction to individual and small-group needs. Use one-on-one tutoring if possible; otherwise, break students into small groups. Our ratio will be one PC Staff member for every three students. Each team will have 12 elementary students, 2 teenage coaches, and 1 Smith student. This ratio should provide ample opportunity for
  4. Align the out-of-school time (OST) program academically with the school day and coordinate staff. We have worked with the elementary-school principals to identify teachers to guide our work in the classroom. The close coordination between staff will hopefully yield coordination around academics and other important outcomes.


Lauer, P. A., Akiba, M., Wilkerson, S. B., Apthorp, H. S., Snow, D., & Martin-Glenn, M. (2006). Out-of-school-time programs: A meta-analysis of effects for at-risk students. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 275-313.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Allen, A. B. (2010). Extending the school day or school year: A systematic review of research (1985-2009). Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 401-436.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Launch day, savvy teens, and snap judgements

By Sam Intrator, Project Coach

Yesterday we launched our opening session of the Project Coach Academy. First sessions are pivotal. They remind me of a line from a novelist talking about how long he worked at revising the first line of his latest work. He said something like, “first lines are portals to this world that I’ve created.” Well first sessions are portals to our program’s world. First sessions launch our world and here is a short list of what we aspired to do!
  1. Introduce new coaches to the Project Coach Way
  2. Build the spirit or the culture that will enable us to work together
  3. Introduce the core and essential skills that anchor our program
  4. Communicate the standards and boundaries that will guide our work
  5. Model the nature of how we will interact together
  6. Begin to connect and bring to life those relationships between staff and youth that function as the white blood cells of an organization like ours.
I’m a big believer in that teenagers are savvy consumers with highly evolved and developed sensibilities. They grow up in a culture where people are ‘selling to them all the time’ so they are accustomed to making decisions about what has value and what is valueless. I also think that they have highly nuanced decision making prowess, they tend to look at a product, a class, a person, a situation -- appraise its attributes and then churn out a crude decision:
“Dude, that suck!”
“That was so boring.”
“That was awesome.”
No nuance, subtlety, or gradations. I tend to believe young people operate with a binary system of evaluation: fail or pass. We’re not like the Apple app store where you get to rate on a scale of 1-5. So, as we launch Project Coach-- we have the chance to sell ourselves, showoff our gadgetry, communicate our utility, evoke a sense of promise in an effort to be designated of worth by the young people we intend to serve.

Let me raise the stakes even more: Not only do these initial valuations matter, but they may happen in a blink. When David Brooks reviews the research on first impressions, the findings from the realm of neuroscience ratchet up the pressure. He tells that our judgments spill our fully formed in milliseconds: “Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov of Princeton have found that people can make snap judgments about a person’s trustworthiness, competence, aggressiveness and likability within the first tenth of a second. These sorts of first glimpses are astonishingly accurate in predicting how people will feel about each other months later. People rarely revise their first impression, they just become more confident that they are right. In other research, Todorov gave his subjects microsecond glimpses of the faces of competing politicians. His research subjects could predict, with 70 percent accuracy, who would win the election between the two candidates.”

Willis and Todorov found that we respond intutitively to faces in ways so fast and rapid that our rational, reasoned, critical thinking mind has little contribution to our decision. Todorov says, "We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them.  It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way."  There is that saying, "who and what is the face of your program?" I guess this suggests that 'our face' matters to whether people will like us, trust, believe in us.

So we have microseconds to prove our worth. “No pressure there!” Even if we have a longer span of time, the research suggests that the first impression is substantially durable and important. So the pressure is on-- those first impressions matter and for what it’s worth, my advice is to intensively prepare so you feel like you can control the message that young people get about your program, but then I have a hunch it comes down to something like this.

One of our veteran teen coaches walks into the room alongside one of the new recruits. As he walks in he catches a glimpse of our program director and he lights up and they greet each other with a warm hand clasp. “How is it going,” asks the program director with a warm and effusive smile. “Going great,” says the veteran. “I’ve been to school everyday this week.”  I watched the newbie taking this all in and I could literally imagine his brain doing the high-level algorithms that go into a snap judgment. “Is this a place I want to be?  Are these people that I can be around? Will I belong?” My sense is that you can design a first day with appropriate ice breakers, snappy handouts, clear expectations, but the spirit and soul of a program is discerned through the currents of connection and relationship that can’t be as easily and intentionally choreographed.

What do you do to make your program launch successfully? How do you think about the crucial and pivotal decision about the 'face' of your program?