The National AfterSchool Association is the leading voice of the afterschool profession dedicated to development, education, and care of children and youth during their out of school hours.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Putting Some Steam into STEM

Join NAA Members at the Gaylord Texan, April 2-4, 2012, for the biggest and best convention of afterschool professionals ever!

I'll never forget that typical school day when I witnessed one of my differently-abled students engaged in one if his frequent tantrums. The 10-year old was a non-verbal autistic learner.  He lived with his single mother in a rundown apartment complex. She'd often put him in a harness when walking in public for fear he'd get away from her.

On that memorable day, I was simply making routine rounds through the school where I served as principal. When I heard the tantrum, I went to see if I could help the teacher. And I'll never forget what I witnessed.

Sensing my presence in the room, the teacher instructed her assistant to begin playing Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68), on their record player. She did as asked, and immediately the boy's tantrum ended as he sat and listened to the music and was visually transformed by it. I was flabbergasted! Then the teacher told me about the boy's taste in music. Only classical music would stop his tantrums. "Beethoven", she said, "works every time."

There is much being discovered today about the interrelationships between music and science.  Medical science is now confirming what musicians, philosophers, and generations of enthusiasts have intuitively known. We are now seeing examples of Parkinson's patients walk and stroke victims speak because of the power of music. Even some aging individuals who are suffering memory loss can remember songs. Music has become part of the prescription for many medical disorders. As we learn more about the science of music, it will become even more important and essential to our human well-being.

NAA strongly supports the strengthening of STEM offerings during out of school hours. Linked with what is taught and experienced during the regular school day, this expanded learning time adds greatly to young learners’ opportunities to explore and develop important skills.

STEM learning is enhanced when it is integrated throughout the curriculum. To separate science, technology, engineering, or math makes no sense, and we also know music should be integrated in everything we do. The findings from science of music are proving that every day.

As a music lover, I could easily suggest that the acronym STEM could be altered with another M at the end, making it STEMM to include music. But an even better one is surfacing, and NAA is committing efforts to put some STE’A’M into STEM in 2012 by integrating all the arts. We need to cultivate innovation in young people, and the creativity component in all the arts, not just music, can help us all, especially scientists, achieve our mutual goals.

Music can be soothing and used for healing. It sparks creativity. It is a language of its own. Music and math fit hand in hand. It is an essential part of most human gatherings and functions. Much has been done by researchers to show how the human brain reacts to music and grows stronger with regular exposure.

I am not suggesting that kids in afterschool learn to sing or play the piano. But what I do hope to encourage and witness in the coming school year is the inclusion of integrated arts thinking into the way we structure our programs. The arts are a way of thinking, viewing, making sense, and experiencing the world around us. They are much more than stand-alone arts and crafts or make it and take it activities.

Read the research. In a decade, scientists studying the effects of music on brain development will likely have proven, without any doubt, that music study can make humans smarter. A growing army of researchers will prove that music is a fundamental part of life. Music defines us and binds us together. It is a force far more significant than just entertainment.  All of the arts will benefit from these emerging research findings and be acknowledged rightfully for their important and basic role in education and human development.

So, put some STE’A’M into your STEM curriculum. Get ahead of the game. There is power in music. Music matters. Science and music are muses that depend upon each other.

Transform your afterschool program with music of all kinds. It will make everyone happier, healthier, more in tune with each other, and just maybe a little smarter!

Dr. Paul G. Young
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association

"I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for in the patterns of music and all the arts are the keys of learning."
-- Plato

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Can you see beyond the trees?

At a recent professional conference, I listened to a former Chicago principal and a parent advocate tell their mutual story about transforming their failing school into one that became highly performing and sought after by other Chicago parents. Needless to say, their shared vision and work was impressive. Yet, when they asked for questions, I observed how difficult it was for others from a rural setting to relate and envision similar transformation processes for themselves and their schools. One participant openly bemoaned a lack of resources in her rural area, stating that “there were more sheep than people in her school attendance area.” She cited that increasing numbers of poor people were moving in with other family members to pool resources because of the severe lack of jobs.

Many might have witnessed a similar scenario. Is what happens in the big city really applicable to a small, rural area? How replicable are urban school and afterschool transformations in other settings? It didn’t take long for me to realize that the bigger problem was that the rural attendee couldn’t see the forest for the trees – and I don’t think she really wanted to try.

Her questions centered around comparing the resources available in Chicago to the lack of those in her rural community. Because the presenters enjoyed proximity and ready access to volunteers and donated resources, the rural participant couldn’t envision how she could begin to realize any similar kinds of transformation for her school. All she could see were the sheep. She struggled to look beyond. Even when the presenters suggested partnering with 4-H, agribusiness, gardening groups, or faith-based organizations, she continued to bemoan the challenges of her rural predicament.

She never saw a bigger picture.

This scenario plays itself out too often. This session quickly turned into a comparison of apples and oranges, plentiful urban resources v. rural poverty. The participant completely missed the importance of visioning to a transformation process and the passions, desire, and commitment of the parent and principal. And because of their personal humility, they didn’t talk a lot about their feelings or how they each envisioned, internalized, and outwardly experienced the change process. 

Without doubt, many factors contributed to the successful transformation. Obviously, the presence of highly educated, talented, reform-minded parents was significant. Ready access to merchants, sponsors, and competent volunteers helped. But they also faced many obstacles. The facility was over 100 years old. There were naysayers and obstructionists among the school staff and community. These are common and present in all settings. There were also self-doubts and mistakes.

It was enjoyable listening to visionary leaders. They weren’t sharing a make-it, take-it process. They were telling their story. But that, in essence, became the problem. We’ve become so conditioned to sitting, getting, and following a prescriptive plan that we’ve forgotten how to listen and learn from the message and the moral behind every story. When presenters don’t provide how-to specifics, many participants leave in disappointment. By sharing their story, the presenters hoped others’ thinking would be changed to envision improvements and change in their unique settings. Sadly, I observed outstanding leaders sharing success of their visionary work and a room full of participants missing the big picture. To lead, you have to see both the forest and the trees and envision how to maneuver among each. A major challenge for presenters is to teach others how to think and act like a leader through the art of storytelling.

One of the benefits of attending professional conferences is the ready opportunity to open yourself to new ideas. You learn by making connections. I saw that happening in this workshop. But it’s highly doubtful that the rural participants followed up by reading the presenters’ book, networking, or working to build a relationship with the Chicago presenters. To learn new ideas, we must listen, ask questions, follow-up, and independently search for meaning and applicability to our lives and work. Most of all, we must be able to dream and envision ourselves replicating what we hear and learn within our individual settings no matter where it is or how challenging it might appear to be.

Why do so few succeed at leading change and transforming afterschool programs? Because it is exceedingly hard work, dangerous, and requires a long-term commitment to a vision that many struggle to see and develop. Leading change requires a personal engagement outside our comfort zones. Too many people become mired in a mindset or act like “horses wearing blinders.” We learn too quickly to squash ideas that appear to have any risk or limitations.

All of us will benefit by opening our schools and afterschool programs and actively inviting partners in. But before they arrive, we need a clear vision of shared responsibilities and desired outcomes for partnerships. If people suddenly began appearing from behind the trees and from deep within the forest, would we be prepared and know what to do with them?  

Tough times don't last, but tough people do. Get out and steal ideas. Apply them to your unique setting.

Kids learn best when they are motivated to do so and when their learning is real. So do we.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Adapting the Tiger Mom Mind-Set for Adults

Since its release earlier this year, Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin, 2011) has elicited strong reactions and criticisms, both pro and con, about parenting and the rearing of the children in America. Throughout the book, Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two Chinese-American daughters, describes how she and her husband (also a Yale law professor) set high expectations for their children and settled for nothing less than perfection. Her daughters were never allowed to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV or play computer games, or get any grades less than A.  They were expected to be first in their class and also maintain rigorous afterschool practice schedules on piano or violin.

Chua describes the Chinese way of parenting (Chinese or not) as much more rigorous than Western methods. “Most of the other students at the school had liberal Western parents, who were weak-willed and indulgent when it came to practicing” (p.27). Her philosophy and parenting methods might see appalling, cruel, and heartless, yet her daughters excelled in academics, piano, and violin.

Earlier in May, I blogged about the need for afterschool professionals to evaluate the levels of rigor we expect for all children and youth, both during and after school. I got little argument that we should collectively strive for higher expectations for children and youth in our programs.

But now, let’s focus on adult expectations.

Is it cruel and heartless to expect the employees in our afterschool programs to increase expectations and settle for nothing less than their best everyday? As program leaders, are we too weak? Are we too lax? Do we adhere to high enough standards? Are we so focused on doing and saying what is politically correct that we fail to resolve plaguing issues? Are we satisfied too quickly and so easily that we’ve grown comfortable with the status quo and mediocrity?

My guess is that these questions raise doubts, concerns, and haunting memories among most of us. Too many of us have become accustomed to overlooking adult mistakes or accommodating a poor work ethic in order to avoid a confrontation. We continuously deal with student behaviors that could be prevented if the adults would simply supervise and do their jobs. We allow too many “adult issues” to get in the way of staff members actually performing their jobs – and at proficient levels.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is more than a memoir about the contrasts and differences between Chinese v. Western child rearing. It implies as much about how we approach the rigor and quality of our professional development programs and the expectations that we, as adults, have of each other.

One might disagree with Amy Chua (and me), but there is much to consider, debate, and reflect upon within the pages of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Schedule a staff book study and raise some key issues about practices and methodology from both the perspectives of student and adult performance and achievement.  Those reflections should spark some lively discussions and fruitful outcomes.

Reference:  Chua, Amy (2011). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Press.