In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by author, Tom Hoerr as well as assistant principal, Jessica Nichols with her team at Simle Middle School to discuss building student success skills.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:24 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:51 Student success skills: self management, empathy and resilience. Sometime back, I had the opportunity to have Tom Hoerr us on this podcast. Tom’s the author of the book, “The Formative Five” and Tom discussed with us, building student success skills. Tom, thanks for agreeing to come back on.
Tom: 01:15 Well, this is great. It’s always fun to talk with educators who are pushing the envelope and who were really working to do what’s best for kids rather than simply what they’ve done in the past.
Steve: 01:26 Joining us today is a team from Simle middle school in Bismarck, North Dakota and Jessica Nichols, the assistant principal at the school, is leading this team. And Jessica, could you give us a little introduction to a Simle Middle School and then tell us about how your team came to look at a design for building these student success skills.
Jessica: 01:54 So what we have here this morning is half of our instructional team. Not all of our members were able to come on in but we are a middle school in Bismarck, North Dakota. I mean, we have really been trying to think about what we need to do for both our teachers and our students so then we can prepare students for high school and life beyond high school. Kind of this work started when our instructional team set out to revise our mission this year and really, what is it that we believe? What is it that we want students to have? And you know, traditionally, instructionally, we would be thinking more about our instructional practices. But through our conversations we really decided that we need to focus more on those students and teacher behavior and identify some characteristics that we need to make sure our students experience while they’re here with us at Simle.
Jessica: 02:39 So our team had wanted not to just decide those characteristics what we felt was it was important, but really to evaluate from our whole staff. So we did a lunch with our entire staff including instructional coaches, secretaries, anybody who would come in contact with students throughout the day and ask them to just give us five characteristics they feel every student needs to be successful, whether it’s college, career, life ready, those kind of things. So through that process, we were able to narrow all of those characteristics and behaviors down to three of them. So the three that our team has focused on and we call them the “big three” would be self management, empathy and resilience. Those are experiences we feel that we need to provide daily for our students so that when they leave here after at Simle, we know and can ensure that they’re ready for that next step.
Steve: 03:31 Tom, I noticed in your work you use the word self control and I’m wondering if you want to connect your self control to their use of self management and Jessica see if your teams have have questions about that.
Tom: 03:48 Yeah, I mean as you’re talking, my first thought is gosh, I wish I’d been at the lunch. What fun that would be. But it seems to me that self management, self control, really fall in the same ballpark as the same thing. Just like the grid about which I and Angela Duckworth write and resilience. Basically we’re talking about the same set of behaviors.
Jessica: 04:08 And we did go back and forth. Self control was one of the groups. That’s one of the characters that they identified was self control. So when we blended all of our lunch to learn sessions together by self control and self management, I think the piece we’re really stuck at, well two parts. How do we teach that? How do we monitor it to know that we’re being effective through our instructional practices?
Tom: 04:31 Yeah. Let me give you a couple of thoughts which come to mind – three things. The first two are, I think when you teach this, and I would argue this is true for any of the success skills for that matter, for all of social emotional learning, we need to teach it with intentionality and transparency. The intentionality you’ve got for sure. You’ve talked about it it’s focused effort. That’s great. The transparency is, I think it needs to be out there. Everybody needs to be talking about it and by everybody, I mean kids too. So to me, these big three, which sound great, that should be something that’s talked about at a student assembly, it should be noted in the letters home, there ought to be posters about it. And so everybody knows that this is something toward which we’re working. You know, when you think about it, we all know that school is to help kids learn how to read, write and calculate.
Tom: 05:22 Well kids need to know that now they’re learning these big three as well. And then the third piece I’d mention, you talk about how to monitor it, how to measure it. And I hear that and I’ve got an answer and a but. And the answer is I find rubrics to be very effective. The but is sometimes I worry that in our effort to find a way to measure this to be psychometrically valid, we actually lose the process and the fact that we can’t measure it as discretely as we would like, deters this from moving forward on the effort.
Steve: 05:56 I’d to jump in on that, Tom. I was wondering if there’s a rubric that is a more simplistic in describing what it looks like and sounds like when it’s missing versus what it looks like and sounds like at some middle ground and then kind of what does self management look like at a sophisticated level of a middle-schooler.
Tom: 06:23 Yeah, the rubrics that I’ve seen that I find effective basically are four columns if you will and you know it’s an adequate, satisfactory, performing and then excelling – something like that. And you know, I could generate those. To me, what would be really powerful, and this gets back to the transparency is I think it would be great to have the rubrics for self management or empathy, for example, be generated by a committee of students and faculty members. In my mind, when I walk into the school, I want to see that rubric and the front of every classroom posted and it shows kids where they are, what they need to do to move forward. But rather than having it given to them the idea, and maybe it’s a committee of kids, maybe it’s a student council, whatever. But the idea is that there’s been kid input so that everybody owns the rubrics to me, is really exciting.
Steve: 07:17 Jessica — questions from that end there on what folks are hearing from Tom?
Jessica: 07:23 Instead of having, you know — as having student and teachers create those rubrics, also, how do we communicate that with parents and other stakeholders in the community? You know, parents — we do get some pushback sometimes just based off of traditional grading versus our standard base grading that they really only know their school experience. So how do we kind of be very transparent in that process so they understand the importance of the big three along with their academic growth?
Tom: 07:49 Well, two thoughts on that. One is, you’re going to stick with your traditional grading for your traditional subject matters. So to me this is a supplement. This is something that goes with it. I mean, I would argue that it’s another page on the report card. Now, you all may conceptually say, hold on, it will get more attention and we don’t run into the same problems if we send it out mid-way. So not at the same time. That’s up to you. In terms of getting the buy in, what I would do in — I don’t know whether you start this now or next year, but when we would do back to school nights, one of my most effective strategies is everybody came in, they’re sitting in the theater, they’re waiting for me — you know, they really want to get to their kids’ classrooms.
Tom: 08:29 So they’re waiting for me kind of patiently. And I had everybody get a three by five card when they came in the room and a pencil and I said to them, okay, on your three by five card or on your iPhone, whatever you want, write down the initials of three people that you know who you consider to be really successful. People that you know personally. So they did that and after about 60 seconds, I said, turn to your neighbors and I don’t want to know who the people are, but talk about are the characteristics. What are the adjectives are used? Well, it was a great, the room just filled with a buzz. Everybody was excited. I had trouble getting the crowd back — their attention. But when I did, I said to them, all right, I can look in your cards, even I’m standing in front because I’m going to tell you what you wrote. And if I was at your school, I would then talk about the big three and say, raise your hand if you describe my big three. Almost all the hands are going to go up. And I think what that does is show parents how what you’re really doing is positioning, preparing their kids to be successful in the real world because you’re pursuing those traits that they generated when they talked about the people that they know that are successful.
Steve: 09:36 That’s neat, Tom. I can’t think of a better way to get the parents to identify right upfront that it is traits that they want their students to develop.
Tom: 09:47 Yeah. And they all know that. I mean, if you would talk to people at a cocktail party, at the grocery store, we know we talk about these qualities but somehow, when we walk in the school door, because it’s not our experience, we tend not to validate it. So think stepping back, not unlike, I talked about having the kids own the rubrics, having the parents own the big three because they’ve said to you, wow, the people that I know are successful demonstrate these.
Steve: 10:13 Tom, could you identify a little bit of what empathy looks like and sounds like for the middle school student?
Tom: 10:23 Well, empathy is a tough one because it’s really so tied into feelings rather than simply behaviors, if you will. But it’s also a critical one. And to me, with that transparency, the beginning step is helping kids understand what it is and that’s distinguishing between empathy and sympathy, for example. And you know, Daniel Goldman talks about the three levels, if you will, of empathy. There’s a cognitive level which is simply knowing, learning, understanding. And in my book I talked about the book “Material World” by Manzel I think it is — M.A.N.Z.E.L and it’s a book that looks at people – cultures around the world and it has photographs of 30 different communities. And the people are standing — families, a family in each one of them is standing with all their worldly possessions being photographed. And it’s a powerful way whether you’re in North Dakota where you are or Saint Louis where I am of seeing how people around the world live. And you know, guess what, a lot of them are smiling and happy even though they don’t have the resources we do.
Tom: 11:27 So the cognitive empathy is I think understanding other people’s positions, situations. Then you get the emotional empathy and that’s where you really understand and appreciate because you delve deeply into it. At the middle school level, what I would think would be a great resource is literature and history. Often when we look at literature and history, we focus on the who, the what and the when – the facts. And to me, this is a great opportunity to step back and look at the why. What are the motivations? What caused people to do things which today we say, boy, that was terrible or what caused people to do things that we say, wow, that was courageous? Stepping back and trying to gain empathy to the different situations and people that we’re reading about studying about. And then the third step is actually motivational – just doing something, getting involved. At New City School where I worked, we had a relationship with the food pantry. Kids walked a block away, grew crops, harvested them and then we went to the food pantry pantry and donated them. So it was a way of really acting on the empathy that we had read and we had felt previously.
Jessica: 12:37 That’s great advice. Those are things that we really need to think through those different kind of stages of empathy. And those are conversations we really had around our big three as what common language do we have to make sure everybody is using since we’re a [inaudible] school. And we’ve got, you know, a thousand kids, so — and 64, 65 teachers and that’s not counting the other adults that come in contact with students. So really identifying in empathy, what are those commonalities that we’re going to continually focused on so that no matter if it’s a sixth or an eighth grader, they’re hearing the same things.
Tom: 13:10 Jessica, that’s wonderful. I should have said that. Thank you. In my book, I talk a great deal about the need to have a common vocabulary and focus on it. You know, empathy should be a common word and again, I think, in my mind, you’ve got a big three faculty committee and that group meets and they come up with these common words and then that becomes part of everybody’s vocabulary. It’s not unlike at grade three kids are learning multiplication facts. Well, in middle school they’re learning the terms we use when we talk about empathy. If you all are supposed send me an e-mail later or fight case, I forget. I’m working on a new book called “SEL School Culture and The Formative Five” that’ll come out later in the year and I’m writing on empathy in that. And I can send you some of the draft text that hasn’t been finished yet that I think might be helpful for that committee to look at.
Jessica: 14:00 Thank you. That, would be wonderful. That’s our – our job this summer is to really dig into the formative of five text and —
Steve: 14:08 Tom, I know another question that the team there was working with is they realize that communicating the concept of productive struggle is an important issue for kids and parents and one that they believe is new to many students and parents. It’s kind of the picture of the, you know, if you’re doing well in school, the struggle piece isn’t there. Or the one that really concerns me, is the thought that the teacher’s job is to make it not a struggle. So any thoughts you might want to share with them on how to communicate that – the value of productive struggle?
Tom: 14:51 Absolutely, Steve. And that’s a real tension. When I introduce grit to my school, which is now a number of years ago, I got a real pushback from the faculty because I was making the case that if a kid graduates from New City School without having failed, we have failed that child. That we have a responsibility to make sure every kid encounters frustration or failure at some point so they learn how to respond to it. And again, everybody’s going to hit the wall at some point. It might be at age 22, it might be 32 but it’s foolish to think that none of us are going to encounter that in my argument is, what better place to help a child learn how to deal with frustration and failure that in a school where she’s cared for, where you’ve got skilled professionals looking out for her interest.
Tom: 15:37 So to me, again, part of the transparency is saying to parents, if your child gets through the year and is what I call a “high flyer” — does everything well, is that really preparing your child for the future? And again, that’s hard for many adults and teachers because we judge ourselves on how well our kids do. But the key is to make sure that we’re preparing kids for the future and part of that future we need to tell the parents, tell the kids, is knowing what to do when it doesn’t go right the first time, when it doesn’t go right the second time and when you’re ready to quit.
Steve: 16:10 Tom, I was going to touch on one last piece here that I’m wondering if you’d respond to. It strikes me that one of the things for the staff to be doing is to look at their own status if you will, in a self management, empathy and resilience and think about what does that mean as a staff as well as individual educators to grow in each of those areas.
Tom: 16:38 Yeah, totally. And that new book on which I’m working, again, I’ve got a phrase in there, I say that when it comes to social emotional learning, we can’t leap frog the staff. We can’t have the leadership of the school, whether it’s a principal or a committee say, well, the kids are going to do this and oh, don’t worry about the faculty and that that makes it tougher. But it seems to me that in a school, if we’re working on self management if we’re working on empathy, if we’re working on grit, that those are things that everybody in the building works on. I would argue everybody in this school community, including parents, but certainly beginning with the faculty. And to me, if I’m a school principal, one of the things I’m going to do is make a point at faculty meetings and professional development sessions of having faculty engaged in some of the activities that we will want them to have their kids engage in later in the classroom. We all need to be growing together.
Steve: 17:32 Well Tom, thank you. And Jessica, thanks to your team there.
Tom: 17:37 Yeah. Thank you all. Steve, thank you. North Dakota folks, let me hear how you’re doing. If I can be a resource — a help in any way, I’m happy to do it.
Jessica: 17:49 Yes, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.
Steve: 17:49 Take care of everybody and the listeners, thanks for listening in.
Steve [Outro]: 17:53 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.