Improving the Learning Environment
Edu 555: Dr. John Shindler, August 12, 1999
Naming the Problem
Have you ever been identified with a group to which you really would not like to be connected? People drew conclusions about you based on the group’s reputation or particular bent, totally disregarding your protestations. It’s very difficult to shed such a cloak. How does one regain a self-identity rather than a group-identity?
All of the boys and girls who go to McCarthy Alternative School in the Syracuse City School District have been sent there as a punishment. These children (age 5-21) have been identified as trouble-makers. Further, they have been labeled emotionally disturbed and violent. As ‘members ‘ of such a group, they have lived up to their reputations and have been expelled from the mainstream schools they once attended. Each one feels like a loser in a school full of other losers.
In a given day, there are numbers of emotional outbursts, spiced with loud, abusive language, acting out, possible throwing or pounding of school furniture, and possible physical attacks upon staff or other students. Some try to hurt themselves. Students are removed from the classroom and put into a padded time-out room to settle down. The cool-down time can be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or more, if the student continues to exhibit destructive behavior. These children are never alone. The rooms are lighted. A staff member is always right at the window, waiting for the student to relax so a discussion might take place, followed by a return to the classroom.
The strange, but hopeful paradox is that in any given day there are also hugs, jokes and laughter shared among many staff and students at the school. One can hear,"I love you ANYWAY" being shouted through the cement walls of the time-out room, from teacher to student. One might see a teacher assistant on the floor restraining a child from hurting himself or herself, while a teacher, administrator or counselor also sits there, trying to get to the root problem or attempting to soothe the enraged child. Often teachers put an arm around a student as they walk down the hall and comfortable conversation is being shared.
As a music teacher in the McCarthy Alternative School, I have become increasingly aware that the school body, as a whole, possesses a very poor image of itself. Furthermore, this reputation of being a "bad" school with "bad" kids is held throughout the district by other staff members. Some of those who spread the bad news actually worked at McCarthy School in former years when, I understand, the school was more like a prison than a school. Thankfully those days are gone, hopefully, gone for good. It’s the paradox that won’t let me alone. It’s the obvious bond that these students and staff have together that mustn’t go unnoticed, uncelebrated. That bond is bursting with potential to help these students bloom into young people who recognize within themselves the power to make responsible choices, to have some control over their destinies and to make a worthwhile contribution to the society in which they live. People cannot celebrate and benefit from that which is hidden from their awareness.
I see the problem at McCarthy as one of student blindness to the wonderful
opportunity available to them exclusively at this school. I believe that
a lack of school pride (in a school full of ‘losers’) and a feeling of
isolation (from being separated from their school friends) has hidden
from the students’ understanding, the advantages of being in a small setting. At McCarthy there are infinite opportunities and encouragement to solve their problems so that they can function successfully in the world. Another problem, probably the underlying problem, is a feeling of hopelessness among the student body, even among the youngest children. This hopelessness expresses itself in comments that indicate that the students feel they have no control over their lives, so they see no reason to try to improve.
At McCarthy School there is a high absentee rate. Also there are very few motivated students. This lethargy is evident in the academic scores of the students. Even in the higher grades, most students are greatly lacking in reading skills. There is not a team spirit or much encouragement or kindness shown among the students. Another paradox: many of these children are bright.
Envisioning a New McCarthy
The exciting aspect of naming this problem is that the problem exists only in the minds of those from the past and the present students. The staff at McCarthy seems to possess the buoyancy to come back year after year to work with these troubled youth. Their job is very stressful, yet they offer their best to everyone. If they have a personality conflict with a child they will seek to move the child so that they won’t become a roadblock to that child’s progress. The staff does seem to feel that they are at the end of the feeding chain when it comes to district allocation of funds and other resources. When asked why the school didn’t receive certain supplies they will say,"That’s because we’re McCarthy."
The staff has developed a levels-of-behavior process so that the students learn what requirements they have to fulfill and maintain to receive certain privileges. The ultimate privilege is to return to their school. These levels are posted in many locations throughout the school along with the words, ‘we believe we can fly’. They also keep tight records of each child’s behavior every 15 or 30 minutes, giving the child helpful feedback. With this kind of dedication, my hopes are very high.
Among my goals would be to implement a process of a community-building
nature, with the purpose of developing school pride in all who are connected
to McCarthy School. As Robert Burton says in the mission statement of his
company, Spiritworks, "Every child should feel that his/her school is the
best school in the world." This pride would spill over into the larger
school community (district). I would encourage a hope fostering approach
to education and to character development, with the purpose of helping
each child’s self-image improve. My purpose for this project is to raise
the school’s spirit, believing that this pride will result in: fewer emotional
outrages, more motivation to improve behavior and academics, better attendance
and an improved self image for each student, as well as for the student
body as a whole at McCarthy School. Another bi-product of raising group
esteem would be more visible caring among the students, which would widen
the support system.
Ultimately, it would be a great indication of success if this program led to children developing a belief in their self worth quickly so that they can turn their behaviors around and return to the
mainstream schools sooner than they do now. (Each child usually stays a minimum of one school
year.) Also, I would hope that the sense of school pride would be a constant that would inspire ever new and creative ways to tap the students and staff potential at McCarthy. Whenever a new student is sent to McCarthy, that child would immediately experience a welcoming spirit and would be able to see evidence of school pride brightly displayed in every corridor.
Bringing in the Experts
TRIBES is a new way of learning together. The belief that many teachers shared in California in the 1980’s, was that in today’s complex world, we could all benefit from an education that teaches us the importance, the critical need, to learn cooperatively. They called themselves Tribes because they believed that cooperation, collaboration and democratic decision making was the way indigenous tribes lived together. Tribes downplays competition and extols mutually supporting each other. Tribes is a process that leads to the promotion of the individual’s growth and understanding of how to function in our world.
The goal for a Tribes school is ‘to engage all teachers, administrators, students and families in working together as a learning community that is dedicated to caring and support, active participation, and positive expectations for all students (Gibbs,1994). More than half of this four hundred-page book explains the philosophies and theories behind the Tribes process. Tribes schooling strongly supports a non-competitive team approach to learning. Their book outlines dozens of suggested activities for large group as well as small group participation. Each activity has a particular educational goal with follow-up discussions to help the children make the connections. These activities are not quick fixes, but, over a period of time will have brought about a student body which is aware of all its members and the importance of their presence. Tribes is a valuable source for this project at McCarthy.
The Tribes mission statement is ‘to assure the healthy development of every child so that each has the knowledge, skills, and resiliency to be successful in a rapidly changing world’ (Gibbs,1994). The children at McCarthy must be resilient in order to succeed in life. Most of them have been abused in many horrific ways. Bonnie Benard, who has done extensive research on human resiliency, has been quoted several times in the Tribes book. In her research, Ms. Benard cites cases of children who have grown up to live meaningful, fulfilling lives after overcoming such conditions as war, disease, abandonment, drugs, abuse or criminality. Her research shows that somewhere in those children’s lives there have been protective factors which supplied them with care and support, positive expectations, and active participation opportunities (Benard,1991). Tribes has merely put much of Bonnie Benard’s research into action.
McCarthy children do not receive these protective factors from home, but from the staff at school. The school spirit is the prevailing climate in their lives since they spend so much time there, including six weeks of summer programs. It is critical that the climate at McCarthy be one
of trust, belonging, control over one’s own destiny, kindness and encouragement from peers, fairness in participation and recognition, sincerity and acceptance, if these children are to rebound from their miserable home circumstances. The Tribes book makes community-building
an attainable and important goal. As one principal of a Tribes school said, ‘People who don’t feel connected, don’t feel capable, and feel, therefore, they have nothing to contribute’ (Gibbs,1994).
While exploring the area of community-building, it would be remiss to ignore an article in Educational Leadership by Mary Sterling entitled, Building a Community Week by Week.
This article describes the powerful changes that resulted after instituting a weekly school meeting. This program has so much potential for McCarthy School, that I would probably give copies of the article to all the staff to read. Ms. Sterling is another educator who exhorts the teaching profession to build strong, loving communities, especially because so many children don’t live in such family groups. Ruth Charney is quoted from her book, Teaching Children to Care: Management in a Responsive Classroom, 1992. She writes that ‘we need to teach children to give care as well as receive care. We must help them learn to contribute, to want to contribute’.
The main tool for building community in this article is the weekly school
meeting, which is pre-empted by no other activities. Every week the entire
school, including all the staff and any parents who desire to attend, gather
in the gymnasium, which has been transformed into an auditorium by the
student ushers. The program differs from week to week, but there is a certain
ritual and definite rules of decorum, which have been carefully explained
by the leader. The leader prepares each class individually, at the beginning
of the year, as to the seating, the voiceless hand signals, and the appropriate
modes of showing appreciation. Anyone or any group who has something to
present or announce at the meeting must meet with the leader to rehearse
their part. The leader ‘auditions’ every aspect to be sure that the program
is appropriate and worthwhile to the entire audience. Perhaps there might
be an artistic presentation, a choral reading, an appeal for help on a
service project, or a culminating activity from a completed unit of study.
There are many techniques for a smooth running program in this article.
More importantly, Ms. Sterling’s report talks about the deep, lasting lessons
that the whole school has gained from this simple format. The kind of community
that has grown from these meetings and the love and pride for the school
that shines through, are two targets that would be worth aiming for at
Earlier in this paper, it was mentioned that the students at McCarthy
seem to have a hopeless outlook. When one looks at hope as a social psychological
construct, then hope is defined as a cognitive function ultimately tied
to goal setting and behavior (McDermott, Hastings, Gariglietti, Gingerich,
Callahan, and Kandi,1997). C.R.Snyder in the book, The Psychology of
Hope: You Can Get There From Here, tells us that hope is made up of
willpower ("I can do it; I’ll give it my all".) and waypower ("I can find
a way. Even if there are obstacles, I’ll find another way".). Hope is the
sum of these powers used to set goals and solve problems. The hopeful person
exhibits an internal locus of control, taking actions that indicate a belief
that one has control over
one’s fate (Shindler, 1999). There is research which shows that students who have a high degree of locus of control also fare better academically (ibid.).
Beyond developing school pride, another result of community-building is a sense of belonging. This need to feel accepted, to belong, is one of our basic psychological needs. When this need is fulfilled, a person feels good about him or herself, liking the feeling of fitting in. When one lacks the sense of belonging, it is difficult to believe in one’ self worth. If one is unworthy, then, of course that person has nothing to contribute. We go around the circle and come right back to hopelessness and low achievement. Conversely, students with a sense of acceptance by others, achieve more in school. (ibid.).
Defining the Needs
As a music teacher who works only one day a week at McCarthy, I get to see everybody for short periods of time. The problems I have mentioned were very easy for me to identify, maybe because in comparison to the other three schools where I teach, McCarthy stands out as being very different. It’s fairly possible that teachers who work there on a daily basis might hold other opinions about the school pride issue. I am quite sure that some will require proof that there is a need that can actually be addressed and perhaps met. I plan to use three forms of needs assessment.
It would be helpful to research the existing school records for information. Upon examining the attendance records, the reading and math scores and the individual anecdotal and behavioral records, one should be able to substantiate that there are problems. Some might argue that since I have no proof of the correlation between good school spirit and good in-school performance, that this project would require too much time. These adults are already very stressed in this setting. I would share some of the articles asking all to read them before we meet. The article, Fostering Hope in the Schools: Strategies for Counselors and Teachers (see references) and Building a Community Week by Week by Mary Sterling would be two articles that would help clarify, for them, not only the need for a change, but the possibilities for change.
My approach would be to begin with the administration. I would share my experience of asking the students to help me write a school song or rap. Neither lyrics nor ideas were forthcoming, because all of their comments were very negative. They told me that the negativity came from the fact that they had all been sent to McCarthy as a punishment. Some admitted that good things had happened for them at McCarthy, but it wouldn’t be ‘cool’ to say so. I would tell the Principal and vice principal my idea and ask if they would support it. Since the principal had expressed some interest in raising school spirit, I foresee no problem gaining his approval and help. He is well liked by the staff and his support would be a wonderful generator for energizing more help.
Another needs assessment tool I would employ would be a formal survey, a Lickert scale, to determine the students' and staff’s impression of the social psychological climate at McCarthy
School. The two sets of questions would contain some similarities, and some differences. Some students would need help doing the test, but usually they would find it easy to answer honestly. After all students and staff, including secretaries, teaching assistants, teachers and administrators, had completed the questionnaire, I would present the results on some sort of graph, showing percentages. Students’ answers could be catalogued by age and gender. If the results indicated that people feel that the sense of community and caring was low, there would be proof to justify making a change. If the results indicated that there is much caring at McCarthy, the changes would only help bring that spirit before the entire school body, which could and should be celebrating this goodness as a way of encouragement. Either way, the following changes could only enhance good feelings about being at McCarthy School. Simultaneously, I would show the results of the school records re: attendance, math and reading scores and behavioral outbursts.
Another appropriate and effective needs assessment tool would be to conduct a focus group interview. The survey would give quite accurate readings of the school’s opinions. Now we can better discover why they feel as they do. After observations of the students and staff to sense who might be the more objective people, I would call them together, separating the adults from the students, the teens from the younger children and the teachers from the rest of the staff. I would interview the principal and vice principal separately. The discussions concerning school spirit, a feeling of belonging and a sense of community should provide us with much clarification in these areas. Many ideas and suggestions would surface, as well as enthusiasm. Those, whose interest is sparked, might be a dedicated core group of helpers.
Cranking the Engines of Change
In the 1990’s we run out to our cars, slip the coffee mug into the built-in holder, turn the key in the starter, look both ways and go. Change in a school would be more like staring up the old Model T in Great Grandfather’s day. It has nothing to do with age, but everything to do with energy: power to go forward, power to climb steep hills, power to turn in another direction, powerful brakes to stop on a dime. It would probably be easier to start from scratch with a whole new organization than to restructure an existing institution. And so, progress must be made slowly and with great compassion (as well as passion), gently bringing along as many as possible. That approach is very counter-cultural in our time, yet human nature remains the same and must be respected. People want a voice in decision making. People in a profession that serves, put a high price on inclusivity when it comes to policies that will affect what they have developed with such devotion.
Going forward with the assumption that the students and staff would
like to maximize the positive aspects of the school and find more ways
to celebrate our accomplishments, I would propose the idea of a weekly
school meeting, using Mary Sterling’s article as a springboard. We would
have brainstorming activities with students and staff, which hopefully
will engender some enthusiasm. Our shared value of creating a better learning
environment through community-
building would be our broad goal. As people become invested in the idea, my role is to let new ideas emerge and blend with mine, or even supercede mine if the group feels pulled in another direction. Change, to be genuine and lasting, must have the freedom to find its own direction, guided by those who must exercise the change. (Fullan, 1993). Because the staff at McCarthy has to be very spontaneous, ready to change plans and strategies from minute to minute, they are people of action. I fully subscribe to Michael Fullan’s ‘ready, fire, aim’ tactic in implementing a change of this kind. I would suggest that we begin planning for a weekly school meeting to be at the same time every week. I would volunteer to work with any who would like to plan the first few meetings. Recognizing that we must first learn together how to prepare the students, I would suggest that we keep a very general starting date, such as sometime before Christmas break. If we’re ready earlier, it will promote a good feeling of accomplishment. Readiness breeds confidence, confidence to ‘fire’.
Indications that we are ready would be that we had addressed the following:
McCarthy is a small school with only about 50-60 students. There is flexibility in the schedule so that the planning sessions would not require out-of- school time, besides, it would be important to meet when student representation is available. At McCarthy, the children cannot stay after school hours. (For a detailed example of a Weekly School Meeting, see appendix.)
Keeping the Car on the Road
Once the engines of change are in gear and the Weekly School Meeting is on its way, it will be very important to remind ourselves of our emphasis. It would be natural to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the presentations. We need to remind each other and the students what it is that we are learning together: that McCarthy is rich with goodness, that McCarthy has much to share, that being at McCarthy can lead to many good things. Although new and exciting ideas will come forward, we still do share a common desire to raise McCarthy’s image in school and in the community. Hopefully someone will suggest a service project we can do together. Hopefully someone will ask to contact an athlete from SU to come speak at a meeting.
As this change finds its own pace and its own personality, a common vision may dimly appear in our mind’s eye. This vision may someday grow into a mission statement, but even if it doesn’t, the purpose of helping these young people believe in themselves after experiencing the acceptance and enthusiasm at McCarthy is a worthy goal to keep alive. Fullan tells us that vision comes much later after the plans have been tried, adjusted, re-tried, amended, maybe even tossed aside to start anew. Starting with a vision which is rigid, can often be nails in the coffin for restructuring. Ready, fire, aim, then becomes more workable (Fullan, 1993).
There well may be people who are already burned out who offer resistance and complaints. I would like to try to involve them by asking them what their thoughts are about raising self- esteem in children. This is a plan where people can contribute much by discussing, and just maybe they will want to participate later when the process begins to prove to be effective.
One of the hope-building activities which would also be offered as a
tool for teachers, is introducing hope-filled literature, followed by discussions
where students can learn how a hopeful outlook might actually open new
possibilities. Any teacher could try this approach to help students with
negative, defeatist outlooks to see the options in life. Role-playing a
scenario where two people react to a situation very differently, negatively
or positively, is a good way to teach hopefulness (McDermott et al, 1997).
Any classroom teacher could try this idea. If a good discussion follows
the role- play, then perhaps that teacher might be drawn into sharing the
role- play at a weekly meeting. There are many ways to gradually involve
even hesitant people so that, soon, everyone can claim ownership for this
Measuring the Distance
Whenever educators are looking for a systemic change, one ingredient must be in the recipe: time. Quick fixes not only happen quickly, but they seem to have little lasting effect. My hopes for McCarthy involve changes that will actually change the soul of McCarthy, if you will. Up to now, there have been valiant attempts to help the children read better, study better, and to control their anger while in school. Because so many of the students are on parole and get violated, it seems that they rarely take their good behaviors back to their environs. These negative behaviors indicate that the individual still has a poor self-image, has no hope, and therefore, sees no need to follow society’s rules. One important measurement would be the incidences of behavioral outbursts in school after several months of weekly School Meetings. Another would be to ask parole offices and social workers if more positive behaviors or attitudes have been observed in the McCarthy students whom they counsel. Anecdotal records should be kept and examined. The results could be graphed for us all to study.
We would need to monitor attendance records to discover if there is
an improvement. It would be most helpful to know if children are present
more or less often on School Meeting days. It would be very important to
survey all staff and students after each meeting for their reactions and
suggestions. It would be very interesting to know if a heightened feeling
of self-worth is actually infusing the students with a more positive attitude
toward homework. Is this evident in their progress? Do the students seem
more motivated? Do they perform better academically, as research has shown?
Are they a little kinder? Does the staff feel that our changes are worth
the effort? Does all the staff feel included in this process? Are we learning
together? If so, what are we learning? After these months of School Meetings,
we should send out the same Lickert scale that we used before to monitor
any changes. Where do we go from here? All of these issues need to be addressed.
Maintaining Our Momentum
Supposing that our project has gone well, with an ordinate number of stops and re-starts. How do we know the changes are systemic? If I am the leading force, and if I have the charisma, power and energy to take McCarthy to great heights, then it is ‘my project’ which will probably grind to a halt when I am no longer there to keep cranking that engine. My past experiences with introducing new, exciting programs have born witness to that truth. A real change will be evident when the staff as well as the students begin to initiate their own ideas and presentations into the School Meetings, because of their enthusiasm for and belief in the positive feelings which they experience there. When the principal offers to read an inspiring story to the whole school, when children rush to sign up to be ushers, when students receive awards for participation, cooperation, effort and for helping others, when the school designs their own ‘welcome’ signs
and writes their own McCarthy School song to be sung at all meetings, then the project is no longer a project. It has become the life-blood of the school. It is a viable part of the entire school body, which can sustain itself for years to come. It would be like a massage is to revitalize and relax the body. All week long our body parts may work independently of one another while we perform specific actions. But when the entire body can have a massage, all the parts are refreshed as is the body as a whole entity. So, when the entire school comes together to relax (celebrate) the works that the separate parts (classes) perform independently of one another, there is refreshment, revitalization and re-membering.
The truth is that while we once were cranking an engine, trying laboriously to start what appeared to be a rusty machine, the school organization is not a machine at all. A school is a living organism, which should be able to move and change and grow in different ways throughout its whole existence. Until we see the beauty and wonder in each person in our school, and search for the potential in each student, then we are always cranking an engine, cranking out the homework and the tests, making it through the day and probably cranky at the end! At McCarthy, sometimes the staff feels victimized by their students, for real reasons. If we can get to the soul of each student and implant some love and confidence, maybe we can all begin to feel part of this living, breathing school body.
Parker J. Palmer captures the essence of this inner change I would hope
to see one day at McCarthy, when he writes, "We need to claim the sacred
at the heart of knowing, teaching, learning; to reclaim it form our current,
essentially depressive mode of knowing, which honors only data, logic,
analysis, and the systematic disconnection of self from the world and others".
Later he continues, "It’s easy to look on the surface of things and judge
that there is no community here at all. But if you go deep, as you do when
you seek the sacred, you find the community that a good teacher evokes
and invites students into, which somehow weaves a fragmented life back
together." The fragmented souls at McCarthy School are very much in need
of loving community support if they are ever to avoid the destructive fate
that awaits those who have no sense of acceptance, no hope. It would be
a privilege to introduce these ideas to students such as these. It would
be an award beyond measure to know that the larger community views McCarthy
School as a good place where good things happen, a shining light among
The principal would take each class to the gym to show where they will be seated during school meetings for the entire year. The students would be given some silent hand signals, which the principal might use upon observing that they need to adjust their behavior. The children would be told what to expect at a meeting, but that there would be some surprises.
The principal or other leader would collect the ideas that have been submitted to the committee planning the School Meeting. During the week before each meeting, the leader (principal) would meet with all the children on the agenda, and rehearse with them, having them practice with the microphone, practice looking at the assembly, and rehearse walking forward to the microphone. These preparations provide a smooth performance, taking the fear away for the children who will present and showing the audience that this meeting is important enough, and that the people in the audience are important enough for their schoolmates to present a high-level program.
When the students arrive, trained ushers would lead them to their assigned area. I feel that sitting on the floor invites problems, so the ushers could set up the chairs. When all are assembled, there would be The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag followed by a song. The song might be patriotic. This is a wonderful opportunity for the music teacher to let the school hear itself sing The National Anthem, after they have been rehearsing it in class. The principal would announce the agenda for the meeting, which is only 30 minutes from entering until leaving the gym. After the presentations, announcements, and awards, if any, there would be a closing song, and the principal would dismiss them, with the ushers’ assistance.
Some possibilities for a School Meeting:
Lack of self-esteem Lack
of school pride
Lack of hope
Envisioning a New McCarthy
Improving the learning environment through community
Bringing in the Experts
Building a Community Week by Week by Mary Sterling
A weekly all-school meeting for all staff, students and interested parents
Defining the Needs
Cranking the Engines of Change
Inclusivity in decision-making
"Ready, fire" Aim later
Keeping the Car on the Road
If we’re too focused on the vehicle (the meeting and the presentations), we might forget which road we’re on.
BEWARE of a pothole
Measuring the Distance
Re-survey after several months
Look for positive changes –anecdotal records of parole
Maintaining Our Momentum
It’s a systemic change when. . . . . .
Burton, Robert. Spirit Works –Turn It On! California. Spirit Works, 1997.
Burton, Robert, author, California Activities Director Association, president. Telephone inter-
view, July 26, 1999.
Chandler, G.L., 1998. Strategies for Invitational Physical Education in the Junior High School.
(ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 353 206).
Gibbs, Jeanne. TRIBES. California. Center Source Publications, 1994.
McDermott, D; Hastings, S; Gariglietti,K; Gingerich, K; Callahan, B; Diamond, K, 1997. Foster-
ing Hope in the Schools: Strategies for Counselors and Teachers. (ERIC Document Re-
production No. ED 412 440).
Palmer, P.J., 1998. Reclaiming the Sacred In Knowing, Teaching, and Learning. The Sun. 25,27.
Shindler, J., 1999. Creating a Psychology of Success in the Classroom: Enhancing Academic
Achievement by Successfully Promoting Student Self-Esteem. In submission to Journal
Of Teaching Education.
Sterling, M., 1998. Building a Community Week by Week. Educational Leadership, Vol.56
No. 1. 65-68.
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