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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Totem Pole and Symbol Management

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

     The totem pole arrived at school. The head custodian and I spent part of one Saturday painting wooden boxes. We had eight boxes, one for each of the eight junior high schools in the district. We painted each box the school colors of the corresponding school. We did not identify them by name. Then, in white paint, we painted the number indicating the percentage of learners at each school who passed all of their classes during the most recent six week marking period. For the first marking period that year we used figures from the end of the previous academic year. 
     Then we stacked the boxes on top of each other with the school with the lowest percentage (Mann) on the bottom. At the end of last year Mann only had 52% of the student body passing all of their classes.viii As soon as we finished we placed the totem pole smack dab in the middle of the busiest hallway intersection in the building, the front foyer and main hall. There would be no way that anyone would miss it.   
     That was it. No one else was informed of the significance of the totem pole. The structure even attracted the interest of the staff. Whenever anyone asked about it I simply told him or her that it would be revealed later in the week at the next academic pep assembly. 
     With an extremely competitive student body, you could imagine the feeling permeating the auditorium when the kids realized how they were at the bottom of all schools. I challenged them to put forth more effort at working smarter not harder. The totem pole would remain there all year with updates after every six week marking period. 
     This precipitated a flurry of responses. Teachers created hallway bulletin board displays based around Aim High themes. There were hot air balloons lifting academic progress, rockets blasting off toward success, and other interesting exhibits. 
     Perhaps the most significant change induced by the challenge was adopted by the football coaches. The head coach went out on a limb, against accepted logic, and instructed that the team would skip a practice each week and head to the cafeteria after school and hit the books instead of the tackling dummies. This was particularly noteworthy in Texas where football assumes mythic proportions in life and the length of a coaching career depends on wins and losses. The coach traded practices with study in hopes that it would serve the team better if more of them remained academically eligible than if they perfected techniques but had the team decimated by poor grades. (the team claimed the city championship at the end of the season) 
     I reinforced the coach. He knew that I played collegiate athletics and was an ardent supporter of sports. He also understood the bigger picture. I shared a copy of an article written by Senator Bill Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar from Princeton and a valuable member of a past New York Knicks NBA championship team.ix The piece was on the exploitation of athletes. The article emphasized that the odds of becoming a professional athlete were 10,000 to 1. It’s okay to dream, I reminded the athletes, but if you don’t get an education as a safety net for your future you may just end up being the star playing ball down at the park while you’re on your way to welfare agency. 
     To illustrate the point I imagined a scenario that would provide a concrete example. I read the article while box after box of toothpicks were piled up behind me. Once I finished reading, I place a single maroon (our school color) toothpick among in the stack of and asked an athlete to pull out the maroon stick blindfolded. They laughed at first, but when a volunteer failed to pick out the maroon toothpick their laughs turned into nervous chuckling. They now realized the odds against success would require them to become much more attentive. That’s a clear way to present a persuasive argument. 
     There was a sense of anxiety throughout the building on the eve of the local newspaper’s publication of the district wide results of the first marking period. We invited the superintendent to attend our academic pep rally the next day when the figures were unveiled. The totem pole was placed on the stage. The anticipation was genuine. 
     Without saying a word, the superintendent and I rearranged the boxes to demonstrate that we were not last anymore. At 64% we had surpassed one of the other junior high schools. The audience cheered. Many stood and applauded! Our work was far from finished, but confidence was climbing. We were Aiming HIGH.  

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