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Developing Competence and Character Through a Culture of Challenge and Choice

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This post is by Ryan Maxwell, Senior Schools Director for the Midwest for EL Education, and a former instructional leader and language arts teacher at EL Education Schools in Chicago, Illinois, and Oakland, California.

Dolores turned to me and asked, "Maxwell, can I please read some poetry instead?  The kind like you read at the opening of class?" My seventh grade class was poised to select their literature study groups, selecting from classics of the young adult genre with titles from Walter Dean Myers, Sandra Cisneros, Jerry Spinelli, and others--high-interest and worthy texts to promote engaging student-driven discussions. And here was Dolores, the despondent, troubled, often hard-to-crack-through-her-shell Dolores, pulling me aside as my 25 students from the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California, weighed their choices based on the covers, our book walk, the previous student reviews of the books, and those social glances that said, "pick that one, we can hang out for the next 8 weeks!" (As if I didn't see those glances.) So here was Dolores with the hurt eyes asking me if she could read poetry, not one of those other options.

Maxwell photo.JPG

What's an English teacher to do?

"OK, Dolores," I responded, "but that will mean you will have to be in a literacy group with me. And I'm going to pick some challenging writers."

"OK, Maxwell," she replied, "we're straight. You got a deal."

Over the next eight weeks, in this EL Education school (formerly Expeditionary Learning) most of my students ran their own discussions in small groups, after reading, marking their texts and bringing their questions to their book partners. Meanwhile Dolores and I read poetry. Deep and complex poetry--the kind we English majors love for how it pushes our critical thinking and nuances of language. We started easily enough with some Langston Hughes, ramped it up with the voice of Luis Rodriguez and Sylvia Plath, and went into the labyrinth with Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and W. B. Yeats. With my eyes on the page and on the rest of the class in their discussions, Dolores dug in, dissecting and analyzing, bringing thoughtful questions to our discussion, taking another from me about the speaker's point of view or the poet's word play and working the poem further and further into her own meaning. Constructing an argument about the writer's intent, pushing back against my counter arguments, running over to other students to ask them to back up her written analysis about word choice and voice. "See, Maxwell?" she would say, sparring with me, "Virgil agrees with my evidence."

A few years later, after I'd said goodbye to my beloved Urban Promise Academy and moved back to the Midwest, a book came to me. In the Rio Grande Literature Review, Dolores's poetry. Published.

One key attribute of Deeper Learning is the tenet that students develop their academic mindsets through challenge. By taking on the work that seems impossible and then accomplishing it, students develop a strong belief in themselves. They see that the work they are doing has relevance to them, and when it isn't relevant, they advocate for work that resonates more deeply with their passions and the material conditions of their lives. Practitioners of Deeper Learning know that challenge is not daunting to students, but instead supportive and inspiring. Challenge dares students to build a skill set to tackle increasingly complex tasks and see their own competence grow with their efforts. And there is nothing students like better than a dare.

The development of this mindset in students is at the heart of the Deeper Learning in EL Education network schools and embedded in our open-access English Language Arts curriculum. EL Education students at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago create podcasts that feature the stories of community activists and effectively promote a day of non-violence in their neighborhood through community action. In Wisconsin, at Harborside Academy, high school students created a school garden project, lobbied that they could sell their food at the local farmers market, and then further advocated that the farmers market should accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) funds to make their healthy food available to more people as a part of their "Food and Justice for All" project. In Saint Louis, teachers of our ELA curriculum report with a smile their own amazement at how intensely engaged their students were when they tackled complex text about refugee children from Vietnam. At Detroit Achievement Academy, students in an EL Education school study innovators of industry from the past and then interview current innovators of social problems, creating an e-book about those citizen-leaders illustrated with portraits of the students' creation.

These inspirational projects have a deep root in EL Education. Our founding and lasting connection to Outward Bound brings with it the lessons of Kurt Hahn. As the founder of Salem School in Germany and Gordonstoun in Scotland, Hahn created educational experiences that ensured students created self-directed training plans, faced adversity in collaboration with others, and developed their character as much as their precision on academics. He knew that the rigors of challenge with the requisite support--but no more support than needed--would allow for students to develop an unshakeable belief in themselves and their ability to learn so that they could become ethical people and contribute in service to a better world. EL Education schools honor our roots with Kurt Hahn, Outward Bound, and our Design Principles by continuing to create intertwined learning experiences for students that promote character not only as a means to do well in academics but as a critical outcome of education, a central purpose of education. As researchers and writers in the field like Paul Tough have described, character is a propelling factor for students' academic success. At EL Education, we know that character is fostered through a positive school culture where students have a deep sense of belonging, competence, choice, and challenges worth daring for.

Dolores's rich analysis of complex writing, nuanced word study, and advocacy for a cathartic place to express the troubles of her own life are emblematic of the culture of growth that Deeper Learning creates. As she grappled through the nuances of meter and free verse, I found myself rushing back to my library to find our next more complex poem. I was surprised and delighted to watch how the challenge of complexity created a young woman increasingly more powerful in her critical analysis and sharp writing. She taught me that when planted in a culture of growth, challenge, and support, the challenges of rigor and complexity were enlivening and that she--and all of us--could do more than we think possible. In her own way, Dolores confirmed for me as a young educator the spirit of Kurt Hahn's words, that there is more in each of us than we know and "If we could be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less."

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