Thursday, January 30, 2014

David Schools Goliath

Who isn’t familiar with the story of David and Goliath?  In his most recent book, “David and Goliath” (Little, Brown and Company 2013), Malcolm Gladwell does his usual masterful job of shedding fresh new insights into an old tome.  Quick review: Jewish shepherd boy David slays the Philistine giant Goliath by cutting off his head after rendering him helpless with a stone to the forehead.  ESPN Sports Center might use it as their lead story with a tease like this:  Newcomer David KO' World Champion Goliath in First Round!

Gladwell does not detract from the Biblical account of the incident by diminishing the faithfulness of David as he trusted the Israelites’ God and answered the call to face Goliath.  The stakes were huge as the victor would claim ownership over the losing nation.  When no other Israelite stepped forward to do battle, a shepherd boy who was only there because he was delivering food to his brothers, volunteered.  King Saul objected, viewing David’s lack of battle-tested experience as making him an unacceptable opponent.  But David persisted, referring to his resume which included killing a lion and a bear, claiming that he had already defeated tougher adversaries than the giant.  The rest is history.

Gladwell enhances the story by interjecting some ancient military history that I was unaware of.  Historians point out that battles in those times were fought with three tactical approaches: the use of the army’s cavalry, infantry and artillery.  Goliath was in the Philistine infantry.  Had David been in the Israeli army, he would have been in the artillery, which consisted of archers and slingers.  David was an expert slinger, hence he had been able to slay both a lion and bear with his sling and stones.  Archers and slingers were valuable because they could fight from a distance.  When Goliath challenged the Israelites to meet him on the field of combat, he anticipated that another infantryman would be sent out to meet him one-on-one, in which case, the giant was an overwhelming favorite.  David, rejecting King Saul’s offer of his own shield, armor and spear, opted to fight on his terms, utilizing his strength as an accomplished slinger. 

For the past several years, we have been encouraging school administrators and teachers to implement prevention and school improvement strategies which make more effective use of students.  You can visualize this transformation as switching seats in a car; moving the student from the back seat to the driver’s seat while the adult is helpfully nearby in the passenger seat.  To be honest, it has been frustrating at times to get a willingness from the adults in charge to consider a new paradigm when it comes to recognizing and utilizing the organic influence that youth possess.   Consider these facts: students comprise roughly 90% of the individuals that populate a typical campus and represent 1/3 of the stakeholders in a school, the other two-thirds made up of parent groups and school employees.  Yet even with these metrics, they are grossly underrepresented while arguably possessing the greatest amount of influence upon each other.  Ever see a student- influencer raise an eyebrow or offer a smirk or chuckle during the Principal’s intercom explanation of the new cell phone policy?  Other students notice it; who do you think carries the greater influence?  Our experience is that students are in the best position to understand the real issues that impact school climate and culture and are capable of implementing campaigns that truly make a difference, yet they are rarely given an authentic seat at the table.

The case of David exemplifies our claim:

*David was uninterested in trying the tired old solutions of past battles.  He rejected King Saul’s armor and knew that this old ploy would be unsuccessful against Goliath;

* David was not looked upon as a “traditional” leader, due in part to his youthfulness and his station in life.  However, he had skills and talents that had gone unrecognized until he had the opportunity to use them.  Don’t forget, he went on to become one of the Israelites’ greatest kings.

*He was confident that his tactic would secure a victory because he knew the conditions and environment in which the battle would be fought (think lion and bear);

*He realized that something different needed to be tried and that if the same old—same old was employed again, the same (unsuccessful) results would be fretted over.

David possessed what we call the” ultimate renewable energy source” of youth!  He was self-assured, confident and undeterred by the negativism of the adults around him.  He felt “called” to do this work, similar to the testimonials we have heard from countless youth when given the opportunity to be game-changers in the challenges related to school climate and culture.  We can learn a lot from this humble shepherd boy and we can use this Bible story to challenge ourselves to think innovatively and try some new tactics on some old problems.

The next time one sets out to address school climate and culture issues, we encourage all to creatively engage students who are tasked with carrying our old tools of change to listen, hear and recognize the assets that may be hiding in plain sight!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Expecting Outcomes Before Skills are Built

Jim is always reminding us that there are many things that need to be learned but often aren't taught.  We expect our students to be able accomplish tasks like advocating for themselves by talking to teachers and professors, we want them to be wise with their money, we want them to be able to manage their time, etc.  Let's face it!  Many people were never taught the skills and behaviors involved to be able to accomplish these outcomes.  We quickly realized that we can never just assume all students learned to actually accomplish these tasks and we find ourselves, more and more, immediately assessing skills before expecting positive results.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jack Takin' Care of His Own Business

Generally I’m not a big fan of television commercials.  It frustrates me when they interrupt a favorite show or ball game.  However, some catch my attention because they have a subtle or not so subtle message embedded in them relative to issues in our culture.  Last year I wrote an article entitled “Not Your Father’s Buick”, a take-off on a General Motors commercial attempting to sell Buicks to a new generation of automobile buyers.  In the article, I made their hip and updated sales pitch analogous to what we in the education and prevention fields should be doing to increase the chance that young people will pay attention to healthy messages and approaches and hopefully internalize them.  Today’s generation doesn’t want their father’s Buick and today’s youth find that our old prevention methods and educational strategies often don’t resonate with them.  The more recent commercial that has grabbed my interest is put out by Hyundai and features an 11-12 year old boy figuring out how to get his football back from older and larger boys who challenge him to “come back when you have a team!”

The boy, with his mother driving the family van with purpose and conviction, is shown traveling throughout the neighborhood putting his friends on notice that he is need of their assistance.  They all oblige and are soon gathered in the van en route to the park and the forthcoming football game.  Once there, they all have their game-faces on and we are left to imagine (quite assuredly) that the football will be returned to the rightful owner!

There are several features that intrigue me about this commercial.  First, all of us can relate to a similar situation in life where we faced a challenge and we either were going to be up for it or we would retreat ( and likely endure countless regrets).  The boy, who is deserving of a name so let’s call him Jack, exudes body language that implies that he has been here before but this time is committed to righting a wrong that has been perpetrated upon him.  Observation #1:  Jack does not burst into tears, beg, whine or run away.  Instead he assesses the situation and says with resolve, “Ok.”

In the next scene, Jack and his mother exchange meaningful glances in the van while rounding up his crew.  Mom’s face clearly sends a message that, “This ends here, today!”  One gets the impression that this scenario may have occurred before in Jack’s life and that he and his mom have discussed it.  Observation #2:  Jack’s mom doesn’t rush out to fix Jack’s problem for him.  She does not deprive him of the opportunity to learn a life-long lesson.  Perhaps she has phoned the other boys’ parents after earlier episodes, attempting to interject a parental solution.  Maybe she and Jack had sat on the porch swing and discussed how angry that made him and what his choices were, we just don’t know.  We do know that this time she is a supportive parent doing for Jack what he can’t do for himself—drive the van. I give her credit for doing what she can to facilitate Jack handling his own business.

Observation #3:  Jack organizes, empowers and mobilizes his crew with an action plan designed to not only get his football back but to send a message that this kind of behavior will no longer be tolerated.  This is when we know we are watching television; Jack’s crew includes two weight- lifting brothers, an 11 year old welder and firefighter and another winning a wrestling match with a bear!  Granted, Jack has some powerful middle school buddies who probably aren’t afraid to mix it up a bit.  This is often how preteen boys view their friends; understanding, loyal and there for each other.  In that context, these boys agree to face a fear and solve a problem collectively that they may had previously faced individually.

Observation #4:  When Jack and friends roll out of the van, they are focused and united on the task ahead of them; they are single minded.  They have no guarantee that they will win back the football but they are committed to making every effort possible to change the culture of the park and perhaps set a new trajectory for future interactions between these dozen or so middle school students.  They are empowered by each other’s resolve and believe that they can change things.

Observation #5:  I don’t know if this commercial helped Hyundai sell more cars or not but I think it’s a cool commercial!  Granted, I take a lot of liberties in dissecting this 30 second spot.  Not all children feel strong enough to take on their fears. Not all have learned how to advocate for themselves.  Many lack friends they can turn to or have a supportive adult in their life who will be there for them in times of need.   I am not advocating an old macho model of duking it out on the playground to solve our problems.  I am not suggesting that there are not other non-physical ways for boys (as well as men and nations) to resolve differences.  However, like many aspects of our culture, public thought and conventional wisdom seems to swing from one pole to another, always seeking ways to establish harmony and lessen discourse between people. It is, nevertheless, interesting to note that some of the most active educational blogs and Linked In discussions consistently include topics related to whether or not our children are overly praised, how and why so many of our children feel entitled and if one subscribes to the “everybody gets a ribbon” mentality. 

 My fascination with this commercial, as with the work we do, is that it encourages organic solutions for many of the daily issues that stress us.  Most people, including children, have within them the capacity to cope with life, especially if a little guidance and supportive encouragement is mixed in.  Having previously been an 11 year old boy, I envision the rest of the commercial this way; a spirited game ensues, the winner and loser not as important as a new-found respect gained for each other.   Torn pants are dusted off and skinned knees wiped clean and a huge deposit of positive self-esteem is made into the psyches of each boy.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

People Who Are Empowered To Do Good

"Lesson Learned" from Chapter 8 of Jim's book, Untapped Power: "No magic bullet exists to fix many of the struggles that confront us. However, interventions that create fair and just policies consistently applied, teachable moments that prepare us for what life brings, and organized movements with people who are empowered to do good, have the capability to make significant differences for the positive."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Nothing Magical"

One lesson I learned while working with college students is to use the phrase "Nothing Magical" when teaching them academic skills that they did not master in high school.  For example, the structure of a well-constructed and well-written paper can fit into a formula and a pattern.  As we review the requirements of the assignment, we develop an outline according to a formula and then brainstorm and discuss the content of each segment of the outline.  This demystifies the process and helps them to believe it is something they can actually do!  Being afraid because you never learned something is far different from thinking you can't learn.