Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Walter's Struggles and Accomplishments (student names and some events changed to protect identities)

Walter went to elementary and middle school in a large northern city, where he lived with his mother, a professional woman.  Walter's father was not in the picture and Walter's mother was very upset that her son was getting into trouble.  In middle school, he was found with a bunch of boys who were playing with a gun on school property after school.  Also, he was failing middle school.  He was several grade levels behind in his reading and he only laughed when his mother urged him to improve his reading abilities.  He told her he didn't have time to read books because he was doing important things with his friends.  She felt she was losing him and when he was about to enter 9th grade, she sent him to live with relatives in Charlottesville.

After one year in the local public school system, where his grades were a bit better, but still very low, his Charlottesville family heard of Murray High School and sent him to take a look at it.  He decided to join our school community.

Murray is a wonderful place for a troubled human being because everywhere you turn at Murray people are smiling, welcoming you, and urging you to discover your potential.  However, that also makes Murray a place that is a bit stressful because it is close to impossible to slip through the cracks, which means that teachers are always paying attention to how you are doing and offering opportunities to progress and to grow.  For someone who has developed the ability to hang out and not accomplish, to resist and pretend apathy, this attention is disconcerting and even unnerving.  

Walter did his best to ignore the efforts of the teachers and to reestablish himself as a class clown and a "cool dude," someone who disdained school and graduation.   He often laughed when teachers asked him if he wanted to graduate from high school and said that his grandmother and mother expected it, but that he could care less.  

He soon made friends at Murray because many students appreciated a young man like Walter who enjoyed a joke, could play basketball like a professional, and who was ready for any risk-taking behaviors that looked like fun.  He spent his days avoiding work if possible, and continuing his old behaviors of turning in only mediocre work.  Soon, he was substantially behind in all of his classes and his name began to be a common topic of discussion at our weekly student-support staff meetings.  We held meetings with Walter and his grandmother, which we call SAT meetings (student assistance team)in which all his teachers gathered and asked him what he needed from us to help him succeed, but he had trouble instituting any of the plans that were made.  He was too happy spending his time on video games, basketball tournaments, and laughing with friends.

We realized that if he was to going to graduate, he was going to need some true intervention to get his attention.  I had Walter in one of my classes, English Through Video Yearbook, in which students learn their English skills by working on a product valued by the entire Murray community.  The class is very demanding.  Students learn how to use professional video editing software, like Final Cut Pro, Motion, and Photoshop, as well as how to use digital video cameras, to interview subjects, to plan out and produce short videos, from the ground up, even to go out into the community to generate video commercials, which they then shoot on their own, working with local business people.

As well as these practical projects, the class involves working hard to improve their English skills, with essays based on novels they read and discuss in class book talks.  They are also required to complete other creative activities designed to help students, who may have taken English out of their Quality Worlds,* relax and begin to excel, catching up on the skills they are missing from their past educations and pushing toward the skills they will need to do well in any college in the world.  Clearly, English Through Video Yearbook students are busy!

Murray High School became the world's first Glasser Quality Public High School in Oct. 2001 and we base our success primarily on the ideas of Dr. Glasser:  Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management.  Students, teachers, and parents work together to learn these concepts and to apply them to our everyday lives at school, at home, and even in outside jobs.  Of these ideas, one of the most powerful is the concept of the Quality Product.

Dr. Glasser postulates that one of the problems with traditional schooling is that, except for after school activities, teachers have lost sight of the importance of urging students to find projects to do that excite their hearts and minds.  Too often in the large public schools, students are simply moved through the curriculum toward standardized tests.  Even the best students are sometimes only going through the motions in order to achieve the goal of college far down the road. 

Dr. Glasser has spoken at many schools across the country and he usually asks the staff of those schools to gather together a group of their ten best students, those already accepted to Ivy League schools, to climb up on stage with him to be interviewed about their educations.  Dr. Glasser asks the students if they like school.  Most say that it's okay, not great.  Then he asks if there is any part of school that they really love.  Just about 100% say they love their after school activities, such as the school newspaper, the play, the yearbook, sports teams, band, or many other possible projects.  Their faces gleam as they tell of their accomplishments in these fields.  

Then, Dr. Glasser says, so how about in your academic classes?  What have you accomplished there that you would say is Quality Work, work that you love to do, that you give up free time to keep working on for the excitement of it, work that you know is important to yourself and to others, work that is relevant to your life and that challenges your hearts and minds? 

There is always a long, uncomfortable silence as students think.  Often, I have seen faculties sitting in the audience become frustrated at the silence.  Once a teacher I observed raised her hand and said to one of her students, "John, what about that essay you wrote about Hamlet?"  He said, "Well, I did the essay.  I got an A on it, so I'm glad I did it well, but I didn't really care about it.  I didn't get all excited about it and take it around to show everyone.  I don't think my friends would care all that much to read about Hamlet, but they really loved the yearbook last year and I was really proud of that.  I did the essay because I had to to get the grade and get into college."

At Murray, classes are designed around projects that teachers hope will attract students to do quality work.  It was my belief that Walter really needed an opportunity to accomplish some quality work that was attached to school and academics, and not just to basketball and playing with friends.  So, I managed to convince him that signing up for English Through Video Yearbook would be a good idea.

At first, Walter balked at all the requirements for the class and almost dropped it.  However, he and I had worked together for a year already and we had a very good relationship, so he decided to trust me and to stick with the class.  Once he had climbed the steep learning curve required to master the video editing software, and once he had his hands on the cameras and had the freedom to go out into the world and videotape his own projects, Walter was hooked.

It was a pleasure to watch Walter so involved.  He conceived of the idea of doing a segment of the yearbook on the basketball tournaments he had organized.  One section of the segment would show a morphing of several games, in slow motion, matching the actual bouncing of the balls to the rhythm of a piece of music he composed on Garageband.  Walter literally spent dozens of hours on this section of his segment.  He concentrated for hours at a time, never moving from his seat, determined to get just the right effect.  He watched it over and over, looking for errors and then taking the time to fix every one.  He worked many hours after school and into the evenings, bringing his grandmother in to the editing lab to see the latest version of his video.  

When his segment was complete, he was so proud of it.  He asked if he could show it off in a community  meeting,** so other students could get excited about purchasing a copy of the video yearbook and he helped to organize the showing.  At that point, you would imagine that Walter was going to earn an A in the English Through Video Yearbook class.  However, his old habits were dying hard.  Walter successfully avoided turning in the work on the novels for the class.  In fact, he hadn't read the novels.  He hadn't even done one draft of the papers required to earn credit, so Walter earned an Incomplete, which then turned into a NCY (No Credit Yet***) for the class.  Still, he loved the class and loved the final product, as did the rest of the school.

Although the staff was not happy that Walter had chosen not to earn credit for the class, we all acknowledged that his decision to throw himself into the Video Yearbook project had had a profound effect on his behavior choices around the school.  He had decided that he loved the school and was loyal to it and to the teachers.  He no longer wanted the teachers to be disappointed in him.  He began to pay more attention in classes.  He began to listen to the Choices Teacher's questions when he was sent to Choices**** for behavior issues and to participate wholeheartedly in creating plans for his success.  He began to talk about graduation as if it was his idea and not something being forced upon him.

At the beginning of his senior year, I was able to convince him to begin to meet with me regularly after school, privately, to work on his reading and writing skills.  It had taken us two years of working together to get to that table in my empty classroom after school that first meeting we had together.  There were many transformations that had needed to happen before Walter was ready to bring himself there, and to willingly WANT to learn to read and write.  Still, he brought many of his resistance behaviors and especially his fears of failure with him, as well.

Walter acknowledged that he was ashamed of his reading and writing skills.  When I asked him if he wanted to graduate with his current level of skills, he began to tell me of his fifth grade classroom where he had had a severe conflict with his teacher and had given up on school, especially on reading.  He had had to repeat 5th grade. He had felt humiliated by the teacher and had decided then, on some level, never to allow that type of humiliation to happen again, so he had avoided reading at all costs.  In the course of telling me this story, Walter, a proud seventeen-year-old, began to cry.  He had opened up the past event that had been blocking him from his academic success.  It's my belief that all of our experiences together up to that point, especially his successes with the video yearbook (although he had not yet earned credit for the course), led to his willingness to share that past hurt and to begin to hope for future academic success.

Over the course of the next few months, Walter and I worked our way through many books and his skills grew exponentially.  I will never forget the night he finished up his first true essay, on a thesis he had developed himself, an essay complete with quotations he selected from the novel to support his assertions.  He was so proud of that essay!  He KNEW it was great, that it had all the elements necessary for a good paper, but also had his own ideas and theories about the book he had read.  He jumped up from the table and ran to the telephone to talk to his grandmother.  He excitedly yelled to her that he had finished it and it was "totally phat!"

Our time spent together on that first Quality Product had shown Walter his true abilities.  He had given up back in 5th grade because of what we, here at Murray, would consider to be a mistaken policy of failure in schools.  Because of the Video Yearbook success, he was able to convince himself that there was hope for his graduating from high school.  He knew that he had accomplished something of quality that was valuable to others and that led him to believe that he could accomplish other equally daunting tasks, like reading books and writing essays.  

Many educators would assert that the time spent on creating that video yearbook was time wasted.  After all, could learning Final Cut Pro prepare Walter to do well on his state standards of learning tests?  Shouldn't we have been spending the time doing practice tests and making sure Walter could tell the difference between their, there, and they're?

Our answer at Murray, which has been proven to be true time and time again, with students from all backgrounds, is that first comes healing from failure.  Time is needed for students to begin to trust teachers again, and especially to begin to trust themselves again.  Only then is there an opportunity to help students turn away from wasting their lives in rebellion against learning, possibly even dropping out of school. 

We believe that no matter how long it takes, the healing and relationship-building come first and then the academics will almost inevitably follow.  We have found here at Murray that just about 100% of our students really WANT to graduate from school and do well in academics.  They would like to imagine themselves in college, and then having a fulfilling career and lifestyle.  They have simply lost that vision of themselves somewhere in the labyrinth of the failure system that chokes our traditional high schools.  When that failure system is done away with, when students are given respect and confidence by their teachers, then they begin to transform themselves right before our eyes.  Walter's story ends with a graduation.  It even ends with his earning an advanced pass on his statewide writing exam!!  Amazing, and for this teacher, life-affirming.   I learned as much from Walter as he ever learned from me.  We made a good team.

Charlotte Wellen,  Murray Choices Teacher, NBCT, and Practicum Supervisor for the William Glasser Institute

* A Quality World is a Choice Theory concept developed by Dr. Glasser.  He believes that all humans are constantly creating a picture in their minds of what people, things, and ideas best meet our needs.   He explains that if we want to create a strong relationship with someone, we should make it a point to learn what is in their Quality Worlds.

**  A Community Meeting is a gathering of our entire community, usually once a week, where we make announcements and then have an open mic discussion of community issues.  We also often share our quality products and do teambuilding activities to learn more about one another.

***  NCY (No Credit Yet)   One of the requirements of a Glasser Quality School is that students must continue to work on every assignment to bring it up to the level of a B or an A.  They may not settle for a C, D, F, or Zero.  We have a saying that we've based our mastery learning on:  "Learning is a constant.  Time is a variable."  This means that students who do not meet deadlines are not let off the hook.  To a Murray staff member, it is unacceptable for a teacher to use a deadline to let students off the hook, to teach them that if you are unable to make the deadline, just quit and never learn the skills the assignment was designed to teach you.  We believe that this policy in traditional schools is very hurtful to students, leading directly toward student apathy, especially in students who have had difficult lives.  Facing the possibility of failure is overwhelming to many people and they withdraw and quit trying.  At Murray, when we simply change the system and say that failure is not an option, students find that they are perfectly capable of learning even the toughest concepts.  We believe that this emphasis on mastery learning is what enables students who arrive here with transcripts full of failing grades to turn their lives around and end up attending college and heading toward a career based on talents and abilities they had given up on after time in the traditional schools.

****  At a Glasser Quality School there is no punishment because punishment is an attempt to control someone else through fear and power-over.  This is a concept of external control psychology.  Dr. Glasser believes that humans are motivated by internal control psychology and that no one else can control our behavior choices.  He believes we can learn how to become more and more in charge of making the best choices for our lives.  Based on these ideas, we created the Choices program, where students can come to make plans for success.  If they neglect to choose what we call "learning behaviors," teachers can send them to choices to clarify what learning behaviors are and to make a plan to be happy and successful in class.  These plans often involve setting up a mediation if conflicts have occurred and working them out together, again so everyone can return to class and be happy and successful.  Choices plans are not written down in student files and are not reported to parents.  They are considered to be a productive and important part of learning how to observe what we need and then make a plan to get that accomplished.

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