New Read, New Perspective

I’m only two chapters into Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough, and I’m already so intrigued by this story on education, poverty, and trying to change the life of kids living in Harlem.

Geoffrey Canada grew up in poverty in Harlem and successfully climbed to middle-class status and feels utterly grateful for how he got to where he is today. Thus, Canada began working to help other Harlem kids catch up on their academics, but after spending years working in an after-school program he started to become frustrated with just how many kids were still slipping through the cracks. Whatever it Takes details the journey Canada took to start the Harlem Children’s Zone with the goal being, “to transform every aspect of the environment that poor children were growing up in; to change the way their families raised them and the way their schools taught them as well as the character of the neighborhood that surrounded them” (Tough 19). This new approach Canada believed had the potential to change the way Americans viewed poverty and change the lives of poor children by the masses so they could “grow into fully functioning participants in mainstream American middle-class life” (Tough 4).

So why are poor people poor? Chapter two of Whatever it Takes presents a lot of research from different perspectives that attempt to answer this question. Honestly, it was fascinating to read about completely conflicting ideas society has concluded about poverty. Is it all about money, or what else might be a part of this story? Does government aid help or hinder? What resources are most key to success? How do parenting styles affect child development?

These various researchers did seem to agree on a few things: intelligence is highly valued in today’s society, intelligence and socioeconomic status are correlated, children intelligence is correlated with the intelligence levels of their parents, there are distinct parenting style differences between the middle class and poor.

The most interesting area of consideration to me was the concept of different parenting styles and the developmental effects they have on kids.

In particular, I enjoyed reading about Annette Lareau, sociologist and author of Unequal Childhoods, who was discussed as an example of someone focusing on the assets of all types of parenting; rather than looking at parenting styles with a conclusion of “this way is better.” Lareau’s theory is that middle-class parents treat kids like, “apprentice adult,” meaning that they are invited into conversations almost as equals and are encouraged to “ask questions and challenge assumptions and negotiate rules” (Tough 49). Additionally, middle-class children have very busy schedules with activities that the entire family will get involved in. Meanwhile, poor families had very different parenting styles. Children in poor families learn to entertain themselves in creative ways due to participating in far fewer extracurriculars, and kids learn to treat adults with respect; in Lareau’s study, she observed “much less freedom to talk back, question authority, or haggle over rules and consequences” in poor households (Tough 49).

Lareau concludes that the middle-class parenting style emphasis individualism at the expense of developing the family group which is developed more so in a poor family.

I fear my summarizing is far oversimplifying all of this information, but what really interested me in all of this is how recently I have observed the notion and stigma of “entitlement” becoming more common. Yet, Lareau seems to believe the middle-class parenting style is both creating this sense of entitlement while also developing the individual and skills that are currently preferred by modern American culture in the workplace: learning how to question, challenge, negotiate, multitask, and represent ones’ self.

So I guess my question is: Have we gone too far?

In my head I visualize the idea of skills gained from parenting styles as a parabola; for so long we have valued in the workplace the skills associated with middle-class parenting styles, thus my theory is, these parental tendencies were enhanced in an attempt to enhance the skills being developed by new generations of kids entering the workforce. However, like all things, you can almost always have too much. Have we too strongly favored the middle-class parenting values and now one of the outcomes – entitlement – has reached a tipping point where the parenting style is, in fact, creating undesirable outcomes?

Do we perhaps need to put a greater emphasis on fostering good family relations and respect as is found to be more commonly fostered in poor families? How do we do this? How is this cultural norm that is so deeply in rooted in our modern American culture shifted to be better balanced?

I don’t even know the true magnitude of this supposed entitlement problem I am proposing, but from my experience working with children in gymnastics, I know children behavior and belief of being “deserving” has seemed to have grown significantly in the past few years even. Meanwhile, families seem to almost always be “unique” or “broken” or “untraditional” or whatever you want to call it that boils down to the idea that families spend less time together. Seems like there could be a greater correlation there and that was just really fascinating to me.

I truly appreciate when required learning is fascinating enough to feel like you’re just learning because you want to be, and that’s so far what the entire summer program I’m on has felt like, so I am especially grateful and excited for the future learning to come in the next 6 weeks.

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Being Prepared for College

There’s always value in revisiting conversations. Today at SparkHouse I got the opportunity to re-experience a conversation around distinctions which I thoroughly enjoyed beause it’s one of my favorites. (This link actually connects to my post from Day 1 of SparkHouse 1 from two years ago, and it’s funny now looking back on that day compared to today and how many similar thoughts I had.)

I loved this conversation and many others of the day and was inspired as always by the energy of young learners gathered together to discuss what education could look like in a learner-centered paradigm.

However, what really stood out to me today, because it was unusual and disheartening, was when I heard a learner say they think their environment is too untraditional sometimes and should have more busy work in order to be prepared for college.

My heart was actually broken.

And I believe that the fact that a statement like this could come up at a gathering of learners from all learner-centered schools goes to show how we still have so much further to go in transforming the education system paradigm.

So despite it being 11:45pm after a long day of heavy thinking, high energy, and additionally having to do psych homework even while traveling, I needed to take time to reflect and respond to this comment because it’s been bugging me all day.

First off, I just have to ask, what does it say about our education system when students think college is all about busy work and doing busy work is what prepares you for college?

Second off, I don’t believe we should be conforming and confining k-12 education to doing things only based on what “colleges want.”

This comment was made innocently and honestly and while I don’t agree with the statement if you look deeper into what was being implied, the real problem being described is valid to address: learner-centered high schools and most colleges do not work off of the same paradigm. Therefore, this creates dissonance for everyone involved in our education system– students, parents, teachers, faculty, admissions reps, professors, etc. The proposed expectations, purpose, and methodology behind teaching in these two worlds (learner-centered high school and traditional college) are foundationally different, which can make communication and movement between the worlds challenging.

Moving from a learner-centered high school to a traditional college is hard. I know because that’s my current reality. The thing is, the reason it isn’t easy has nothing to do with “being prepared.”

The number 1 question I have gotten asked since entering college is:

“Did you feel like your high school prepared you to do well in college?”

YES!!! – That’s my short answer.

The long answer is that I’ve felt more than prepared because of all of the skills I learned that are actually useful for life, unlike just learning how to be a really good test taker.

Because being prepared for college is about more than being ready to take tests.

Being prepared for college means that you are mature and responsible enough to live on your own and take ownership of your learning. Being prepared for college means you have a keen sense of self-awareness in order to make informed decisions about your future. Being prepared for college means you are able to clearly and strategically plan and articulate your goals and curiosities to advisors, professors, job interviewers, etc.

You would think it would be obvious that college is about more than just test taking, but apparently, it isn’t because that’s all I seem to get asked about. And yet, while actually in college, I have plenty of advisors telling me almost daily “GPA doesn’t really matter beyond getting your first job/internship- then it’s all about networking, experience, and selling yourself based on your skills.”

So when I say, “switching from a learner-centered high school to a traditional college is hard,” I say that because it’s hard to deal with the culture change. It’s hard to move into a reality where your voice is no longer heard, where you can’t easily pitch new ideas to leadership, where you get lectured at and talked down to constantly, where you are more frequently viewed as a statistic rather than as a holistic person. That’s hard.

It’s not hard to learn how to take tests. Plus every professor is typically a little bit different. For example, one of my current classes does pretty much all assessing online, so all you have to figure out is that the homework questions and practice problems are all potential test problems, then you’re pretty much guaranteed an A on every test. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some hard tests in college, but that’s just because it’s new material and challenging. The test wouldn’t be any easier if I had done more busy work and test taking during high school.

So back to this issue of the dissonance between learner-centered high schools and traditional colleges. Something that extends this challenge is that we too often try to silo our education system by looking at just k-12 or just higher education.

If we are going to “transform the education system” that takes the ENTIRE SYSTEM. 

We can’t ignore the fact that the education system doesn’t stop at high school graduation for the majority of learners.

So in order to bridge the gaps between the two worlds, one student today proposed, “We should have more busy work,” and I propose an alternative: Colleges also need to change their education system.

And I’d like to believe the alternative is the more likely option because it’s the more promising option. When I talk to college admissions reps, a student from a learner-centered high school is the ideal college candidate. They are mature and responsible. They have a keen sense of self-awareness. They can clearly and strategically plan and articulate their goals and curiosities. And they have all sorts of stories and evidence of their experiences that they can share to prove this learning.

However, as more and more learners start to graduate from learner-centered environments, I imagine there will be more and more pushback about why we have to then transition into a traditional college environment. Then these great, college and life ready learners will find alternative solutions of their own. They’ll attend the hand full of non-traditional colleges, or they’ll just continue on with internships from high school, or they’ll study in a different country, or something I’ve not even thought of. Colleges will have to change if they want these great learners in their learning environments.

That’s my hope/belief at least. I hope this process moves father than I anticipate, though unfortunately, bureaucracy and the fear of risks seem to be much more present struggles for colleges to overcome.

I could talk on and on about this struggle of learner-centered high school to traditional college, and to be honest I didn’t even go to one of the more unique high schools out there. There’s so much to be said about transcripts, assessment methods and “How do colleges interpret them?”, my advice to learners making the transition, my desire for a working compilation of non-traditional colleges, etc.

However, the important point here is that it is all a conversation. If you are aware of the two world struggle then you are already making the first step towards being able to respond to the struggle. But I want to make explicitly clear that I don’t, by any means, think the correct response is “Let’s be a little more traditional to prepare for college.”

Struggles are solved by compromise, not conformity.

I have felt beyond prepared for college because of my learner-centered experiences. And even now being in college and knowing what it’s like, I would never trade those experiences for the opportunity to have had more time to practice taking standardized tests to, “Get used to them for college.” Switching worlds is hard, but not because of the tests, it’s because of the culture.

Weirdly enough, upon further reflection, I’m actually glad that this comment was made about wanting busy work to be prepared for college. It brought up a very important question for education in terms of how we distinguish “college ready” from “not college ready” and definitely challenged me to think carefully about my own distinguishment for this topic and even on distinguishing “learner-centered education” as a whole.

Thankful for Gymnastics

The world of gymnastics has had a lot going on in the press recently, and unfortunately, the majority is negative. The thing is though, you only ever hear about the bad stuff in the news when the truth is that I think everyone could benefit from gymnastics in their life.

I have literally grown up in the world of gymnastics. My mom was coaching while she was pregnant with me. I was taking classes by the time I was a few months old. I first crawled on a gym floor. I started competing at age 5. I had to quit competitive team due to moving but was still in a gym taking classes until we started a new team program. I started helping with coaching occasionally with birthday parties and camps by age 10. My mom then opened up her own gym and I started training in acrobatic gymnastics (versus artistic gymnastics as most people think of due to the Olympics). By age 13 I was choreographing competitive routines for other team girls and occasionally competing since I was around and kept up my skills. Since then I’ve stopped competing in artistic gymnastics, but am currently training level 8 in acrobatics and have an official coaching schedule as a team coach for our lower levels and choreographer for almost every girl on our team.

Despite several moves at a young age, changing interests, and normal growing up stuff like going to college, gymnastics has always been a part of my life. And I imagine it always will be there in some way because as an athlete, coach, and general lover of gymnastics, there’s so much I’m thankful for about gymnastics.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has taught me to always keep brainstorming and learning from others because there are always new ways to use your resources.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to express my artistic side through choreographing routines and occasionally performing myself.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to play a role in helping kids grow up by working with them to develop their confidence and resilience as well as physical ability.

And I’m thankful for so much more because I know this sport is about more than the scandals and policy changes you might hear about in the news. It’s not even all about the metals or getting to the Olympics either.

Gymnastics at its core is about growth through movement. It’s about the process of setting goals, mastering skills, and performing at your highest caliber. It’s about balance in all senses of the word.

This past weekend I attended a camp for upper-level gymnasts and coaches which is what prompted this post on gymnastics. I appreciated the chance to listen and learn more about drills, techniques, and mindsets currently being developed in our sport. Coaching is about more than just how to teach skills, and what I find most people don’t realize is just how much time coaches spend learning and discussing sports psychology, mental health, and safety on top of the practicality of how to best teach skills. We have a duty to train kids beyond just physically but also mentally and emotionally which is a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

And on the note of mindsets, one of the biggest things I was reminded of this weekend is that in the midst of change we have to stay positive and continue to share the reasons we love what we do.

The simple truth is that a few bad apples can never describe the whole batch. Despite what the media may currently say about the world of gymnastics, there are a lot of great coaches out there doing great things for kids nationwide. And I’m thankful for those coaches and the world of gymnastics for all it has, is, and will teach me.

 

Unfitting Position

I often find myself in leadership positions I don’t feel qualified for. I have a problem saying no, so sometimes I step up simply because I know someone needs to and want to do my part to help.

Today I got an email which reminded me I agreed to help plan my second-year retreat for my scholarship program. This retreat is focused on our pillar of service, and I must be honest, I don’t consider myself to be a very service minded person which makes me feel a bit weird about planning a service retreat.

However, like any time I find myself in perhaps an unfitting role, I’m gonna do my best to rise to the challenge. Plus sometimes it’s good to be in seemingly unfitting positions because you can gain a new perspective and strengthen skills maybe you wouldn’t normally use.

 

Tools for the Back Pocket

Every now and the Georgia Tech multimedia lab hosts workshops to learn new technology/art skills. I just happened to discover this fun fact when I accidentally opened an email from the school library the other day.

I noticed that there was a workshop for PhotoShop, and for me PhotoShop has always one of those tools I’ve wanted to know how to use, but haven’t necessarily needed to know how and thus haven’t learned. Therefore, when I saw this workshop was being offered at a time I could attend I decided I should look into it. But then the registration was full…

I left the event on my calendar anyway though, and all day today I was debating if I should just show up. I knew I had other things I could be working on, including studying for a test this weekend or trying to get ahead to limit my work over the long weekend. Plus I was very confused about where the workshop was actually taking place, which made me contemplate further if I should even attempting to go to it or just stay working where I was 20 minutes beforehand.

However, something inside me said that I would regret not at least trying to attend. So I packed up my stuff and wandered around the library until I found the right room in the back of the basement.

And man am I glad I attended!

PhotoShop is really super cool and I’m not sure when I would’ve learned the basics to this tool if I hadn’t today. I’m not sure when I’ll use this tool, but I feel like having it in my back pocket just in case will be an asset sometime down the road. Plus, often times the best teammates are those who come to a team with a random assortment of tools they can use even if they haven’t really needed to in the past.

Sometimes you just have to take a chance and not be afraid to show up. I got there early and was able to find a seat and there wasn’t a problem with me not having registered in advance. Turns out a bunch of people didn’t register in advance, so I’m not sure why the event invite was shown as “full”… I’m just glad it worked out and happy to add PhotoShop to my toolbox.

Working with High Schoolers

I’m very excited right now because the Trailblazers team has gotten all of our info in for SparkHouse 2018!

Three years ago I attended the first SparkHouse held in Washington D.C. hosted by Education Reimagined. This gathering brought together learners from around the country for two and a half days of talking about learner-centered education. It was phenomenal and also the birthplace of the original idea for Trailblazers itself!

After a bit of work convincing parents and working out logistics, we have our flights booked and surveys sent in, and our team is ready for a new adventure!

I’m particularly excited about this because part of my dream for Trailblazers is for it to be more than just a magazine; it’s a platform for learners to grow their networks and develop business and design skills. I hope that the Trailblazers production team travels more often to expand the learner network and share learner voices to wide varieties of audiences.

It’s been challenging to lead a team of high schoolers and try to get them to take more ownership of their learning. We often struggle with communication and timeliness and what to do when things don’t go as planned. However, it’s been worthwhile as well when I get to see how proud they are with each new production we somehow manage to put together, or even the little accomplishments like getting our first draft of a production. I couldn’t be more excited to spend three days as their chaperone for our first conference appearance as a team!

From Fear to Greatness

Being a coach 100% makes me a better educator.

I understand the worry that comes along with the responsibility of teaching and training kids.

The wonder about if you’re good enough to be leading them. The confusion when you can’t put well to words what you want from them. The sadness that comes when you see a child that looks as if she is going to burst into tears over a comment you made when all you were doing was trying to give constructive feedback. The actual tears you see sometimes…

Then there is the ever-present challenge of keeping up with new times, new drills, and new standards of excellence. That moment when you learn a level has completely changed their expectations for an event and you get vexed beyond belief because for the past few years you’ve been leading the kids entering this level down an entirely different path. Then you try to throw in some new drills into your class and you’re thinking it’ll be great – just like how you saw it at that conference you attended!- but it never is. Instead, the kids try out your new drill and it just looks all wrong, so you try to make corrects but can’t tell if it’s even worth continuing with this new drill. Did I explain it poorly? Am I not remembering the technique right? Was it too advanced for their skill level? Did I push them too far too fast? Or do they just need to get in more repetitions? Well now we’ve used up all of our time on this event today and I don’t even know if I just wasted the last 45 minutes or am making progress in a great new area that we’ve not trained as effectively before.

Honestly, time is the worst. Do you spend a little time on every event today, or do the kids really need to focus on just one event they’re weak at? Do I even have this option? Is today’s schedule set in stone because there are too many different groups moving around or do I have flexibility with my time? How do we balance learning new skills while also practising their routines necessary for the next competition? When is there next competition anyway; are they really ready for it? Am I wasting time explaining so many directions? Should I be doing our normal warm-up for consistency and time effectiveness or mixing it up so different skills are worked? Does it take more time to set up these stations then they’re worth doing? How much time is left before we have to rotate? What happens when they come to this event with a different leader next time and the kids get confused with new directions and expectations? Are the kids progressing at a reasonable pace? Is anyone falling behind? Is anyone being held back?

So ya, I can empathize with teachers. I know all of those worries and concerns and feel them while maybe not daily, at least bi-weekly, but I’m often thinking about this work much more often than just while I’m in the gym. Half of the time I ride Marta I’m listening to potential gymnastics music or choreographing new routines based on the skills I know kids have/expect them to have come performance time.

While I understand and constantly am faced with these concerns, I also can respect the bigger picture. USA Gymnastics completely changed lower level vaulting progressions this year. It’s a pain in the butt because now we’re having to teach all of these new vaults to children and we feel less confident in how these new changes play into our personal philosophies. But at the same time, the changes are mostly good for the greater whole of trying to improve American gymnastics.

And fears of if you’re good enough to be a leader, while perhaps valid, are also in a way trivial. Whether you feel good enough or not, you’re what these kids got. So either step up or step down, either way, get out of the way because these kids are coming and have expectations of you. So make it up, make mistakes, make saves. Try something new, and give it adequate time in the experimenting phase before judging it’s worth as a drill or skill. When you’re stuck or need a second to catch your breath or even just help with setting up, let the kids lead- they’ll surprise you. Learn from those around you and don’t be afraid of a “double spot” or an extra hand to help out; we tell kids it’s okay if you need a little extra help getting a new skill, so it should be okay for us too.

Fears, nerves, and concerns can drive us to great things if we can accept their validity and then move on to push past them; sometimes it just takes time, creativity, and a little extra help every now and then.

 

The Gift of Feedback

I truly value people who can give good feedback. It doesn’t necessarily have to be positive feedback, but just people who can balance between praise and critique and make suggestions without sounding like a know-it-all. People who know how to both point out specifics and provide examples of new directions to go in, but can also give general overall feedback on the piece as a whole.

I had a conversation with my bestie tonight about this and we both agreed that knowing how to give feedback well is one of the best skills you can find in a teammate. Yet at the same time, teaching “how” to give feedback never seems to me emphasized enough in school. There are some people that are just horrible at giving feedback. There are two spectrums of the people you don’t want to give you feedback: the know-it-alls who sound like snobs that can only give feedback “obviously you should’ve…” feedback, and then the people who don’t know how to critique at all so they just say everything is great even when you know it isn’t.

Personally, I wish there was more teaching on giving feedback. I learned through experience in the Innovation Diploma (ID) but sometimes it would be nice to get more feedback on how we’re giving feedback. It’s one of those things I really miss about high school/ID- more frequent practice of giving and receiving feedback.

Also, especially in college but I suppose for some high schools too, I wish more teachers facilitated first drafts and peer review. Sometimes you need that nudge to meet new people in your classes and some people need more guidance on how to give feedback if they never had that learning opportunity when they were younger.

I happened to be partnered with someone today in my English class who I found to be a particularly helpful feedback giver. There was great balance in the type and style in which he gave feedback which I truly appreciated. It will now make my second draft much easier to write.

Play to Learn

I feel like one of the most untapped pieces of potential for great learning is playing games.

Today I spent just about all day in a game store where they have bookshelves full of IMG_0965.JPGrandom games you can play. As a student, it’s $5 for me to sit at a big game table in the store and be able to play as many games as I want from 8am to 11pm and can even leave and come back for no extra charge. We played from 1:30-11 only taking a little more than an hour break to eat dinner at a nearby restaurant and it really was a fantastic day.

We challenged ourselves to learn new games so we played two rounds of two new games and then ended the night with 15 minutes of one of our favorite “classics” for our family to play.

I had forgotten how hard it can be to learn a new game. So often when playing games, at least one person already knows how to play and they can help explain as you go. When no one has ever played the game, you can easily spend 20-30 minutes just doing reading comprehension to try and understand setup and how things work in this particular game world.

We found also that after learning our first new game, learning a second new game became easier because we had more confidence at being able to piece together and remember odd assortments of rules; games push your creative muscles.

Games are so great for all sorts of brain activity. On top of the reading comprehension needed to understand instructions and the communication skills to explain the instructions to the rest of the players and the questioning skills to truly know the instructions, we had all sorts of learning moments: We had to challenge our memory, quickly develop strategy, be able to plan for 3 steps ahead, prioritize, consider risk management, communicate our ridiculous sounding ideas, and in one game we even had to work on our geography knowledge.

Honestly, I may have only played games all day, but my brain “hurts” so to say, and I feel physically tired from all the processing I did. Mind challenges are some of the best ways to grow our brain capacity and therefore expand our learning toolbox.

I wish there were shelves of games at schools. I wonder what it would be like to be able to just get a group together and pick out a new board game to try learning over lunch time. Games are such a great way to build community and brain muscle it just seems like a naturally benefiting idea for schools to incorporate more game time into school.

That was part of the reasoning why I created the Kemps Khoas club way back when which was a club devoted to a card game tournament building community between faculty and students. One of my wishes that I never got around to in high school would’ve been to really develop the club to go beyond just the one card game.

Playing is such an essential part of learning. I wish I saw more games at schools.