Positive Risk Taking?

It is amazing to learn what people carry with them  every day, hidden from view.  In fact, you might never really know until you ask them.  Generally speaking, when the topic of teenagers and risk is raised, it has a negative connotation; risk-taking by teens is usually regarded as something to be avoided.  Recently, we polled the Upper School students and asked their views on a different kind of risk taking.  In a survey, we asked them to:
“Describe a recent time when you faced a fear and took a positive risk.”

The students responded with a broad array of stories about times they had finally faced a fear that had been holding them back, a fear that in most cases they had held to themselves.  Their stories included times that they had chosen to risk failure by electing a more challenging course load, trying out a new sport or activity, or choosing the most rigorous Outdoor Experience option; to risk feeling exposed by speaking out on a controversial topic in history class or at church; to risk social rejection by standing up for a friend who was being treated poorly or asking to sit with a new group at lunch; to risk being alone by choosing to attend Waynflete and leaving old friends behind; and to risk emotional pain by learning to accept one’s own feelings or by confiding those feelings to another.

We also asked the students to explain what gave them the courage to take those risks.  In each of the instances listed above and in the many more that students related, they cited the importance of their parents, their friends, and trusted adults in helping them to choose to do the right thing.  They also noted the importance of their own internal capacity to push through fear of any kind.

The survey was the latest part of an extended conversation that we have been having with students this fall about the importance of taking positive risks in life in order to grow.  The conversation began at the opening Outdoor Experience meeting this fall when program coordinator Emily Graham asked the students to see their trips as an opportunity to “step outside of your comfort zones” whether by simply going on the trip, which is a big challenge for some, or, if being in the outdoors is not a challenge, by assuming a leadership role on the trip.  In my opening talk to students this fall, I recounted a time in my own high school career when I had let fear of failure hold me back academically, and I showed a video of a Hamilton College graduate delivering a speech on the importance of doing things not only “in spite of our fear” but also “because we are afraid.”  (Click here to read the text of my talk and to view the video of the Hamilton College speech).  Her delivery proved a powerful illustration of her message as she spoke forcefully despite having a profound stutter.  A couple of weeks ago, at the invitation of the Upper School advising team, Geoff Wagg spoke to the student body about a time when he took a positive risk.

After Geoff’s talk, we conducted the survey of US students cited above to find out what holds them back from taking positive risks and what helps them to push through.  (Click here to view a copy of the survey questions). Following are some of the results:

  • Seventy-seven percent of the students reported being held back in a significant way by some form of fear sometimes(60%), frequently (15%), or everyday (2%).
  • Of the fears listed that hold students back in a significant way, failure (64%) and social embarrassment (63%) topped the list followed by criticism (48%) and rejection (35%).  The other fears were indicated by 26% of the students or fewer.
  • Of the sources of support that help students overcome their fears and to take positive risks, family was ranked the highest, followed by the students themselves,  their friends, trusted adults, and inspiring examples of people that they don’t know.
  • Eighty-nine percent of the students reported being interested in building their capacities to take positive risks, with the bulk of them (47% of all students) reporting that they have already started pushing themselves to do so.  About a quarter of the student body reported that they are interested in building their capacity to take positive risks but have no idea how to do so.

The survey is probably not sophisticated enough to yield many scientifically valid conclusions.  Its data does, however, seem to indicate that various forms of fear do hold our students back from making some choices that would help them to grow.  In fact, the students even added to the list of things that hold them back, including a generalized feeling of anxiety.  The student response to the survey may even support the notion held by many that ours in an age in which a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future has caused a heightened anxiety that is inhibiting the ability of young people to thrive.  While there may not be much that we as the significant adults in the lives of our youth can do now to make the future more certain, we can certainly strive to empower them to take charge of their lives.  One way to do so is to help them to build their capacities to take the risks that will help them grow.

The survey data also shows clearly that parents are the most important force in the lives of young people.  While that fact does not surprise me, a reminder to you parents is probably refreshing, given that your children are of an age when they might not communicate that point on a regular basis.  The data also reveals the importance of supportive friends, which validates the work we do to cultivate a healthy social climate and respectful peer relations at school.  And the data shows the importance of trusted adults in the lives of our students, which certainly validates the work we do as a faculty to build relationships with our students.  In addition, the data also indicates an overwhelming interest among students in building their capacities to face up to fears and take positive risks, and many report that they are already trying hard to do so.  That is great news.

Risk-taking is a tricky subject with which to engage our students.  On one hand, there are many risk-taking behaviors that we actively discourage because they are unhealthy, self-destructive, or dangerous.  On the other hand, we don’t want our young people to be fearful of the world and become risk averse, because that would surely thwart their growth.  The survey data will be the focus of discussions by the Upper School team as we consider ways to continue to help our students to build their capacities to take positive risks.  We hope you as parents will help as well by continuing to point your children towards the opportunities that they have to grow and bolstering them in the myriad ways you do to seize the day.

Electing an Education: Reflections on Nearly Three Decades of Creating Curriculum at Waynflete

Lorry has been teaching English in the Middle and Upper School at Waynflete since 1987, inspiring her students to love literature, training them to read and write and helping them to discover their own voices.

After a move to a new home this summer, I spent a good deal of my time unpacking boxes of books. I performed this task with my usual sense of literary organization, cataloging fiction from memoir and poetry from drama. I continued filling shelves designated for male, female, foreign, in translation and in a foreign language. But one large box was labeled “Upper School Electives,” and these well-worn books needed a different rule of order, for they are separated in a more eclectic and far-reaching category than all the others.

It has been a privilege teaching in the Waynflete English department where junior and senior electives create this interesting collection of titles. When the department considers classes for elective choices, we discuss books within the canon and more contemporary titles. Literature is chosen to represent region, genre, style, gender, ethnicity, historical era and thematic idea – often creating a specific reading list that reflects all of all these descriptors. Southern Literature is a class that typifies this model. The reading focuses on the voice of the American south with speeches by Sojourner Truth and drama by August Wilson, novels by Toni Morrison and poetry by James Dickey. With our alternating years of World and American literature, students have the choice to move around the globe. For example, through its study of fiction, film, and historical documents, African Literature examines the experiences of cultures throughout the continent from the time of first contact with Europeans through conquest, colonization, and independence, tracing the efforts of the indigenous African people to re-imagine post-colonial identities in the context of a modern and increasingly globalized world.

In developing elective classes, teachers are encouraged to pursue their passions and interest, bringing personal and professional energy to the teaching curriculum. When I first taught Literature of the Holocaust, I used this elective to further my research and writing. This research became the foundation for a published guide for teachers on the Holocaust of World War ll, which I completed during a sabbatical.  I soon enlarged the curriculum to include genocide of the world, both past and present. The class examines the historic relevance of genocide in the contemporary world with readings about Rwanda, Nigeria, Armenia and Haiti.

The elective system at Waynflete has also afforded me the good fortune to co-teach Word and Image with Judy Novey, the chair of the Visual Arts department, This unique and interdisciplinary class was created from our shared fascination for the representative ideas in the visual and written arts. With one-of-a- kind artist books, students combine the imagery that illuminates a visual and written idea. The bookmaking poses the challenge of thinking about expressing self with poetry and personal essay in combination with drawing, painting and photographic imagery. The bookmaking answers the essential questions, What is the meaning of metaphor in both the visual and written arts? How does form reflect content? The emergent books are examples of multiple intelligences working together, challenging students to use words, images, and book binding to simultaneously create their ideas and hone them.  See the embedded picture gallery for a sampling of the books.The most essential quality of our elective program is the opportunity it creates for students to choose their classes, and this extends to all departments in the Upper School. Choice empowers their learning and creates a challenge to invest in the expectations of the class. Electives teach students to plan a balanced transcript that includes writing, reading and research. Students benefit from the depth of study and sequence of Biology to Advanced Biology. Environmental Science uses our school and larger communities to examine our global footprint. Language students move through challenging composition, film and literature classes in expanding their oral skills. Interdisciplinary classes in the visual arts and English and History help students expand their critical thinking in the liberal arts.The elective program of our Upper School holds unique benefits for our students. I have witnessed the energy and enthusiasm of a junior who selected Literature of Vietnam in order to further his discovery of his family’s experience as political refugees to this country. One of my advisees who returned from a term at the Chewonki Semester School as a junior was able to further her growing personal commitment to the environment by electing Environmental Science. Students make important decisions in choosing elective classes, which provide the opportunity to dig deeply into specific worlds of interest while still creating a solid academic foundation necessary to move forward beyond the Waynflete experience.

When I held in my hands this past summer the well-annotated books of all the classes I have taught in the Upper School, I recognized the choices I have been able to make as a teacher: to pursue what I did not know, to develop my interests, and to learn from others. It occurred to me then that I, too, have received a Waynflete education.

Upper School Students Watch a Texting and Driving Documentary

Given the temptations and dangers of texting and driving to everyone, including young drivers, we decided to show the entire Upper School student body a segment of the documentary on the subject, From One Second to the Next, created by the famous film director, Werner Herzog.  Our plan is to show it on Thursday, October 24 to the 10th and 11th grades in small groups and to follow the viewing with a discussion.  We will show it to the seniors next week and to the 9th grade in the spring in Seminar as part of the risk-taking unit.

Here is the link to an NPR story about the film.  The film itself is linked to the story.  We hope you all will take the time to watch it and talk about it with your children.

GLTR Successfully Hosts First Screening in the Country for Girl Rising

Last Thursday, the Girls Leadership Group celebrated a significant turnout for the screening and discussion of the film Girl Rising- a new film highlighting the tragic fact that 66 million school age girls are out of school worldwide. Many girls, like Suma from Nepal, are required to work or care for young children, others, like Wadley, an 8 year old from Haiti, are too poor to afford school fees.  Each of the 9 girls was paired with a writer from her own country who was willing to spend time witnessing the girls’ day-to-day lives. Says Maddy Pellow, junior and student leader of GLTR, “The film made a point of showing hope within the most dire situations, it demonstrated that there is a chance for happy endings and we can all help to achieve them. Additionally, it showed that this is not just an issue for girls and women because in many of the stories it is the men who made the biggest positive impacts in their daughters’ and sisters’ lives and futures.”

Several of the girls’ struggles were about the fight to get back into school after being told or forced to leave. During the film debrief, the story of Malala Yousafzai came up, along with her recent remark on the Daily Show, “You don’t know what you have until it is snatched from you.” Malala was forced to leave school by the Taliban and shot in the head when she spoke out about it. She is now an author and spokesgirl for girls’ education in Afghanistan.  Sophie Raffel, a senior who helped to facilitate the discussion after the screening, was optimistic about the film’s impact.  “I hope Girl Rising will inspire more girls to create change, whether it be through large or small actions. Inspiring more girls to lead movements inside the classroom, the office or the government, will change the world.”

A major theme in the film is the high return on investment for a country’s economic development when girls are educated. When girls receive education and find themselves with more opportunity, it has an impact that reaches further than a single individual: political climate, economic stability, and the overall health of a nation’s population are affected positively.  “Girl Rising exposed the statistics surrounding women’s education in a more impactful way putting a face to numbers which are sometime hard to comprehend. Hopefully, this movie will impact other students, both boys and girls, around the world with the same immediacy” remarked Vanessa Van Deusen, a senior who is new to GLTR. The film has been a catalyst for discussions about future activism in GLTR, and the group is considering ways to sponsor a girl’s education through the Girl Rising movement.

GLTR thanks all those who attended, as well as CIEE, a partner in the Girl Rising movement, who made the film available for the screening at Waynflete.  Over 2,000 screenings are planned worldwide this year in the hope that a broader social movement will be generated and ensure basic human rights and a brighter future for all girls.  More information about the movement can be found at the Girls Rising website at http://www.girlrising.com/


Changing the court system to help young offenders

One of the largest and most pressing issues inMaine is the problem of over-incarceration. I believe the solution is criminal justice reform and the reduction of recidivism.

Most people interested in such things have heard of “the revolving door,” symbolizing the perpetual cycle of convicted people through the phases of our flawed justice system: get caught, receive your sentence, do time, leave jail with little support, repeat.

From the very moment the judge pronounces you guilty, your chances of returning to jail or prison within three years increase by a staggering 43 percent, according to a 2011 Pew Charitable Trust survey.

This is simply not an acceptable statistic, and only contributes to other dismal statistics such as prison costs, unemployment and homelessness.

Our judicial system cannot continue as it has while people continue to cycle through jails and prisons.

What do we do? The answer is start early.

At-risk youth are one of the most important targets to address so that, in later years, these young men and women can contribute positively to society, not become another passenger in the revolving door.

Last summer, an organization called Youth Move Maine decided this issue was simply too important to ignore. A grant and two employees later, the Maine Youth Court was born, to directly tackle the enormous issue of how to reduce recidivism and get kids back on the right path.

Youth court is one of the many national initiatives to recognize that, in order to change such a drastic and long-term issue, one must think a little bit outside of the box. We can’t change anything until we change the system, or at least provide an alternative to the standard judicial process.

Additionally, youth court tackles a problem with growing recognition: the harmful practice of suspension or expulsion from school.

If an adolescent has committed a crime, ejecting and isolating this individual from their school community or extracurricular strengths has a backwards effect: It only increases the likelihood that the teen will repeat his or her behavior.

At-risk teens are often faced with myriad problems that require support, whether the issue is family life, substance abuse or peer pressure, and in order to truly address the root of one’s “bad” behavior so that it does not occur again, we have to provide this support and strengthen a youth’s bond with his or her community.

That is exactly what youth court does. Its process involves referrals of first-time high school- or middle schoolaged youths who have committed minor infractions such as possession, vandalism or theft. The youths are diverted — either directly by their schools as an alternative to suspension or expulsion; or by police officers, juvenile community corrections officers or the court — from a traditional punitive process. Youth court procedures also do not appear on a youth’s permanent record.

The most unique aspect of youth court is that it is nearly entirely youth-run. High school volunteers perform as advocates or judges to complete a hearing in which a disposition is decided for the young defendant known as a “respondent.”

The disposition can include anything from letters of apology, mandated weekly time with mom, or playing basketball with the younger members of the Boys and Girls Club. The disposition is created by judges with four fundamental goals:
  • repair the harm done by the crime;
  • build knowledge, skills and resources for the respondent;
  • create connections for the youth in his or her community and family; and build strengths by customizing the disposition according to interests or strengths.
The respondent is given three months to complete his or her disposition; incompletion could result in a return to the court, the school or wherever the first alley of punishment was.

The purpose of youth court is to provide an environment where youths are truly given a voice, and to create an alternative plan to a punitive sentence which focuses on education and fostering stronger relationships and values.

I have been a youth court volunteer since December 2012.

I must confess that, initially, I was not a believer.

And that is one of the major issues with creating true change in the criminal justice system. This nation has become so universally accustomed to the status quo that many have come to accept the revolving door not as a clear indicator of a major error in our system, but as “just the way it is.”

Working with youth court has been eye-opening. Contrary to the cynical voice of 2012 in the back of my mind, the process actually works.

One success story is the case of “Chris,” who was caught for possession and use of marijuana on school property. His high school awarded him “student of the semester” before his youth court disposition had even been completed.

No, youth court is not Maine’s silver bullet, but without these grassroots movements contributing town by town, county by county, how are we ever going to see true change?
If you aren’t quite a believer yet, you can read more about the program and the upcoming training for it in the Bath- Brunswick area at www.midcoastcasa.org.

SOPHIE RAFFEL is a student at the Waynflete School, an intern with the American Civil Liberties Union and a volunteer for the Maine Youth Court.