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Dream Teams: What Happens When Adults and Students Come Together to Shoot for the Stars?

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This post is by Tyler S. Thigpen, a Partner at Transcend, a national nonprofit focused on accelerating innovation in the core design of school, and a co-founder of MENTOR Georgia and The Forest School: An Acton Academy in south metro Atlanta.

What happens when kids graduate and high school is in the rear-view mirror? We hope they are prepared for the future and have good, healthy relationships to propel them into a successful adulthood. Yet it's well known that our current school systems aren't propelling enough students to earn college degrees and gainful employment.

What if, from an early age, there was a way to instill a different type of goal-setting, reflection, and mentorship that had the potential to change the way kids interact with their schoolwork and dreams for the future?

Earlier this week, Jeff Wetzler and Aylon Samouha shared on this blog about what we at Transcend think are Eight Great Leaps necessary for moving from outdated learning models to what the 21st century demands of education. Today, I'm going to dig deeper on the Third Great Leap (Learner's Role) and the Sixth Great Leap (Families' Role).

About the changing nature of learners' and families' roles in learning environments, Jeff and Aylon write,

In the old "school" model, learners were more positioned as obedient, passive recipients. Adults would set the direction, while students would comply or face punishment...In new models, young people have opportunities to be active drivers of their learning and leaders within their community. Learners drive their unique paths--moving at their own pace (based on mastery) and modalities through learning goals that matter to them, while shaping the broader learning community.

[In addition], [t]he traditional model of "school" was designed with parents and guardians at the periphery, as passive customers. Parents were inadvertently kept at a distance, making it hard for them to know how their students were doing, what they needed, and how to help. New models treat families and caregivers as active partners in their child's learning. They are deeply and regularly plugged into their children's goals, choices, progress, and needs. They are also clear on how to partner with educators to support the learning community.

One of Transcend's earliest partners, Achievement First Greenfield, developed an innovative new practice--"Dream Teams"-- to help learners and families embrace these new roles. Dream Teams are a community of champions (e.g., family members, peers, teachers, and community members) who rally around each child to help them articulate and pursue their greatest potential. Dream Teams are fully student-led, with the students themselves setting goals, reflecting, recruiting Dream Team members, facilitating Dream Team gatherings, and incorporating feedback. To see what this looks like in action, check out this video.

My own kids' charter school doesn't yet have Dream Teams, but my wife and I were totally inspired by Achievement First Greenfield's example. So we started our own, independently at first but with the eventual involvement of some our kids' school leaders. Here's what the Dream Team looks like in the lives of two of our sons, Oswin (10) and Linus (6).

Oswin and Linus each asked six people to be members of their Dream Team (including parents, a sibling, educators, and close family friends). Taking on the onus to lead, Oswin and Linus then asked the people on their Dream Team to come to a meeting at the beginning of their school year to share their strengths, goals, and dreams for the future.

Oswin shared that he wanted to be a YouTuber or coder for Apple. He also shared that he wanted to become better at math and writing essays, and to be more responsible.

Linus, our six-year-old, shared that he wanted to be a park ranger or a spy. (His mother and I are trying not to discourage his aspiring career in espionage.) He also talked about becoming better at writing and reading.

While they shared these things, they were offered encouragement, perspective, and support to pursue their goals. Each month they've checked in with each Dream Team member through phone calls, in person meetings, and video updates. To determine the content of these check-ins, my wife and I drew heavily on Lapan's (2004) social cognitive career theory, which attempts to clarify the causal pathways by which people can exercise personal agency in the planning, choice, and entry phases of their career development. Therefore, each time our children connect with their Dream Team, the group asks them questions about their learning experiences, their self-efficacy (what they think they're able to accomplish), and their outcome expectations (what they think will happen if they do certain things). At the end of this school year, they will hold another formal meeting to share updates on how the year went, what they learned, and where they hope to go.

It has been an amazing experience to see my own sons change as they were encouraged and surrounded by intentional communities that challenged them to become better every day.

From my wife's and my perspectives, the benefits that we hope can come from these caring communities are two-tiered. The first-tier aspirational benefits look like:

Trusting relationships. From a young age, kids begin to develop a series of trusting relationships with caring adults and peers. These are examples of healthy relationships we want our children to have and to look for as they get older.

Agency. Throughout this program, a kid has the ability to direct her own life. This gives her the responsibility to plan and dream what they want for the future while feeling empowered and equipped to make her goals actually happen.

Progress in goals. The students will make progress in their goals, as they have a team of people holding them accountable.

A second tier of benefits are harder to measure, but we and our kids' teachers have already seen increased growth in some of these areas:

Grit. Students with a team of people encouraging them to become the best they can be develop courage and grit early on. They know they have the support around them and that it's safe to try new things, to fail, and to admit when they need help.

Long-term thinking and goal-setting skills. By challenging kids to think about what they want to accomplish and how to make that happen, they are training to think about their future selves. These kids are at the center of making their own goals and monitoring their own progress.

Increased confidence. In these Dream Teams, students are challenged to talk about themselves, their strengths, and what they believe their futures could look like (including espionage!). They set and accomplish goals throughout the year, showing themselves that they are capable of achieving more than they imagined.  

Reflection/self-awareness. As students start each school year with an idea of what they want to accomplish and change by the end of the year, they are better able to evaluate, self-reflect, and look back each month and year. This sort of exercise creates kids who are willing to examine their successes and failures to improve themselves.

Family and community engagement. While families are often members of the Dream Team, it's an important aspect that other community members are involved as well (family friends, pastors/imams/rabbis, coaches, etc.). The engagement that this creates between the child and Dream Team is different in each relationship.

How do you implement this?

In a school, the Dream Team enables communication and teamwork among parents, teachers, and learners. Building it into the design is feasible and entails coordination from across every piece of the school system (vision, curriculum, assessment, budget, logistics, community practices, etc.). Achievement First Greenfield has shared about the cadence they've found helps make it a meaningful, embedded process. As a parent, you also can include the Dream Team into different parts of your family life and potentially embed this system into your family's core values. The process has been so great, my wife and I also plan to include a version of Dream Teams in our new school at Pinewood Forest in south metro Atlanta. Having a program like Dream Teams integrated into a child's school experience is an example of how educators can take the First Great Leap by designing learning environments that cultivate a broader set of student outcomes.

The greatest overall benefit to the Dream Team is what the students look like holistically throughout the journey of their education. By surrounding themselves with encouraging, important, loving people, kids can develop life skills and habits that follow them into their adult lives. The Dream Team develops students into strong adults who will positively influence their communities in the future.

 

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