At the Workshop, we spend about the first month of the school year building community: Defining what we value as a group, exploring what makes us who we are as individuals, and learning to share that with one another. We’re getting to know one another, and trying to send and reinforce the message that our students have a lot of say in what kind of community we become.
There’s a lot going on in those first few weeks, but a huge part of the work at that point is beginning to build trust among the students and staff. It’s a yearlong process, but establishing a foundation is critical.
Why trust above everything else? Because without it, nothing else works.
We want our students to get better in reading, writing, and problem solving. And we want them to learn a whole bunch of math, science, and social science they didn’t know before. But if they are going going to succeed beyond high school, we need for them to build a sense of ownership and accountability for their work, to be able to objectively analyze what they don’t know or are not good at, and to be willing to take chances, struggle and even fail, sometimes publicly. They need to be able to work hard and smart, with no supervision.
Most our students have never been asked to do that before. For many it is a wrenching experience. When they come to school, they bring with them a lifetime of being judged, often harshly and unfairly. Failure and struggle, in their view, only invites further castigation. Some shut down (in a few cases literally – we’ve had kids basically go catatonic on us). Some freeze, paralyzed by anxiety. Some act too cool for school, investing little time or energy in the work and subtly (or not so subtly) trying to undermine the work of others. Some get angry.
Without trust, we don’t get past any of this. Feedback is heard as judgment. Not knowing something is a vulnerability. Struggle, especially of the public variety, is to be avoided at all costs. Self-criticism is an unthinkable risk.
So every day, we work on building relationships. At graduation last year, the two most common remarks from our students were that school felt like a family, and that they had learned about the importance of failure. More than college matriculation or test scores or even student writing, it’s what told me that we had accomplished something remarkable.