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4 Easy Ways To Help Students Believe in Themselves
April 19th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson
Why Do We Focus on the Negatives?
The thing that frustrates me the most in life is negative self-image. In our culture, people often struggle to acknowledge their strengths and passions. They focus on weaknesses. It’s so bad that people often warp their strengths into sounding like weaknesses! Being “outspoken” turns into “I talk too much”. Being a “planner” turns into “I’m not spontaneous”.
I see this throughout our society. Where I see it the strongest is within schools.
Students are disengaged, disconnected, and struggle to find their value. It can show up as behavior problems or academic failure. Rarely is it a problem with the student’s ability to learn or interact with others. They act out and struggle because they don’t see value in themselves.
Maslow’s Hierarchy and How it Affects Students
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a popular tool used in sociology research, psychology training, and even management coaching. The insight is simple and profound – to reach our highest potential, we need to first have esteem for ourselves. To gain esteem, we must feel we our accepted by our peers. But we can’t process acceptance if we don’t feel safe, and we can’t even meet that need if food and shelter needs are not met. Without a base, students can’t aspire for higher levels.
Put simply, students can’t self-actualize and reach their full potential overnight. It takes work getting there.
Here is my question: do you think students are self-actualizing and reaching their full potential? Do you think they have esteem for themselves? Are they even socially accepted by a group of friends in school or their community? The more students I meet across the nation, the more I begin to doubt it. I think many students feel uncomfortable in their schools because they don’t feel like they belong. They don’t feel like they have value.
So how can we turn around students? What is the point of trying to get students to self-actualize if they haven’t even felt accepted yet? What is the point of launching a new STEM lab if students feel like they are outsiders? What is the point of bringing community-based companies to talk about careers if students think they won’t amount to anything in life? What is the point of encouraging students to “be the best they can be” when they think their best will never be good enough?
What is the point?
There is nothing wrong with STEM labs and career days and pushing students. Before we can do that, however, first we must convince students that they have value.
Change the Conversation: A Focus on Positives
“Jack, you seem like someone who gets the details right and are passionate about learning everything there is to know about how to play soccer better – and I think that is fantastic.”
Students need to hear affirmation. Not only do they need to hear that they are valuable, but they need to hear why they specifically have and bring value to others.
It’s a simple thing – and it takes time. But it pays dividends. I have watched students transform over the course of months when educators, leaders, and mentors speak life into them. I have seen them start to see themselves as people with something to give the world. They come alive. They transform.
So how do we do it? Here are just four ideas:
Here are 4 easy ways to help students feel their value:
1. Turn a Weakness into a Strength:
I once met a student who loved anime – but he felt awkward talking about it. It felt uncool. So I flipped the script on him. I talked about how watching anime was exposing him to Japanese culture and helping form an international perspective. I turned what he thought was a weakness into a strength no one else in the room possessed.
2. Push an Opportunity:
One of the students I knew well was complaining that he had to find a summer job. He goes to camps frequently, and didn’t know how he could find a job that would fit his schedule. So I pushed an opportunity on him and led with a strength. “Blake, have you thought about teaching English online? It’s really flexible hours, you can do it from home, and I feel like you would be great working with kids who are trying to learn English. You are a naturally patient guy." It doesn’t matter if he does or doesn’t do it. He heard affirmation.
3. Challenge Them:
Sometimes I run into students who seem defeated. They have thrown in the towel, and given up on being a leader, or an engineer, or friendly - fill in the blank. They are stuck in an unhealthy self-pity cycle. Push back against these students. “I’m going to challenge you on that. You think you’re not an influence, but I see students every day follow you around and model your behavior. What do you call that?”
This only works with some students – but when it works, it is an effective wake up call.
4. Put Up Circles:
I saw this for the first time at a school recently, and I love the concept. It’s the reverse of a “put down”. You circle up the classroom, the group, or even the whole school. Students and teachers give call outs to each other for specific things they did that week that were great and helped the community.
Not every school will have the time to fit this into their schedule. But even if you do this as just an individual teacher, it can set a cultural tone of, “You have worth. You have value.”
This is why my favorite part of my job is when I am in front of students, especially ones I get to see consistently. I get to play a small role in seeing this transformation happen. It’s powerful.
Indigo transforms schools and districts. That’s part of the vision. We work at the administrator, faculty and student levels. On the ground with students, however, we are helping fight a much grittier battle. We are fighting to get students to acknowledge their own worth. We are fighting to get students to love themselves.
It’s hard work. But it’s the basis of any meaningful change we can make happen in a school.
There are Better Answers than the "No Excuses" Model
March 23rd 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson
Almost two months ago, The New York Times released a video of a first grade teacher at Success Academy in New York City berating her students. The teacher, frustrated, tore up a student’s homework and told her to go to the calm down chair. “There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”
Nothing personal, but it sounds like the teacher needs to go to the calm down chair more than the student.
The teacher in question was suspended from the school for a little less than two weeks before being reinstated. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy, defended her.
Parents are outraged at the video – but not for the reasons you would think. At a press conference the school held, parents were actually angry against The New York Times.
The video has sparked a larger conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of strict discipline in schools. One of the leading voices in the argument acknowledging the gray zone in the issue is Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green.
One of the chief conditions is an education philosophy called “No Excuses.” “No Excuses” advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning. It pushes students by giving no room for them to not give it their all. However, it can be argued that this makes the learning environment become hostile. Success Academy was in the news less than a year ago because students were wetting their pants during standardized tests. They didn’t want to lose time going to the actual restroom.
Do you want that in your school?
I understand that it is easy to criticize a school from the comfort of an online blog post. I won’t be so blind as to suggest students do not sometimes need to be addressed differently in certain behavioral situations. I also won’t be so dogmatic as to claim that this video discounts all positive impact this 34-school New York City charter network is having. Discipline, when facilitated in a healthy way, begets respect, temperance and character.
But here is a question I would pose to you: what if there is another way to instill these positive characteristics in students without an authoritarian approach? How can discipline dovetail with a healthy learning environment?
Replacing Punitive with Restorative
Schools are environments that deliver not only learning in the core subjects, but in all areas of life. It’s where we grow the next generation of citizens. So let’s capitalize on that – how can schools do discipline in a way that is conducive to the growth of our children and also teaches them how to later carry out discipline in society when they are grown?
Some of the schools we work with have a restorative justice program. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community involved. It focuses on learning to prevent the issue from reoccurring. For example: instead of suspending a student for saying something racist against Latinos, mandate that they go to two Hispanic events in the community and use what they learned to write an apology letter.
We are inspired by their approach – and we want to take it a step further. In the personalized learning system we are launching in the coming months, we want to give schools the option to explore how they want to improve their discipline and character development. It’s our hope that some schools will go a step farther and launch student committees that are in charge of creating restorative justice opportunities for their peers that help them grow as individuals and as a community.
It will be a challenge to make this shift. Not every Indigo school will want to make it – or they may have even greater needs that must be addressed first. But these are the types of questions we are constantly asking ourselves at Indigo: What are better ways for schools to get to their objectives? What are better ways for schools to get to even better objectives?
We are trying to find solutions so that we don’t live in a world where teachers feel like they need to yell at their students in the first place. There are answers – and we will find them.
Personalizing School Culture Causes Radical Transformation
March 14th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson
Your School is Struggling? Tacking on a New Computer Lab is not the Answer
I remember when my district began introducing smart boards into my high school. Teachers fought for a classroom outfitted with the new technology. Educators began to build lesson plans around the boards, excited as they imagined how students would gape in awe at the digital equivalent of a whiteboard.
However, as a current high school student at the time, I remember how my friends and I actually responded. A lackluster comment here, a raised eyebrow there, and any interest the smart board may have initially garnered dissipated within a matter of weeks. Math was still math, whether you wrote it with a dry-erase marker or a digital marker (we frequently mixed up the two types of markers, much to my teachers’ chagrin).
In college, the same trend continued. I remember how bullishly the journalism school fought for students to get iPads. The professors felt like rock stars handing out 100 iPads in a lecture hall – their class had now been validated as a “cool” place to learn because of 1:1 hand-held technology in the classroom. I am remember looking quizzically at the fresh iPad with a university branded cover, tossing it in my bag, and then opening up my computer where all of my files were stored. The majority of students followed the same behavior.
Technology in schools is a boon for innovation – new tech brings new applications and options for educators. However, smart boards and iPads are not the solutions – they are not the independent variables that drive educational outcomes. You need to go deeper than surface-level tech plugins to impact schools in meaningful ways.
Put simply, technology needs to be married with personalized learning. Schools need to be using more applications that facilitate tailoring pedagogy, curriculum, school culture, and even the school environment to students. Any technology that doesn’t contribute to personalizing learning holds little to no value in improving the quality of education.
Personalized Learning – Why it’s Important, Why it’s Hard, and What We’re Doing About It
Personalized learning means diversifying academic instruction, strategies, and experiences to meet the unique strengths and needs of individual students. In short, it’s the transition from a one-size-fits-all teaching approach to inviting students to help co-create their own education. It's the power of listening for how students actually want to learn, and building a path that makes sense for each individual.
Although the modern wave of personalized learning is still nascent, schools that take on personalizing learning are seeing tangible impacts in their classrooms. Schools that are taking personalized learning are seeing major shifts such as 20% more students pursuing college and 14% more satisfactory grades across the board. Personalized learning isn't just an interesting trend, it's something that is unlocking student potential across schools.
In reality, however, personalized learning is difficult to implement because educators cannot copy and paste successful initiatives from one school to another. Since successful personalized learning is tailored toward an individual school’s culture and students, there’s no guarantee of repeated outcomes from any schools attempting to mimic them. While there are models that exist to help guide schools through the conceptual path, there is no easy solution. Because of this, 78% of teachers say meeting the personalized learning needs of students is too difficult.
So how does technology come into play with personalized learning? Schools are in need of technology that gives them more avenues to reach students. Cloud technologies and products that track meaningful student data provide new, innovative, low-cost avenues to make personalized learning possible in all types of school – from upper-end private schools in California to inner-city public schools in Detroit.
Technology that helps schools personalize education is what we need– but what does that technology look like? How do schools avoid throwing EdTech products at their teachers until something works? How do education leaders cobble together a series of ideas and philosophies that actually fit their students without getting frustrated by trial and error?
At Indigo Project, we believe that the most crucial piece of any personalized learning initiative is knowing the answer to the following three things:
- Who are the administrators? How do they like to work?
- Who are the teachers? How do they like to teach?
- Who are the students? How do they like to learn?
We help schools find the answers to all three with the Indigo Assessment, a corporate-level assessment that measures the Behaviors, Motivations, Skills & Strengths, and Social Emotional Health of each individual. We test everyone – from the youngest freshmen to the most tenured administrator – and use the data to paint a picture of the school body. Once you understand who the administrators, teachers, and students are, how they operate, and what they want, you can start effectively personalizing the school to fit its people.
We’ve worked with more than 30 high schools and universities – more than 8,000 students and teachers. Below are three stories from schools that began to personalize their schools based on Indigo’s data and saw their schools begin radical, positive transformation.
Pinnacle High School – Identifying Leaders
In Pinnacle High School in northern Denver, Principal Todd Bittner and his teachers are using Indigo to identify potential leaders who may otherwise go unnoticed. Teachers are pulling in “problem students” into their office hours to talk about their strengths, skills and passions, and connecting them to clubs and opportunities where they can put those strengths to use in a positive way. For example, one teacher looked up the Indigo Report of a student causing issues in his class and discovered one of his top skills was leadership. Instead of shutting him down, he decided to give him a leadership position in the classroom and it transformed the entire dynamic of the class. The student went from being a “problem” to being an engaged, positive example of a leader.
“It’s giving students confidence,” Principal Todd Bittner said. “They start thinking ‘maybe I can go to college’ – Indigo is giving us hope.”
The Academy – Change School Culture
Indigo has the potential to change the whole culture in a school. At The Academy, Principal Cody Clark is giving students control of clubs and activities and watching the community thrive. The Indigo test identified that his students want to give back and make a positive impact in the community – and so he started providing opportunities to do just that. As a result, coat drive donations went up, food drive donations went up, the student council doubled the attendance at the homecoming dance, and classroom behavior referrals went down 50%.
“This has been transformational for the school,” Clark said. “It breaks down barriers.”
Peak to Peak – Building Strengths Improve Grades
Helping students understand their strengths improves academic performance. At Peak to Peak High School, Counselor Kimberly Gannett ran a 10-week group with failing sophomores. They all took the Indigo Assessment before beginning the group. Each week, they focused on the different strengths in their Indigo Reports and how they could use them in their school and in their futures. As a result, at the end of ten weeks the number of failing grades in the group went from 30 grades to only 3 grades.
“I really do feel it was the first time for those kids in their entire lives where we focused on what they were good at instead of what they were failing,” Gannett said. “I’ve never seen a change like that in my 20 years of education.”
The common denominator of change wasn’t new technology; it was creating opportunities for students that let them take charge of their education. If you give students the opportunity to connect their strengths to your curriculum, leaders emerge, referrals go down, and failing grades disappear. It’s all about leveraging your resources to create learning opportunities that make sense for students.
Indigo does use technology in our process – our assessment and online cloud-based platform are key parts of how we execute. Although they are key parts of what we do and help catalyze change, educators don’t walk away praising the tech. They walk away in awe that they found answers to the three questions Indigo solves when we begin working with any school – they discover who are their students, who are their teachers, and who are their administrators.
Indigo is pushing our schools into new territory. We’ll be launching a long-term personalized learning plan that will use our data as a base to guide schools to the next level of personalized learning; students and teachers will be working together to set school culture, seniors will be teaching social emotional resiliency to freshmen, and all students will be advocating with their community and school to find opportunities that enhance and push forward their studies in impactful ways.
As we continue to grow and add tools to our arsenal, however, we fight to make sure we don’t lose sight of why our work is important. It’s not because of the tools, the gadgets, and the plans. It’s important because of what that helps schools accomplish. We don’t celebrate Indigo’s accomplishes – we celebrate the accomplishments of schools like Pinnacle, The Academy, and Peak to Peak.
Indigo isn’t another EdTech thing to slap on the wall next to the smart board. It’s a process that engages with the one thing in school that’s not going out of style anytime soon – people.