The Best School in the Universe
It's Never Too Late to Learn
Development and growth happen at different rates for different children. Learning also happens at different rates and it can change throughout life due to a myriad of life and developmental circumstances. Teaching with the pressures of time, grades, and standards breathing down the children's necks, makes it difficult to transfer knowledge in a way that is multi-intelligence, experiential, and applicable. This is why Conexiones educational experiences and programs occur after school, in early childhood, and during the summer - and almost always in non-classrooms. The children learn through fun, games, creativity, and exploration. They must behave within certain codes of conduct, but in the fifteen years that we have been producing educational experiences, there has not been one single need for a suspension or expulsion. In addition, I believe most, if not all of, the children who have attended Conexiones have come away feeling successful through the intentional experience of many small victories.
The approach we have in place at Conexiones, where there is no room for failure, by intention and design, seems to have a great impact on our students self-confidence, levels of engagement and a willingness to learn what we are teaching. Parents were always telling us about stories of children relaying facts or insights they had learned through us even years later. Children's curiosity is boundless if they are allowed to search for the answers they seek in a non-pressured and lighthearted way. Educational activities that involve adventure, creativity, applied experiences, and games helps lighten the mood and engage all the senses, which, in turn, helps tremendously with learning and retention, feeding the positive loop of success and self-confidence.
Our students cannot fail, not only because they are not being graded, but because the structure of our Spanish immersion, outdoor, and creative education programs seek to build competencies from a very young age. For example, we believe it is impossible for a child to fail when they are allowed to lead the exploration of a new location, experiment with a new art medium in their own way, or turn their creative playtime skits into a real comedic theatrical or video presentation as the directors and writers too. All of that is also developing inner competencies that directly support their competence and "success" in the classroom. Thanks to these unpressured moments of learning, they may be a bit more more curious about their world, more comfortable with new situations, able to think creatively, and able to laugh at themselves and be lighthearted. Disclaimer: I am currently in the process of creating an evaluation plan of our most popular education program to see if we are actually accomplishing this.
There is always room for growth, so in order to enhance the "never too late to learn" structures at Conexiones, as the Director, I can focus more on bringing what we have learned about what works with our students to the training of our teachers. I have sensed some tension in our teachers in training, at times, and I would like them to feel more at ease and lighthearted, especially since their demeanor transfers to the children, who we are modeling for. Furthermore, I am convinced that if an experience is not pleasant, it hinders learning and the ability to assimilate information. I would start by reaching out to our teachers and asking them what they would like to see added - what ideas they have for making their training period more pleasant and effective.
Five things that I can do to make my school a place that increases learning opportunities is a bit complicated to answer at this time because we are not in session anymore while we transition to a nanny and childcare provider training center, but I will consider things I can do on the back-end for when we relaunch:
1 - Make sure my survey questions of my evaluation plan capture data to assess the building of competence, since it is one of our stated desired impacts.
2 - Reach out to the teachers I already trained and ask them what they would do differently or add to the training they received.
3 - Draft a module in our Conexiones educator training about "never too late to learn" and our philosophy on success/failure and the intentional way we build competence and always assume competence in our students.
4 - The Conexiones educator trainings I am creating include a parent manual component for the parents of the students experiencing our early childhood programs. I can draft a chapter about our philosophy of success/failure, how we measure growth and success and our intentional approach to building competencies that support classroom learning.
5 - I loved the idea of Benjamin Zander in our reading of Fisher, Frey and Pumpian about how he told all the students they were they are A students and had them write a note of how they became an A student so as to set high expectations and create a mindset of achievement. I will incorporate this in the introduction of the Conexiones educator training programs.
Pillar 2 - Choice Words
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ― Peggy O'Mara
I came across the quote above many years ago and took it to heart with my own child-rearing practices and the words I choose for my students. However, realizing the impact of everything we say, even as an off-hand remark, is something everyone can improve upon. Since my school is closed right now, I spoke with my husband about this important concept and, to my surprise, he was not as aware as I thought, on this topic. He knew I practiced a lot of positive reinforcement but he did not realize the extent of my intentionality with regards to what I say to our children. For example, he is quick to say "you are messy" or "you are lazy" to our children as a way to try to get them to clean up or do chores. I believe that the choice-words concept tells us to be careful in our use of these kinds of labels because the child may start to identify as a messy or lazy person just from being told they are, when, in actuality, they are just going through a phase most children go through. A more appropriate thing to say is "You must feel so proud when your room is clean because it reflects the organized person that you are. It looks like it needs some of your magic. Do you want me to help you get started?" I use that type of approach all the time and get much better results with the kids. We had an intentional conversation about this thanks to this assignment and he had an "aha" moment when he realized that the way he was phrasing things with the kids could have something to do with why the kids are unmotivated by his approach and words.
Along with their parents, teachers and school leaders play a huge role in building student's identity too. Connected to this is their sense of agency. The more we use words that build a child's identity as someone that has the ability to act upon their world and life in a positive way and nurture their proactivity, the more they live up to that expectation. Children internalize the words of the adults in their lives and if we support positive identity with our words and curriculum, then their ability to succeed, grow from mistakes and learn increases.
As a school leader, I would make using choice words a more conscious school wide practice, by having trainings and workshops that teach every adult in the school community the importance of choosing wise words. This includes parent volunteers and anyone that interacts with the students. We can ask parent volunteers, chaperones and others who interact with the students to watch a 5-10 minute video to introduce them to the school's wise-words approach. Staff would become accountable for their words by really listening to the students when they are misbehaving. If sent to the office, the principal or advisor should ask them what what happened that made them upset since it may have been something the teacher said to them without realizing it was a trigger. I would also make sure there are student surveys at least 4 times per year to give anonymous feedback on their teacher, which a question asking what they like the most that their teacher has said to them and what is something they did not like the teacher saying. And the choice-words practice needs to happen between the staff and adults too. If we are all on the same page with regards to adopting the practice of choice words, then we should have a policy for someone to feel comfortable communicating when something someone said was hurtful or counter to the "choice-words" ideal.
I can make the use of choice words a more conscious and accountable personal practice by starting in my own home and practicing this habit. This is something I have been working on for years, but there is always room for improvement and the need to stay extra vigilant to not fall into old patterns taught to us by our parents. My current employment is not in a school. However, I am the part time marketing manager for a health clinic and have the ability to incorporate this concept into my current workplace. Employee satisfaction is directly correlated with what an employee thinks their boss thinks of them and so the more I can give genuine reinforcement to the good work they are doing, the more motivated they may become, which, in turn, will help increase the quality of patient care. I plan to take this skill with me anywhere I work, whether it is with adults or children.
5 things I am willing to do this semester that will make your school choose words wisely is a tough one because my school is currently not open. However, I can do the following. I have included things I can do in my personal life and at my marketing job too:
1 - Reach out to the alumni of my programs with a short video message letting them know how much I miss them and sharing my high opinion of them - highlighting their strengths and reinforcing their positive identity. Many of my students were with me from the age of 3 months old to 5 years old, giving me a unique opportunity to be an influencer in their lives by showering them with honest positive messages about themselves.
2 - Continue to coach my husband on the power of words so he can help build a positive self-image and agency in our children. Also, teach my 21 year old son, who still lives with us, about the power of the words he says to his little brother and sister.
3 - Intentionally use choice words in all my interactions with colleagues and patients at the clinic where I work.
4 - As part of the management team of the clinic, I can introduce or review this concept with the rest of the management team and owners of the company and discuss adding it to the management handbook for future managers to adopt.
5 - I believe that repetition is key with children, so I will make small posters of each family member to hang on a wall in our home. In the center will be a photo of the family member and around the photo will be positive attributes I genuinely consider them to possess and those they are developing. This will include words such as "loving," "generous," "hard-working," "smart," "organized," "decisive," "trend-setter," and so forth.
When it comes to the concept of Do No Harm, I believe that creating a safe learning environment first is paramount. Within that safe environment, educators can then teach personal responsibility, which is another critical component of Do No Harm. Children of all ages can begin learning from an early age how their actions affect themselves, others and their environment. They learn this first through the models in their lives, including their caregivers and teachers, and then through intentional lessons and the consistent and fair positive reinforcement of rules that always point back to the key principles of Do No Harm in combination with the Golden Rule, something easily graspable by most children, even the youngest of students. I also believe, although this is controversial, that positive rewards are appropriate for reinforcing rules and encouraging engagement in classwork and I do not believe in punishment. The reason I believe this is because our whole society is structured through incentives and it is unfair for children to be expected to move through over twelve years of schooling without rewards commensurate with their efforts. They may expect bigger and better rewards as they grow older, but is this not the case with all productive citizens in U.S. society, where we are compensated for our work and provided added profits, benefits, promotions, awards and bonuses when we perform well and show dedication? We also do have punishment in real-life society, but given that children are still learning how to behave, it is unfair to respond to bad behavior with punishment at this stage of their life. Instead, I believe in using those moments - when a child made what we would consider a bad choice - as a teachable moment to lead the child through an understanding of the consequences of their actions on their environment, themselves and/or others and engage them in restorative actions that help them make amends or make right any damage, emotional or physical, that they caused.
My beliefs are reflected in my discipline policies and practices by making sure that all discipline policies and practices are fair, developmentally appropriate, take into account individual circumstances, have stakeholder input and buy-in, are clearly explained and constant, and are seeped with positive reinforcement and in modeling the behaviors we want to teach the students. For example, a child may act out inappropriately because she is hungry, and then shuts down from learning for the rest of the day because she was scolded in front of the whole class in a tone she would never be allowed to use with her peers or adults. There is an incongruence here that needs to be addressed and which children pick up on. If we expect our students to speak respectfully to teachers and each other, we must start by first modeling respectful behavior and treating children like we would want to be treated. Another example is when a teacher keeps children under 7 years of age, who had a hard time sitting in class, from recess. This is not a developmentally appropriate action since that child is probably the one that needs to run around and spin on the playground bars the most as some children need more stimulation than others to develop their vestibular system.
In my future sphere of influence, as a school leader, my beliefs would be reflected in discipline policies, practices, program practices and initiatives that are free of incongruencies to the extent that that is possible. That is why anonymous stakeholder input is essential because recipients of the policies and practices are often the first ones to see the hidden hypocrisy. This applies to not just discipline policies and practices for the students, but for the staff as well. I would design or find initiatives and program practices that enhance love for learning, playfulness, and humor, and that build school community, such as community circles and getting rid of compulsory homework, which is an extra burden on children and families and which leads to learning fatigue, stress, and burns out and stigmatizes too many children. I would also seek to include experiential lessons that teach personal responsibility, restorative justice and the Golden Rule in action. I would find or create professional development modules for our staff on these approaches so that we are all on the same page and there is more consistency from one grade or classroom to another.
I do not currently have a school or workplace that involves education so I will speak to the culture of Conexiones Institute, a peace education enterprise I started, and which is currently in hibernation while I finish this master’s. Since Conexiones is dedicated to peace education, the concept of “first do no harm” was always at the forefront of everything we did since it was one of the main principles we were teaching the students. We were intentional with our modeling, fair and clear with regards to our expectations, and always open and responsive to suggestions and improvements from our students, staff and families. I feel there is always more that can be done and part of why I am engaged in this master’s program is to perfect this even more. I recognize that this process never ends and there is always room for growth as new research and strategies come out and local and global circumstances change that affect our students, staff, and families.
Finding things I can do this semester to make my school a more positive restorative place is somewhat difficult since my school is not in session at this time and it has been a couple of years since my staff moved on. However, since some of my trained teachers went on to replicate my programs on their own or at the sites that Conexiones used to serve, I could reach out to them and send them information on restorative practices in case they are not aware of this information and they can integrate it in their work. I can also begin writing a chapter on restorative practices in the new policy manual for the day when Conexiones launches as an online-training center since there will be a small team involved, and restorative practices should start within the organization with the trainers and staff I will hire. I can also start creating the training module for restorative practices that I would want all those who I train to understand clearly, since it is quite relevant to the mission of the curricula I wish to share with more educators.