Things I Know 306 of 375: We know who we are by what happens when things go wrong

An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.

– Lynn Johnston

“I just wanted to apologize for what I said up here. This is a space for coming together, and talk like that isn’t what this is about. I’m sorry.”

Then there were applause and shouts of “It’s okay” as the young man walked back to his seat.

From the other side of the auditorium, I watched as those seated around him patted the student on the back.

I’d been there to see the moment he was apologizing for. As part of a student sketch at Codman Academy’s Community Circle, the student had decided to ad lib one of his lines when describing the character played by one of Codman’s teachers. He’d said the character was a “douche.” A visitor to the school, I could still tell the student had gone off book.

Several things were remarkable to me about the episode. The least of these was what the student said.

Put an adolescent student in front of his peers with a microphone and you are asking him to play with power, to experiment with voice and discover where the line of what he can and cannot get away with lies. In the most fitting and least academic terms, he was feelin’ himself, and the school had invited it.

More interesting was the school’s reaction. The collective inhale after the line was uttered told me everyone else in the room recognized we’d left the script behind for a moment. But there was no outburst. No yells of agreement or signs students in the audience agreed with the statement. And that’s the thing, I know those students existed. At some point in time, this teacher had to have made a comment or taken an action that put him on the other side of at least one student’s good graces. If ever there were a moment for that student to give voice to his frustration anonymously, this was it. No one did.

And that’s culture. No one yelled assent because everyone understood the norms of the space. It was the message I attempted to convey when I would respond to student cursing in my classroom with, “We don’t use those words here.”

Whatever their differences, the assembled students knew they did not use those words here.

I should point out there was a space of about 20 minutes between the ad lib and the apology. Other business had been attended to, and I’d almost forgotten what had happened. Somewhere in that 20 minutes, someone had reached out to the student. Someone had removed the act from the moment and worked to process how what had been said fit with the definition of what it means to be a positive member of the community. I have no proof for this, but years of experience working with teenagers tell me I’m probably correct here. Naturally non-reflective, teens need intervention to help process actions and events. Some adult had likely intervened, and it is to their credit.

In many schools, the student would have been pulled from the circle, yelled at, and assigned a punishment with no mention of apology or what it means to be a community member.

That wasn’t what happened. Someone in the audience, I’m guessing the student’s advisor, had the clarity of thought and purpose to ask what they could do in that moment to help the student understand and learn from the verbal gaff. They’d responded as a teacher.

More than anything else, I was impressed by the student. Public speaking is more terrifying to the masses than anything else, and he stood alone in front of his peers to speak. Not only that, what he had to say was an apology. Few teenagers want to stand in front of their entire school. None wants to stand before the assembled masses and say they were wrong. Somewhere within this young man was a strength of character and commitment to community that allowed him to learn the power of saying “I’m sorry.” It did not excuse what he’d said. The words were out there. Saying he was sorry did work to make amends, to show that he valued the space and the people enough to ask for a chance to earn their trust again.

Many schools have Community Circle or some version thereof. Many schools get the circle part of it right. Few schools get right or focus resources on the community part. Codman does. At SLA and Phoenix, I knew we’d gotten it right when I saw how we reacted when someone went wrong. If anything, that’s the measure of a community.


Things I Know 302 of 365: Begin with the end in mind

I want our students to be thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.

– Chris Lehmann

I asked Codman Academy’s Co-Founder and Executive Director Meg Campbell what she hoped for the school’s graduates. She said the following:

They know how to learn and ask for help.

They know about their passions.

They have a big dream and a plan for it.

They are engaged members of society.

They have a healthy life and relationships.

They are life-long learners.

That’ll do.

Things I Know 301 of 365: It was one hell of a game of musical chairs

All around the Mulberry Bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to scratch his nose
Pop! goes the weasel.

The requisite announcements had been completed, the student skit designed to encourage students to keep on track in the new trimester had been performed. I was feeling certain community circle was about to wrap up and the students of Codman Academy were about to head to classes.

I was wrong.

The sophomore with the microphone announced it was time for Crew Olympics. The couple hundred assembled high school students took a collective moment before the crowd was peppered with the start of cheers. Our host had another announcement. The game – musical chairs. The competitors – the faculty.

At 9:45 in this school that has had 100% of its graduates accepted to 4-year colleges saw the faculty who helped make that happen walk down the aisles of the meeting hall to represent their crews. Crews are what Codman calls its advisories, and these teachers were out to represent.

The chairs were assembled, Reel to Real’s “I like to move it” blasted from the PA and the teachers started circling the chairs – slowly. Painfully slowly. No one wanted to be out. Some deep pre-schoolian instincts were revived. Plus, they were doing it for the kids.

The first few eliminations were mundane. Expectedly, the more timid of the teachers were the first to go. They had spirit, but realized the dangers of the sport.

Things got interesting when Round 4 signaled the beginning of double eliminations. By that point, those teachers who remained were in it to win. A few went for chairs and found themselves on the floor. As they exited the arena, they were applauded and cheered for. Those who remained high-fived and “good game”-ed as they left.

A few rounds later, there were three. Somewhere, on the other side of the hall, chanting started. To quote the great Neil Diamond, “like a small earthquake.” Before long, little else could be heard other than the blaring of a hundred voices calling for their champion.

In that round, he fell.

Literally, he ended up on the ground.

The two others who remained helped him up and shook his hand.

I looked around.

Somewhere in the course of the 10 minutes of the game, the crowd had taken to its feet. I realized I was leaning in. I’d even picked my favorite in my head.

The music picked up somewhere in the middle of Beyoncé’s “Single ladies.” The competitors – two grown, college-educated men – circled a plastic chair. The students screamed in glee. The music played longer than it had in any other turn. On one down beat, the contestants thought the music stopped and attempted to sit only to be cheered on by the crowd. We would see the game played out.

Greg, one of my classmates from school completing his practicum at Codman, was the first to sit. But, his opponent lunged to lie flat across the seat as Greg was sitting back. The judges swarmed in as the chair and the two men toppled backward.

Seconds later, Greg’s opponent was named the winner and first his crew, then the entire room exploded in applause.

As both men, appropriately dizzy, walked back to their seats, a retraction was made.

Greg had won.

The students were dismissed. Classes began.

The entire episode took 15 minutes of the day. This semester, we’ve studied what Richard Elmore refers to as the Instructional Core – students, teachers, and content. When writing about this concept, Ted Sizer also included how the content was delivered as a fourth aspect.

In this game of musical chairs, the school and its faculty had taught many lessons.

The students had seen their teachers more fully and developed more complex understandings of who they were as people. They saw what sportsmanship could look like. While the teachers good-naturedly ribbed one another during the game, each eliminated player was sent out with a handshake or high five. Those leaving the game did so with smiles on their faces. They’d done what they’d come to do – play.

Though the teachers were representing separate crews, those separations never kept them from enjoying and supporting the whole. If all they’d been thinking of were their crews, the game could never have started.

No one processed any of this with the students. It happened and the day moved on. As it should have. There are times to reflect and their are times for ritual. This game of musical chairs was silly, fun and energizing. And, it was ritual – an act of community to remind members who they are, of what they are a part, and how they play together.