Tag Archives: African-American boys

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

12 Nov

At a recent gathering held at The Westminister Schools, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, suggested we stop focusing on testing and focus on how to get all students more excited about learning.  The Westminster Schools hosted Connected Community, a dialogue about transforming Atlanta education featuring Dr. Noguera, a leading authority on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

I think he’s onto something, but I’d offer a friendly amendment:  Let’s focus on everyone being more excited about learning – students, teachers and parents.  My suggestion for how we get there is pretty straightforward.  Let’s all behave as if learning is exciting. Seriously.

Where would we start? District and school leadership would have to align all people connected to schools around this purpose. They would have to lead and demonstrate to parents, staff, students and the community what it means for everyone to be excited about learning and why it’s important to the school’s productivity and performance.  Without understanding what and why, these stakeholders aren’t in a position to contribute to the attainment of the result – they’re not on the team.

In case you’re confused, people matter in an organization and schools are no exception. I hope we’re finally on the verge of figuring this out.  And the good news is none of this should run afoul of union rules or education policies. Efforts to unleash positive energy and success doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money.  David Novak, Chairman and CEO of Yum Brands! writes in his book, Taking People with You, Achieve Breakthrough Results, that people want to feel appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they want to have fun, but they are more often overlooked and unappreciated. This is a missed opportunity for too many of our schools.  Putting people first doesn’t mean low standards.

Having fun or experiencing satisfaction at work is a theme echoed in an Education Trust report entitled, Building and Sustaining Talent.  It shares howthe conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction and results in increased learning for students in high-poverty/low performing schools.

And students are people who matter too. Clayton M. Christenson, the Kim B. Clark Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his book Disrupting Class, that despite our appeals to children that education is the key to their futures, the fact is that school is not most children’s first choice of places to be – past elementary school anyway.  In order for school to become a top choice for kids, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and they want to have fun. Working hard and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive and in many cases, it’s really okay to have fun while you work.  Ask the folks at GE, Target, Southwest Airlines or Yum Brands!.

It’s pretty well understood that children learn best when they are excited about and engaged in learning and this aligns with their need to have fun and succeed in school.  Likewise, teachers experience more satisfaction in their work and are more productive when their efforts are appreciated and recognized, and when they too have a little fun.  When children come home more excited about what they’re learning in school and are more knowledgeable, their parents become curious, excited and interested to learn what’s happening at their child’s school – or maybe they’re in shock.

Take this example of how a teacher inspired her students to learn offered by Dr. Noguera during his remarks. The teacher brought a hermit crab into her classroom to teach her students about the crab and its habitat.  As the children had never seen one, it made the hermit crab real and unleashed a level of excitement and curiosity in them to learn about the crab that the teacher hadn’t quite seen before. Voila! With this small innovation, the teacher produced excitement and a deepened engagement in learning from her students. I don’t know the results of the paper, quiz or test she likely gave, but I’m confident these  more deeply excited children did a fine job of demonstrating what they learned about a hermit crab.  Given the students’ positive response to her inventiveness, I’m hopeful the teacher became more inspired to look for additional ways to excite and engage her students.

My question is, what if anything did the school leader do to recognize and celebrate her inventiveness, the children’s enthusiasm for learning and parents’ curiosity about what’s happening at the school?

When we recognize and celebrate the creativity of teachers, enthusiasm for learning from students and interest from parents, leaders take an important step to act on what is valued and add meaning to what all the people connected to the school care about.  Actions always speak louder than words.

Etienne R. LeGrand is co-founder and president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

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Students need sticks, but they need carrots more

22 Mar

Imagine how fed up you must be if you’re willing to risk your child’s humility to save him.  That’s what a Tampa mother recently did when she stuck him on a street corner with a sign around his neck saying among other things “GPA 1.22. … Honk if you think I need education.”

Being a fan of tough love myself, I immediately thought “hooray for her!” According to this recent AP story, Ronda Holder says she and the boy’s father have tried everything to get their 15-year-old to shape up academically. They’ve offered help, asked to see homework, grounded, lectured him and confiscated his cell phone. Sound familiar?  Apparently, James Mond III’s indifference at a school meeting was the final straw. The following day, Holder made the sign and made her son wear it for nearly four hours.

Yes, she was reported to the Department of Family and Children’s Services and of course experts were highly critical of the move.  Holder insists she’s fighting for her child’s education.  She’s right of course. The real truth is: she’s fighting for his life.  With so much at stake in this fight, the undeniable question is: how can Holder and other engaged parents motivate their young students as a complement to reprimanding them?

There’s much we don’t know about this situation.  I’d like to presume James was performing in school at some level before he fell to his current 1.22 status and that he had a level of motivation; however fleeting.  I’m curious to know whether his parents understand what motivates him – – what, if anything he’s invested in.  I don’t know the basis on which his cell phone was returned.  Given his grades ultimately fell to a 1.22, I’d say it was returned prematurely.

We don’t know if “carrots” were offered to James when he climbed himself out of his previous academic performance holes.  He had to have, right? After all, he got his phone back.  Was he rewarded by word or deed for the increased effort, given an additional carrot on top of the returned phone?  We need to expect academic success and then recognize and reward students’ effort, progress and achievement at every juncture along the way.

We all need to be motivated to engage – to be emotionally concerned and invested – in what we want to achieve: do well in school, lose 10 pounds, eat more healthfully, clean out the garage, or learn a new language.

As we all continue to “fight for children’s education” as Rhonda Holder says she is doing, let’s add some carrots to jump-start the intrinsic motivation students need to get in done in the classroom.

After James’ recent experience, perhaps he has newfound sources of motivation to draw on when the work seems uninteresting or he’s just not motivated to work hard.  I pray the drastic step his mother felt compelled to take got his attention.  I also pray that we add some carrots to the sticks and support our children need to achieve in school and in life.

Click here to view the news story and to hear about James’ story firsthand from his mom’s perspective.