One of the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools is personalization. This is explained as: “Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent… the goal is that no teacher has direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.”
Who could disagree with this? In fact, with budget cuts so rampant, getting the numbers down in any school so that teachers can see fewer students and focus on them well requires creative scheduling, and maximum flexibility in all aspects of school. Further, given our current steady diet of “teacher-proof” curriculum that aligns with tests, fewer and fewer teachers make decisions about what and how they will teach. Given this gloom and doom picture, I still insist that personalization is something all schools must work to achieve.
Last week, I witnessed personalization at its best.
At BAA, although students audition in the arts and profess to have that passion, we choose to know nothing about their prior academic skills or their behavior issues. When school opens in September, our 125 new freshmen jockey for attention. That one student who was a uniquely great dancer in her middle school class is now in a class with 24 other students. In addition to dancing for 2.5 hours a day, students take a full load of academic classes.
For a student like Aidelys, that is not easy. She came from a large middle school where she distinguished herself on stage but not in the hallways or academic classes. At BAA she has a hard time learning to control her impulses. She reacts to a look or a perceived insult as “disrespect.” She has two channels: angry and angrier. She cannot seem to find the dial to turn the knob to anything else. She is frustrated by her own emerging skills; she wants to know what words mean but experiences too many she doesn’t understand. Studying at home is hard. She hasn’t learned that to be successful one must be willing to make mistakes and to refine again and again one’s work. In middle school, she just got by. In fact, in order to actually get her diploma she was sent to an alternative placement.
Not only is she behind academically, she struggles behaviorally. Carmen Torres (co-headmaster at BAA) has suspended her too many times—for violent outbursts, threatening teachers or students, or disrupting classes. Each time Aidelys gets a little bit more discouraged. Yet we can see that behind that tough exterior is this amazing dancer who wants to be successful. When she first came to BAA, her dance teacher, Sheryl, saw that natural ability.
In perhaps a fit of madness, I asked Carmen if she would bring Aidelys to my Harvard Graduate School of Education class final exhibitions. My grad students have worked all semester on writing their visions for a democratic school. Last week they had the chance to visually display their ideas. I wanted students to be there to critique. I knew that Aidelys, with her frustrations about school, would have something to say. I didn’t know how profound her comments would be. Carmen sighed when I asked her. “I just suspended her last week, Linda,” she told me patiently. “I’m not sure what message it would send if I brought her.” But as soon as Carmen had spoken we both knew that she would come with Aidelys. For an afternoon, and evening, Carmen would demonstrate what Carmen does best: look at each young person with new eyes every day. Let yesterday’s transgressions be yesterday’s and today be a chance to start anew.
Aidelys arrived with Carmen bright eyed and eager to begin. She had dressed appropriately and even put a cute cloth flower in her hair to show that she understood this was a special occasion. I explained that I wanted her to listen to my students describe their schools and then each one would ask for feedback. “What’s that mean?” she asked me quizzically. I explained that my students needed to know what she thought about their ideas and that was called feedback.
“I’m ready!” she announced and off she went to learn about a bilingual elementary school in Denver. When I next noticed Aidelys, she was intently bent over the rubric giving written feedback to my grad student. She waved me over. “I need some help. I really liked her school but I don’t know what this means,” she pointed at the word feasible. I explained and Aidelys kept writing. Another wave. “And this?” She asked about the words holistic and inclusive. After my explanation she kept writing without pause until she was ready to listen to the next presentation.
In my debrief with my grad students, I asked about audience feedback since over 50 people visited the presentations. All of my students who had Aidelys said without a moment’s hesitation that they most appreciated her insights. “She had the most useful feedback for me, and listened so well and was so interested in what I was talking about.”
I smiled inside. I didn’t want to give too much away about Aidelys’ struggles. Later when I thanked Carmen for bringing her and shared the feedback, we both grinned together. As veteran educators, it was an important moment for us both. Even in the hectic pace of our days as school leaders, we needed to remember to take time out to pay attention to our students who need it most. We needed to remember that those who act out most profoundly often are doing so because they haven’t learned yet how to be a student. We know that failure begets more failure and success begets more success. When we forget to personalize, or to go the extra mile to pay attention to a student, then often nothing can change.
At BAA we talk about walking down the hall to see a student in her or his arts being successful. They reaffirm our determination to help that same student figure out math. But what about the Aidelyses who after eight months in school have yet to settle down and be successful anywhere? How can we find within ourselves to give them what they need – more attention, not less. More love, not less. They disrupt. They are rude. They annoy their peers and us. Still we must find a way to redirect and to love them. Carmen reminded me of that last week when she thanked me! She wrote:
“Thank you for inviting us and encouraging me to take Aidelys. Sometimes we have to close our eyes and take the leap with kids. I feel so fortunate to have shared this experience with Aidelys because we both took a chance and learned from it. It was a really soft landing this time.”
We won’t know for a long time if this intervention into personalization,n as I call it, will have the desired effect. But we know that had Carmen not done this, the opportunity for change would have been lost. We are now emboldened to do more, to keep trying to garner the resources to provide the best Aidelys deserves.