It’s a dreary fall morning in a suburban Washington middle school classroom where the 6th-grade team is scattered around desks, looking at a list of students projected on the whiteboard. After a review of those who are failing, the teachers discuss those who will receive awards for their success.
“We always talk about the same kids—the behavior problems and the honor roll kids,” laments one science teacher. “I worry about all those in the middle.”
Most educators know about the students this teacher is identifying—the amorphous group in the “quiet middle” who seem to generate a lot of conversation, but not, by many accounts, enough attention or support.
“We have found that students who are not labeled above average at the upper end or below average at the lower end are lumped together into one large unit and essentially ignored,” says Stephen Farenga, a professor at Dowling College and author of The Importance of Average.
Latoira Rodgers, a counselor at Greene County Middle School in North Carolina, agrees. “Low-achieving students have reading groups, tutoring sessions, pull-out instruction, or behavioral mentoring; and high-achieving students are mentors, campus leaders, and have accelerated courses. Average students aren’t challenged enough or exposed to rigorous material.”
Despite the inherent challenges, educators are reaching these students in ways that allow them to thrive without the attention others soak up.
An Island of Competence
Some “average” students teeter on the edge, performing just well enough that they don’t qualify for extra support. “I am concerned for those just below grade level,” says Audra McPhillips, a math teacher and academic coach in West Warwick, Rhode Island. “If their needs are not addressed, the gap grows and they quickly [fall behind].”
Experienced teachers like Eileen Antalek worry that a learning problem won’t be discovered. “We see kids with hidden disabilities,” says Antalek, now an education consultant. “They just squeak by and no one notices. I have seen too many who accept being the kid in the corner everyone ignores.”
She recalls a bright student with average grades who was often criticized for lagging effort and interest, but was later diagnosed with ADHD and processing issues. Eventually, he received accommodations through a 504 plan for the attention issues (reminders, breaks, proximity to the teacher, and more tech classes where he excelled) and his teachers were more aware of his needs.
“Was he ever the classroom star? No. But he found his island of competence, and [once] his problems and strengths were recognized, his confidence soared because someone paid attention,” says Antalek. “He was brilliant with technology—and he even helped the school update and operate its computer network.”
In The Importance of Average, Farenga argues that individual needs are often not met because education policy doesn’t give average students the same opportunities as others. Instead, it bumps them along, teaching them how to score better on tests that don’t accurately assess their knowledge. Differentiation is “unquestionably the right thing to do for them,” McPhillips notes, “but it just adds another layer to the work of incredibly busy teachers.”
Angelina Arrington, a fourth-generation teacher in Los Angeles, says our education system’s overreliance on standardized test preparation diminishes good teaching that could give all students more attention.
“That middle group is so varied, and while there are students with specific problems, most of the class is in that quiet middle,” she says. The onus is on teachers, then, to separate the pack. “We have to get to know each student—their passions, their strengths, and their weaknesses.” She meets with a few students every day to do just that—often during her lunch hour—and makes a constant effort to connect with students on an individual basis.
Too Much Average
Todd Rose, author of The End of Average and director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, sees education failing most students, but talks about there being too much attention on a nonexistent average student.
Rose, himself a high school dropout who slipped through the cracks, has identified a “jagged learning style” model showing that each student has unique ability in areas such as memory, reading, vocabulary, language, curiosity, perceptual or cognitive ability, and interest.
“We are losing our brightest minds because we design education for an average student who doesn’t exist,” he says. “It fails everyone—it just fails some kids more than others, and it’s often kids whose needs are harder to spot.”
Rose is an advocate for personalized learning, which he says provides more opportunity for students in the middle, customizing their experiences and assessment, and determining their progress based on the mastery of content and not grade level or seat time. And he sees technology as one of the best ways to provide it.
Kelly Young, the director of Education Reimagined, points to online programs like Thrively, which assesses students then offers them a stream of activities specific to their interests and abilities, and LRNG, “an ecosystem of learning that combines in-school, out-of-school, employer-based, and online learning experiences” where students create “playlists” of study and receive badges as proof of mastery.
“This is about starting with the strengths, interests, aspirations, and needs of each child and developing learning pathways that [help] that child thrive,” Young says. “There won’t be a quiet middle in a school with a non-average mindset.”
Small Steps, Big Lifts
Apart from sweeping reforms or shifts to online learning, Marsha Pinto, the 20-year-old founder of SoftVoices.com, says extracurricular activities and smaller learning groups can allow less visible students to build confidence in their speaking skills. “After-school groups helped me make a name for myself and show others that I was more than just the shy girl,” she says.
Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, developed a Young Writers Club, which paired several quiet and below average students who liked to write with stronger, more outgoing writers (identified by counselors and grade-level teams). The students worked together on a school e-zine, reporting and peer editing one another’s work. The school also experimented with support classes for students who had potential to improve but didn’t need intense interventions. Teachers reviewed a list of near-average students with gaps between test scores and grades, then moved some into advanced classes (in one case, a special journalism course) and put others in twice-a-week after-school support. Most saw improvements in their grades.
A math intervention program at Deering Middle School, where McPhillips taught, brought teachers together every six weeks to discuss students who were just below grade level. The students received interventions every day on math concepts they struggled with. “That quiet middle got the lift they needed,” says McPhillips. She describes one student in the program who “always tried hard, but fell a little bit short in math.”
“Layla was often frustrated, rarely raised her hand, but never qualified for any kind of extra help because she wasn’t one of the students struggling the most.” When she had access to math intervention, “her whole demeanor changed. She was more confident personally and with her work.”
In some New York City schools, the Peer Enabled Restructured Classroom (PERC) program turns slightly below average 10th graders (who they note have a 40 percent chance of not finishing college) into Teaching Assistant Scholars (TAS). The scholars work under the guidance of a teacher to instruct small groups of younger peers (four or five 9th grade students) in restructured math and science classes. They have one period a day where they review the material and practice techniques for getting it across and one period in the classroom as the teacher.
“Middle-achieving students are placed in a leadership role where they feel responsible for success of other students and are inspired to live up to that responsibility,” says Shula Freedman, sustainability and growth coordinator for the program.
After participating, TAS students were twice as likely as their peers to meet college-readiness goals, and over time, they showed improved leadership skills. Plus, the grades for the students they worked with rose; the younger students were 1.6 times more likely to pass Common Core exams than students who didn’t participate in the program.
An Added Boost
Teacher expectations may also have an effect on even slightly below average students, according to a 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States. Teachers might assume that students who have not performed well in the past will struggle and give them less attention or subtle “cues.” The report explains: “These expectations can cause teachers to differentiate their behavior toward individual students, setting lower expectations for some students, providing briefer (or no) feedback on student errors—and less positive feedback after correct answers—and granting students less time to answer questions.” Those presumptions can shift grades as much as 10 percent and can only be changed with teacher training about such bias, the study notes.
Arrington says that’s important–teachers can’t make assumptions about this group’s ability to progress. “We need to recognize some of these students who…are ready to take off. We just need to notice them and give them a boost.”
Try these tips to help boost the grades of “average” who don’t attract much attention in your classroom.
Talk to them. Make an effort each day to communicate with or involve one or two of the quietest “average” kids in a discussion, whether it’s with you, with a peer, or during a whole-class conversation. Remind yourself to give them some individual attention with a phone app or a sticky note—it’s easy to have the best intentions but forget in a busy classroom.
Learn their story. Identify the kids in this group. Learn the ways they want to learn and show their understanding, and avoid preconceived notions about their ability or interest in learning.
Identify gaps. Keep an eye out for personal struggles, attention issues, learning disabilities, or other social emotional problems that could be largely hidden.
Tread lightly. The introverts in this group—and there may be several—may not want to be in the limelight nor seem enthusiastic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn. Sophia Dembling, author of The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, says these students may appreciate a quiet conversation with a teacher—even separate from class work—and may prefer a private spot to do their work or relax. “Introverts can keep up if they have time to step away and let their brains calm down from time to time.”
Look outward. Encourage these students to get involved in extra-curricular or special smaller, narrowly-focused academic programs where they can shine, such as a reading support class or a homework club.
Consider technology. Personalized learning may be the key to motivating students in the middle, some experts say, and online work can often provide it.
Thumbs up. Acknowledge and praise hard work, but as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests, praise effort not intelligence. It might be easy to praise less visible students routinely without considering the negative impact of empty praise.
Jim Paterson is a former school counselor who works as a freelance writer in Lewes, Delaware.
By Jim Paterson
There’s a lot of research about what causes lapses in executive function in teens – everything from the time they’ve logged in front of screens to antibiotics taken by their pregnant moms.
But no matter what the cause, the gap is frustrating for parents.
There’s that math test that seems to come out of nowhere or that history paper that was never finished. And there is no sign of urgency or, sometimes, any concern at all.
So what’s going on in their brain? Is it ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder sometimes with by hyperactivity), or just normal teen development. And what can you do to help?
While a few students in each school classroom probably have a serious attention disability and need special care, there are perhaps more than half the students who just can’t get started – can’t stay motivated, organized or focused and just you hear they might lack “executive function”, a phrase buzzing around education and teen development circles.
“It’s not all-or-nothing, like pregnancy, where one either is pregnant or not,” says Thomas Brown, the professor heading Yale’s noted Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders and one of the top experts on ADHD and executive function. ‘It’s more like depression. Everyone experiences a low mood from time-to-time, but only those significantly impaired over longer periods are diagnosed as depressed. ADHD might be the extreme end of the impairments in executive function.
What is EF
Brown compares executive function to the conductor of an orchestra. “Even great ones are not likely to produce a very good symphony if they don’t have a someone to coordinate and integrate the musicians,” he says.
And that executive function maestro/boss ideally coordinates brain activity to produce these results, Brown says:
- Activation: Organizing, prioritizing and activating to work.
- Focus: Focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to tasks.
- Effort: Regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed.
- Emotion: Managing frustration and regulating emotions.
- Memory: Utilizing working memory and accessing recall.
- Action: Monitoring and self-regulating action.
It takes time
So, are any of these skills lacking in your teen? Probably.
The latest thinking about brain development suggests these skills blossom later in teen years when brain cells and cell networks grow and are pruned for efficiency. So it could be that your adolescent who is disorganized, can’t get started on a project or lacks an ability to regulate emotions, may just need time to mature.
“Executive function impairments usually are outgrown when the person reaches their late teens or early 20s,” Brown says.
He and others say there are ways parents can help adolescents adjust to the deficiency and develop those skills:
- Establish routines — for everything from homework time to meal and bedtime, with time limits and structured breaks.
- Write it down — using a planner or to-do lists. Establish big and small goals.
- Plan transitions — from big ones like moving from middle school to high school to smaller ones like moving from video games to homework. Make them aware of them.
- Use rewards — small ones for simple steps to larger ones for major changes over time.
- Investigate learning styles — and help your student find theirs and have opportunities to use it.
- Explain it all — give examples and model it — the football coach with the long play list on the sidelines, the music producer with a detailed arrangement or your shopping list or calendar from work.
- Keep them moving — exercise helps
A more serious issue
Meanwhile, Brown says students who have ADD/ADHD, a genetic and often inherited developmental problem, will stand out. “If a kid just has the ability but extreme inconsistency and is severely distracted or disorganized there is a more serious problem.”
Often teachers or guidance counselors can spot a serious problem. Schools can help with structure and support and formal educational plans that stay in place to provide accommodations consistently through high school. And a therapist or even a pediatrician can diagnosis ADD/ADHD.
Brown says it will require persistence and patience by parents and educators because while it’s the age when these issues arise — it’s also the time to tackle them
Thomas Brown’s newest book is “Smart but Stuck”. (www.drthomasebrown.com)
Two other good sources are understood.org (www.understood.org) and the National Resource Center on ADHD (www.help4adhd.org/)
Jim Paterson is a writer and consultant specializing in adolescent behavior and academic achievement.
Illustration by Jim Paterson
We were returning from church and feeling pretty good about ourselves, all dressed up and newly cleansed and fortified to our soul, when I glanced out the car window and shattered the cheery after-worship spell.
“Oh crap,” I said.
The big maple tree near the corner of Stone Avenue was showing a hint of color and that meant with lightning speed something sinister would be upon us. My seven-year-old stomach began a slow, steady churning that would cleave and grow.
I’d be shopping for a new jacket instead of playing baseball. I’d be forced into bed painfully clean and painfully early, not smoking cheap cigars with my friends at camp-outs in the woods…not carried from the car, slack-jawed and sleeping after a long summer day at a small mountain lake. I’d be playing in cool basements and gymnasiums instead of in sprinklers, the mud and the hot sun. It meant an end to the simple freedom of summer and the start to the steady pounding regimen of school. And there, bridging the two, that feeling.
It is a strange and jarringly strong mixture of dread and delight…of anxiety and excitement about the promise of a new year.
I’ve considered whether other childhood moments attach such emotion. At a college party one time some friends and I weighed in with our choices. Christmas, family vacations, the last days of school, some suggested, which had merit but weren’t contenders. Then the Fourth of July and Valentine’s Day and Halloween were listed. I was astonished. One guy even suggested Mothers’ Day. I could imagine he was a lot of fun at eight or nine years of age.
Nothing, I maintained, matches the feeling a kid has when, on a hot summer day, it first occurs to him that school will start again… when the first thoughtless adult mutters “are you ready for school” and lunch boxes bloom at the local grocery store.
Nothing matches knowing there are only a few days left.
Nothing matches that first morning when the excitement builds and you don strange, creased clothes and your friends all walk stiffly in new shoes and look nothing like kids you reluctantly left at the baseball field a few nights ago and more like the Sears catalog children posed to greet an off-camera friend. You walk through the familiar school doors and down its familiar halls with their familiar tiles and you look around the room to see who will be your companions in this adventure and who, writing their name on the board at the front of the room, will lead it.
A few weeks ago I was in another room when I heard my mother-in-law offer to buy my first-grade-bound son’s lunchbox if he picked one out, probably herself trying to help ease the emotions he – no lover of school – may have been brewing. He paused, and then warmed to the idea. I paused, got a very strange feeling in my stomach and sat down to enjoy it.
The Washington Post
It was Tuesday, and last period of a gloomy day in February. The teacher, a happy, hardworking guy who relished teaching math to seventh graders as much as they enjoyed learning it from him, let slip an uncharacteristically harsh comment as he flashed through email while students filed into his room.
“Crap,” he said. “Another behavior report. This stuff drives me crazy. It takes so much time and has no effect.”
As the head of the counseling department, I appreciated that a counselor was gathering data for this student, but the teacher’s response was telling. It was part of a conspicuous and intractable gap in handling those significant behavior issues that cost hours of classroom time and frustrate teachers and students. Yet maybe a solution lies in sophisticated new technology or simplifying the whole thing.
We’ve known since the days of the one-room schoolhouse and dunce caps that student behavior issues eat up classroom time (one survey suggested five weeks out of the school year) and frustrate teachers (another report suggesting one-in-three teachers want to quit because of them). An assistant principal and I once estimated student behavior issues consumed 25 percent of classroom time and were the primary reason good – or potentially good – teachers soured.
“It seems that every year most teachers have at least a few students who appear to thrive on setting up one power struggle after another as they disrupt the learning process,” says Richard Curwin, author of Discipline with Dignity. “They are the students who loudly complain of the teacher’s unfairness, who make various noises, who show up to class unprepared, who are quick to lose their temper, and who simply refuse to take responsibility for their actions. The teacher finds himself at wit’s end with these students and often proclaims, ‘Somebody’s got to do something with that child.’”
We have also found that for the worst offenders clear, consistent strategies are most effective when they are used throughout the student’s day, evaluated and revised, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, It is the one way we can identify and address what Ross Greene, author of Lost at School, calls the “developmental delays” that create behavior issues. Communications about common goals also benefit teachers working with these students – if nothing else, their morale.
I’ve seen such efforts sometimes dramatically change a student’s behavior, and usually at least shift it slightly, allowing for positive reinforcement. However, I’ve more often seen the process break down, for several reasons.
A survey found nearly half of teachers believe such documentation “goes beyond common sense.” Teachers are busy, they don’t believe behavior issues can or will be resolved, these students are not their favorites and the strategies are often counterintuitive and complex. When the strategies don’t have quick success, teachers often “move to maybe a completely different-looking individualized intervention”, according to professor Joe Wehby, chairman of the Vanderbilt special education department and an expert on student behavior approaches.
So, comprehensive plans to improve a student’s behavior have energy at the start, but get more complex and…
“Achieving these expectations is difficult in the context of shrinking resources, multiple competing and overlapping initiatives, fewer qualified personnel, and less time,” one report on school-wide behavior support says. “Communication amongst the different educators working with a student is absolutely essential, says Greene. “However, the school day wasn’t necessarily designed to ensure the optimal level of communication.”
Tim Hardin, a counselor at Forest Heights Elementary School and board member of the North Carolina Association of School Counselors, says in his school district teams have the best intentions.
“In my school specifically we come up with some wonderful interventions for behavior issues. However, we just do not have enough resources or staff to always implement and follow up consistently on the interventions. When we do, we see success.”
And Gail Smith, school counseling supervisor for the Cobb County, GA, School District, agrees. “We rely on psychologists, counselors and special education personnel, but there is overwhelming need,” she says. “Teachers also struggle with implementing strategies consistently and with fidelity because of class size and the behavioral needs of each child.”
One solution could be technology. At my school, a confusing and cumbersome program to document interventions often went unused or under-utilized – and that seems common. However, programs like Kickboard might help.
Kickboard’s app allows educators to track and share all sorts of student personal, academic and behavioral data in real time from any device. It can easily collect and report positive behaviors (and display them in a variety of ways) for PBIS, and allow teachers to quickly see supports in place for student with behavior issues, the problems they’ve had elsewhere and enter their own reports.
It has an “early warning” indicator system and now a response to interventions option, allowing educators to “create behavior intervention plans, assign interventions, access real-time data points to see if the interventions are working, and take action as needed,” says Jennifer Medberry, the founder of the company. It even provides scripts for those behavior issue meetings that can cause educators to “to want to run for the hills?”
“It’s easy to see why these initiative fails. It can seem so labor intensive to collect and track data, but it’s so important,” she says. “We want to make that process easier and more productive”.
The seven-year-old company has gotten good reviews from customers and industry professionals, has won several awards and is a finalist for a 2016 Software Information Industry Association CODIE award.
Short of technological leap, here are five other things educators working on these behavior issues might try (Data-driven caregivers who want details, stop here. This doesn’t help in diagnosis or build an official case, but it just might help reduce time-grabbing, frustrating behavior issues.)
1. Shorten the list: Choose five percent of the students as the focus.
2. Find the function, quickly: FBAs are great, but tedious. Ask teachers to logically, unemotionally and thoroughly discuss what is really causing the behavior.
3. Simplify strategies. There are plenty of resources. Keep a reasonable list of options, and keep it available.
4. Simplify reporting: I’ve used a weekly email behavior report with a 1-5 rating on a few issues that worked remarkably well for some students. It took persistence. Keep a simple database open and up-to-date.
5. Simplify the meetings. Strictly restrict the discussion (student progress, effectiveness of strategies, strategy changes required, and date for review) and put someone in charge who can keep everyone focused. Teachers love to vent about behavior issues – and probably need to, but each student discussion should be 15 minutes
We know such communications is one solution to the age-old problem of chronic behavior issues. But we may need to think about where it fails.
By Jim Paterson
It was a grammatical change that caused Ellen Reeder to explode. But then it never seemed to be the big things – problems with the availability of the objects in the exhibit, worries about funding, concerns about handling priceless treasures as they traveled around the world. Those she expected. Those she could handle.
It was the endless, senseless approvals, the nit-picky revisions, the grammatical corrections – the never-ending drip of obstinance that pushed her to her limit. Reeder has come to Kiev to finalize the contract for a key venue of the Scythian-art exhibit she was curating for the Walters Art Gallery.
She is in the last of many negotiating sessions with Serhii Chaikovs’kyi, director of the National Museum of the History of the Ukraine, and his sometimes difficult deputy, Ivan Yavtushenko. This meeting, one of many held at the long table in Chaikovs’kyi’s stark office in a massive ’50s-era government building, comes after three years of similar debates. It comes after months of revisions to these contracts for the last venue, the Grand Palais in Paris.
After nearly a week of negotiations and reviews of the site in France. After days of even more review back in Kiev, back in this room. All she needs is Chaikovs’kyi’s name on the dotted line and a critical venue – one of the most famous museums in the world – will be in place to host the show and Reeder will be close to victory.
But she’s embroiled in even more negotiations, and trying to stay calm. She’s trying to use her impressive negotiating skills, and to remind herself that some of this is cultural – a uniquely Ukrainian way of doing business. Some of it is care for national treasures, or perhaps paranoia from years of dealing with the USSR’s totalitarian bureaucracy. And some of it is simply the personalities involved.
Finally, out of tricks and needing to move her show along, Reeder, the consummate negotiator, yanks hard on the reins. As Serhii lifts his pencil as if to make a correction to what is supposed to be the final draft, Reeder can take no more. “You don’t know what we are trying to do for you, do you?” she says, leaning over the table and tossing around papers and folders, reviewing the history of these drudging negotiations. “I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous. This is not the way this thing is done. This is a waste of time. I’m leaving tomorrow, and if this isn’t signed before then, I wash my hands of this agreement.”
This month Baltimore meets the Scythians – these fierce and enigmatic Hells Angels from 500 years before Christ, nomads who swept across the plains north of the Black Sea, proudly displaying the skin of their enemies, celebrating victory with wine and hemp . . . and indulging their love of beautiful, delicate golden works of art. They arrive in a stunning display of their treasures at the Walters Art Gallery – Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures from Ancient Ukraine.
The artwork – intricate and skillfully crafted objects used for ceremony, ornamentation, and battle – is striking, and its power is evident in an instant in this dramatic, carefully constructed exhibit.
What won’t be so clear to the exhibit’s audiences, entranced by this remarkable art, is the four years of labor that brought these objects here. What won’t be on display in the Walters’ serene galleries is this show’s journey – a hard-won battle fought with eye-catching promotion, exhausting scholarship, attention to numbing detail, and delicate, difficult, sometimes illogical diplomacy, all pulled and shoved and driven by the shear determination of Ellen Reeder.
The history of such an exhibit can be as long and dramatic and tumultuous as the history of the objects themselves. That’s the case with Gold of the Nomads, a show whose story reaches back more than four years. Reeder became interested in the Scythians’ gold in 1996.
Curator of ancient art for the Walters (she has since accepted a position at the Brooklyn Museum of Art), she was approached by a colleague suggesting a show with an archeological theme about the influence the Greeks had on the Scythians, whose fascinating art was still being unearthed in the Ukraine.
She knew immediately that this was something she needed to do. She knew the work was important. This culture and their art has fascinated the rest of the world since the 1700s, when Catherine the Great was so impressed by samples that she ordered its thorough study.
Excavation of the kurhans – the thousands of large mounds that served as burial sites – has continued since then, and some of the most remarkable pieces in the show, unearthed only within the last 10 years, have never left the Ukraine.
Reeder had been very impressed by a much-praised Scythian show in New York in 1975. But this show was significant to Reeder because as far back as college she’d studied the art of the Greeks, who had very much influenced their crazy trading partners to the north.
And Reeder, a avid equestrian, was attracted to this culture that celebrated the horse – even burying horses with their owners in these elaborate burial mounds. < “If I didn’t do this show,” she says now, “I’d be sitting on a park bench as an old woman thinking this was the one I should have done.”
But she envisioned something more than an exhibit of fishhooks and tools that her colleagues were suggesting. “I think I saw the 800-pound gorilla-the stuff that would stop traffic: Nomads, burial ruins, gold coming out of the soil.”
A year later in Kiev, she got to see the golden gorilla for herself. Dressed impeccably as always and displaying her keen ability to put people at ease, Reeder sat at a desk in a small, dark office on the11th floor of a bedraggled concrete building.
It was a facility for the Archeological Institute in Kiev, one of the four locations in and around the city where the pieces that Reeder wanted for the show were stored.
On that day, Reeder was in Kiev for the first time see the most recently excavated pieces – some of the most elaborate of the Scythians’ impressive work These are the moments she lived for – when she could put aside the jet lag and bad food, the unexpected delay and the illogical negotiations. When she got to see those beautiful works of art that exist for her as just that. This is when she gets to see and feel and really sense these beautiful works of art from so long ago – these rare links to the past that she wants so badly to share with the rest of us in a way that will make clear their importance.
The Ukrainians bring in cardboard boxes > from which they draw smaller, slightly dented cardboard boxes of varying size. And out of them, wrapped in simple tissue paper, come the glittering objects she’d been aching to see necklaces and parts to a headdress; a golden strip that wound around the handle of a whip; decorations for horses’ bridles.
She’d carefully reviewed these pieces to prepare her checklist – studied them endlessly in photographs. But now in this simple setting, here they were even brighter and more startlingly beautiful then she’d pictured. “It was very strange in a way but incredibly thrilling,” she says.
Thrilling – and just the motivation Reeder needed to put the exhibit in motion.
Throughout the summer of ’97, the wheels started turning at the Walters. Reeder began to lay plans for an extensive $300,000 media campaign. She helped contact potential venues willing to host the show for some $375,000. She started to think about the scholarly 350-page, $100,000 catalog she would edit – plus the nearly 20 contributors she needed to contact, the hundreds photographs that needed to be taken, and the introductory essay she needed to write.
At the same time, Reeder began talks with Walters registrar Joan Elisabeth Reid, whose task it would be to move these priceless, ancient items through six cities halfway across the world – a process that would include insurance, packing, shipping, security, customs, detailed reports on the art’s condition, and agreements with venues about their handling of the pieces.
Things were off to a good start. But Reeder knew any such show of objects from a culture so different from ours and so new – the Ukrainians had only been independent since 1991 – would be fraught with drama. She knew borrowing a nation’s treasures is always risky business.
Enormous trust needs to be established, and cultural clashes can be as difficult to negotiate as they are inevitable On an icy, gray day in Kiev, Reeder would be reminded how difficult such a process could be. In mid-December, 1997, The temperature in Kiev is 28 degrees below zero. Ellen Reeder and Gerry Scott, director at the San Antonio Museum of Art, co-sponsor of the show, have come here to sign contracts with the Ukrainians that will give approval for the artwork to visit the initial four venues.
It’s so cold, the two can see their breath at lunch in a restaurant; space heaters just barely take the chill off in their rooms. (“It was the only time I’ve ever gone from a fur coat to the bath right back into a fur coat,” Reeder says.) Despite the cold, Reeder and Scott are excited about the show, and hope to seal it legally with the Ukrainians, who had for several months been amending the initial contracts.
The gifts Reeder learned from colleagues to bring on each trip – soap, keychains, scarves, or baseball hats – are well received among museum staff, some of whom were cool to the prospects of seeing Americans take some of their most treasured art on a two-year journey.
It is on this visit that she meets Nadia Shatskaya, a 28-year-old interpreter who Reeder quickly recognizes as someone who not only can efficiently translate for complex negotiations, but also could provide the Americans with valuable insights about the culture and the idiosyncrasies of their counterparts.
On what turns out to be the coldest day of their visit, Reeder and Scott sit on one side of Chaikovs’syi’s long table, wearing coats and drinking tea to stay warm. There is little furniture in this uninviting room; nothing on the walls. Space heaters drone on. The
Ukrainians face the Americans, and Nadia, wrapped tightly in her coat, sits at the end of the table, interpreting for both sides. Nadia, Reeder discovers, does more than translate words. As the two groups begin their discussions, she helps Reeder understand Chaikovs’kyi and his deputy, Yavtushenko, who – perhaps at Chaikovs’syi’s direction – is often the more difficult of the two.
She describes their mood, provides nuances of their cultural tradition, and tries to explain their sometimes inexplicable objections. After some pleasantries, Nadia’s tone changes: There’s bad news. Details still need to be worked out. Necessary approvals haven’t been obtained. There are delays. Reeder and Scott leave frustrated. “We had told them we wanted to finalize it,” Reeder later explains.
“That’s why we were there. They apparently thought we were coming over for more discussions. I think that is the Ukranian way: To do something doesn’t imply you’re going to accomplish it; it means you are going to begin to do it. We American type-A personalities-we thought we were going to hash it over and sign it. Their reaction was, ‘that’s not the way we do things.’ It was maddening, but I don’t think it was really malicious.”
It did, however, become a pattern. Chaikovs’kyi and his deputy had somewhat inexplicably taken responsibility for the artwork from all four locations and they would often balk about preparation of the material, about anything requiring a signature, about security, about the display of an important piece..
They would also sometimes explode over what seemed to be small matters like reimbursements for minor work by their staff. Nadia, always the diplomat, would keep Reeder calm: “He just needs to get this off his chest,” she would say. Often she was right and the issue being fumed over one minute would no longer be a point of contention the next. Despite such difficulties, Reeder pressed on.
During the spring and summer of 1998, the Ukrainians signed the key contracts and approved the checklist of objects for the show.
The details were coming together, but Reeder is still assembling the show in her mind – putting together the pieces of the puzzle. To help, Reeder makes another trip to the Ukraine in June.
This time she takes exhibit designer Alex Castro – who she’d chosen because of a successful collaboration they’d had in another show. Deep inside a quiet old monastery where another of the four groups of Scythian objects is housed, the assembled pieces are casually splayed out on a long table.
Reeder bolts around the dimly lit room taking photographs and notes – trying to assemble that puzzle, but distracted by details, obstacles, and an annoying seam in the well-worn carpet that threatens to send her sprawling into the golden objects. Castro, however, is still – his eyes fixed on a thin slice of gold about the size of a Texas belt buckle. Kneeling near the table to examine the art, he is transfixed. He’s found the piece that is critical to a show like this because it tells the story of the people who created it. “Look at this, Ellen,” he says. “This is remarkable.”
Reeder kneels next to him, listens, then sits back on the floor and joins in, talking excitedly in her fast-paced, acrobatic way. She’s back – back in touch with the art-and she knows they’re on to something.
Castro talks about how this object, probably a decoration for a bowl or mug, reflects the Scythians’ nomadic lifestyle and the influence of other cultures. It’s raised design simply shows a bird, which the Scythians admired for it’s mastery of movement, but as you turn it, other birds grow out of the first – more motion, and the influence of Asian art with its evolutionary theme, here in the midst of work clearly linked to Greece.
he piece has a roughness, a bold theme and a distinctive beauty that perfectly captures the people who created it. That’s the story, he says – that’s what the show needs to be about. “I had been so focused on being the art historian and object person that I wasn’t paying enough attention to these people,” Reeder says now. “Alex helped me see the sense of movement in these pieces and the other influences on their lives. I had to establish who they were as a people before I could talk about their artistry.
Understanding that was a huge step” She was closer. By the summer of 1998, photographers had been dispatched to Ukraine for catalog photos. Reeder had begun consultations about the exhibit maps, which needed to show the Scythians’ ancient land and the new Ukraine, striving to be partners with the west. She was spending more and more time on her catalog, recruiting contributing writers, enforcing deadlines, editing, and beginning to organize her own thoughts for her keynote essay.
She also got speedy approval for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former classmate at Wellsley, to serve as honorary chair for the exhibition. In the midst of progress, however, another unforeseen and surprisingly stubborn obstacle: This time, Plexiglas. The Ukrainians had mounted many of the objects on it, and while for the Americans it was unattractive and difficult to use, the Ukrainians liked it and were reluctant to have it removed or covered.
They wouldn’t budge Until now, Reeder had done pretty well wrangling her way through these discussions – she had learned to use more than her charm and unexpected down-to-earth sense of humor to get her way. Each time she visited, she brought along a male colleague, for instance; although she took the lead, it seemed to put the Ukrainians at ease to know a man was seriously involved in the negotiations.
She chose seats with her back to the window, forcing the Ukrainians to squint to see her silhouette and putting her in an advantageous position. And she brought folders and placed them squarely on the table in front of her. (At a previous meeting, when she had produced such a folder and kept a finger on it as she spoke, her opponents’ tone changed. One Ukrainian simply circled the room nervously.
A written record, she thought, worried Ukrainian officials, still fresh from the secret, threatening files of totalitarianism. Subsequently, they often came with folders themselves rather than simply the Walters notepads she’d given them in her on-going good-will gestures.) But nothing was working when it came to Plexiglas. Not even mention of her friend the First Lady, whose name Reeder sometimes invoked, knowing that the Ukrainians admired her because she’d visited and taken on some Ukranian causes, including the plight of rural Ukranian girls who answered ads for exciting work abroad and ended up as penniless prostitutes.
Then Reeder’s male associate for this trip, Ted Theodore,< who Reeder thought even looked Ukranian, tried something else: “The Plexiglas is a wonderful way to display these things,” he said suddenly. “But this art is so old, and Plexiglas is so modern. It doesn’t seem right.” As Nadia translated “modern,” the Ukrainians began to smile. And soon they were nodding in agreement. Plexiglas was no longer an issue, and Reeder had absorbed another lesson.
“It was brilliant,” she says. “I wish I’d thought of it.” Reeder had learned other lessons. In may, officials from the famed Grand Palais in Paris quickly agreed to host the show at a meeting with her and Walters’ Director Gary Vikan, surprising the two Americans. Vikan took his wife to dinner at a Parisian restaurant and celebrated. Reeder worried. “I knew that making that come to pass was going to sit on no one’s shoulders but mine and there was a long journey to get there.”
She was right. The negotiations with the Ukranains in late summer over the Paris venue proved difficult and despite her preparation, resulted in what she refers to as “a meltdowns.” But Nadia’s translation of her threat to “wash her hands” of the negotiations, was remarkably short. Reeder can hardly get through the story today – breaking into her contagious, laughter. “Nadia was done in a second. I asked what happened to all that I said. I couldn’t believe how short her translation was.
But her Ukranian counterparts got the message and the agreement was signed Meanwhile, there was still a lot of work being done, but it wasn’t all high-level meetings and glimpses of gold. And Reeder was in the middle of it.
She would plan the layout of the show with Castro, review the virtual exhibit that he developed and help him select fabric for the displays, guiding them through the Walters’ careful process of screening for material that would “off gas” and damage the objects. She would travel to the Ukraine to direct shots for the video accompanying the show and spend hours on the exhaustive catalog She’d work for weeks on the labels for the displays, one weekend facing 1000 pages of comments from experts on the label copy she’d written. She went to sleep at 4 a.m. that Sunday. There were thousands of details. Betsy Gordon, manager of the show, took phone messages from Reeder with long lists of to-do items. The record was 25. Just weeks before the show opens, she slips into another hands-on project that draws her. She is in the studio of noted Baltimore sculptor Rodney Carroll looking at horseheads he’s created for her for a display of bridle ornamentation. “There had to be horses.” The clay models are perfect, but something is bothering her. She recognizes that the display won’t be accurate if the pieces are simply stuck to the horses head. The horseheads need bridles So in the midst of a tornado of last minute details, just days before the show will be assembled, Reeder, covered in wet clay from fitting a prototype bridle to the clay model of the horsehead, is running back and forth between Carroll’s studio and her saddelry having bridles made for her friends the Scythians. Creating the opening show in San Antonio brings together all the other effort in a dash of effort – major construction, extreme care and speed in the movement and display of the objects and carefully planned, eye-catching design, all overseen by Reeder. But it all pays off. When the show opens, everyone, including the Ukranians, are pleased. At the opening, Reeder gets congratulations from all sides. But one sticks out in her head. Ukranian Ambassador Anton Buteiko at dinner sits with Reeder and tells her how much he likes the show and how important it is for his country, now the biggest country in Europe and the owner of third largest stockpile of nuckear arms to be recognized this way. The battle has been won. Ellen Reeder is shuffling quickly through a large stack of photographs at a small restaurant table commenting in clipped phrases, but affectionately like a parent with pictures of her child. She looks a bit more rested and laughs more easily than she had a month ago. She pauses for a moment between photos of her Ukranian counterparts, who she seems to hold no bitterness toward, and the crew assemblig the show, who she praises broadly. “I once heard someone talking about Hollywood say that with the bureaucracy and obstructions and the politics it’s a wonder good films are made. They said it simply requires someone with willpower. Exhibitions are a lot like that too. So often just sheer determination makes it happen..” end –
There is a chance that for decades we have developed a lot of things in our culture – from shoes to schools – with an incorrect basic assumption: that they should be designed around averages. And if you aren’t “average”, you probably have paid the price.
That’s message from Todd Rose and the folks at the Center for Individual Opportunity, who believe that we would be better off if we considered the individual and each person’s specific capacity rather than established expectations based on average standards.
The disciples of this theory are hoping to influence our schools, colleges and our workplaces to develop approaches that “ban the use of average.”
Rose, the author of the new book “The End of Average” is the head of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program and its Individual Mastery Project. His popular TED talk begins with a story about how designers of Air Force jets in the early 1950’s mistakenly used average body type specifications in the cockpits of the aircraft. The jets were not performing well, and they found that pilot bodies did not fit into the cockpit they designed – in fact, of the 4,000 pilots studied, none fit the dimensions.
“There was no such thing as an average pilot,” Rose says, noting that the Air Force then developed technology to fit individuals like the adjustable seats we take for granted in our cars today.
And Rose applies that to education. He notes that often students have a specific interest in an area, but are weak in others and can’t thrive in a system where expectations are that everyone is the same. A high number of gifted students with non-average profile get bored and drop out (he estimates 50,000 a year) and others never get to explore sa passion fully or reach their potential.
“We are losing our brightest minds,” he says. “We blame the students. We blame the teachers. We even blame the parents. But I think back to the Air Force example. And I can’t help but wonder how much of this problem is just bad design.” He says despite having a very diverse country, we still “design education for the average student.”
He believes colleges will undergo dramatic changes. “This work on individuality applies to the whole life cycle,” he says.
Rose, whose son took a gap year and benefited greatly from it, says we don’t give young people enough time or the resources to “find themselves,” then hold up college as the only – and best – options.
“We should be focusing on credentials and competency, but we aren’t, he says. It’s all going to change, though. As soon as Google stops caring about a diploma, it’s over.”
Rose thinks technology is the key – and gives an example of a student in a classroom he observed who was talented in science but had difficulty reading and was struggling. When the class began using a program that allowed students to learn online, he became the star of the class, he says.
“We gave him the learning equivalent of an adjustable seat and in return we got a glimpse of his talent,” he says. “Isn’t that what it’s all about.
What if the cure for cancer was in his mind. Who knows, but we became dangerously close to losing his talent before he left elementary school”.
Rose says schools have the technology or are gaining it quickly, but more resources should go toward applications that will allow students to learn and explore in the way they are most comfortable, a process he’d like to see designed and driven by the students themselves.
Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes, DE.
While detention remains a staple of student discipline across the country, many school leaders are looking at ways to modify the practice, or even replace it, with approaches that may be more effective at actually reducing bad behavior.
Classic detention, where bored students sit silently and unproductively in classrooms after school, has limited value as a disciplinary tool, says Alan Johnson, superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District near Pittsburgh.
“Detention quite literally becomes something that we can do to demonstrate that a code of conduct is being enforced,” Johnson says. “As for effectiveness, few principals have any expectation of that.”
African American and special education students faced disproportionate rates of exclusionary punishment, such as detention, according to a 2012 study—“Breaking School Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.”
It followed all Texas seventh-graders in 2001, 2012 and 2013, revealing students in detention were much more likely to be held back, drop out and be involved in a crime. It also found that use of detention varied widely, even among schools with similar demographics, and that detention did not improve academic performance of students.
School leaders are finding that changing how detention works may improve outcomes—as will broader, proactive disciplinary approaches that can reveal strained relationships with teachers or identify underlying problems with students’ emotional health, academic skills and home life.
Students reflect, teachers coach
Administrators may feel they have few remedies other than detention or in-school suspension for serious infractions, such as a fight, involving student safety. And detention (or the threat of it) can change the behavior of some students for the better—as long as it is paired with care and attention.
For instance, at Flathead High School in the Kalispell Public School District in Montana, some teachers serve as “personal academic trainers” during detention. They gather students together for small study hall sessions or mentor each student separately, says Peter Fusaro, Flathead High principal and president of the Montana Association of Secondary School Principals.
And at West Port High School in Marion County Public Schools in Florida, students who are disciplined must reflect on their actions by writing about what prompted their behavior, its consequences and how it could have been avoided, Principal Jayne Ellspermann says.
“When students make poor choices the most important thing we can do is help them not make the same choice in the future,” says Ellspermann, also president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “If time out of the classroom or after school is paired with reflection, it can make a difference.”
At Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, students who have misbehaved or need help with classwork are required to visit that teacher’s classroom during lunch period for coaching and tutoring.
This is a big deterrent for most students because they miss out on social time with friends at lunch. Richard Curwin, author of the book Discipline with Dignity, believes detention should only be assigned if a teacher is available to help the student one-on-one with class work.
Rewarding good behavior
Alternatives to detention generally involve a different philosophy about improper behavior and the students who exhibit it. But new approaches are sometimes difficult to implement. “They may require a lot in terms of budgets, staffing and time as opposed to simply writing a pass that says ‘be here at 3 o’clock’,” says Bryan Joffe, project director for education and youth development at the the American Superintendents Association.
But for districts willing to invest the resources, the new approaches show promise. Some of these new models are based on relationship building and social-emotional learning. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, also known as PBIS, is an increasingly popular approach that emphasizes avoiding bad behavior by rewarding good behavior.
When students behave badly at PBIS schools, the staff strives to keep the problem from escalating or interrupting instruction. Then they work to discover why the student was disruptive. Finally, they set behavior goals for the student, develop progress reports teachers can use, offer counseling or develop other specific guidance and evaluate results, according to The Center on Response to Intervention at the American Institutes of Research.
Another approach is to focus on good behavior. Several schools in the the Rapides Parish School District in Louisiana have developed “economies” in which fake money is given to students who follow rules or help others. The students’ earnings can “buy” extra treats at lunch or admission to special activities.
And Lowery Elementary School in the Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana reduced behavior issues by nearly 30 percent in one year using an application called Kickboard, which collects key data about behavior. The program allows teachers to report and track good behavior so top-performers can be acknowledged on a “leader board” display or during morning announcements.
The system also reports what students have behaved badly so teachers can intervene earlier to solve problems. The data identifies which students or groups are repeatedly causing trouble and can then be used to develop personalized behavior plans.
Restorative justice, another approach that has shown promise, brings teachers and students together to discuss specific incidents of bad behavior, analyze the consequences and find solutions.
For instance, in earlier grades a student might explain to classmates how bullying causes anxiety in the victims. In middle or high school, an entire class may talk about how instruction was disrupted by a student’s disrespectful behavior toward a teacher. In either case, victims describe how the event made them feel and the accused has an opportunity to reply.
After the program was implemented two years ago in Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, fewer behavior incidents were reported to the administration, says Deputy Superintendent Eric Gallien. In the Portland Public School District in Oregon, 95 percent of cases handled through restorative justice ended in an agreement between both sides and more than 100 days of suspension were avoided in a single year. In the Lansing School District in Michigan, the program resolved nearly all of the 522 cases presented over four years, avoiding 1,600 days of suspension.
Racine schools also have seen improved behavior after implementing programs that teach students social-emotional skills, such as how to resolve problems with peers and get attention in appropriate ways.
And at Pottstown High School in Pennsylvania, fighting incidents were cut in half and assignments to detention dropped from 168 to 37 over a two-year period, according to Stephen Rodriguez, who was principal of the the school when the program was implemented. “In a school actively using restorative practices, there is a reduction of all types of discipline issues,” he says. “We saw major results in our first year, and they stuck.”
With some school counselors responsible for up to 1,000 students, some districts have sought assistance from outside agencies. For example, Minneapolis Public Schools developed a program called School Based Mental Health in seven schools. Nearly 150 students were assessed by therapists from the outside agencies for mental health problems and received therapy from outside counseling services, and more than 100 educational programs about topics such as attention deficit issues or adolescent brain development were offered to staff.
However it’s done, finding constructive alternatives to traditional detention for troubled students is an imperative for all school leaders, says Curwin, the author. “Every educator must decide how much energy to invest in chronically-disruptive students,” he says. “However, we know that those we don’t reach are at a much higher risk of committing crimes or otherwise being drains on society. So although they take more time and creativity, reaching and influencing them is immensely important.”
James Paterson is a freelance writer in Delaware.
[hed] What’s behind bad behavior
Students who end up in detention more than just once or twice may be hungry for any kind of attention because they crave a relationship with a teacher or are neglected—or worse—at home, says Fred Hanna, author of the book Therapy with Difficult Clients.
“You will settle for bad food sometimes if that is all you can get,” says Hanna, who has taught classes on challenging teens at Johns Hopkins University. “For some kids, poor quality attention is better than none at all.”
Hanna recalls a young girl who had been in several foster homes who repeatedly challenged him in a group counseling session at an alternative school, but her behavior improved greatly as he developed a one-on-one relationship with her and gave her leadership opportunities. She helped him run the group and mentored younger students.
Off-task students also may be expressing frustration with their inability to succeed or even inciting a power struggle because “they worry that they do not really matter, so they are constantly doing things in an effort to influence others,” says Richard Curwin, author of the book Discipline with Dignity.
Detentions and suspensions have functioned as “rewards” for some students, according to a 2002 paper, “Suspensions and detentions in an urban, low-income school,” published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. The paper notes that students who receive detention – typically those exhibiting bad behavior or lack of effort, and more likely to be from low-income and minority families – may want a change of scenery from their classrooms.