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 

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