Awards! Awards Everywhere! (Or, the UK's Awards System)

The UK loves awards even more than Texas.

Everywhere I've gone, I've seen posters listing requirements for awards, worksheets students can fill out to receive awards, advertisements for how programs can help students win awards, etc. Interestingly, most of them seem to be focused on personal improvement, as opposed to being "the best" at a particular skill. They help students identify areas of interest, learn how to teach themselves skills, research future opportunities, and plan and execute their own independent projects. I've long believed that the most important skill teachers can teach is autodidacticism. But how exactly does one teach that? I think that all of the awards in the UK (and the importance that teachers, admissions officers, and employers ascribe to them) go a long way towards teaching students how to be autodidacts.

The most well-known award seems to be the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. You can start working towards this award if you're between the ages of 14 and 24. There are various tiers of award (gold, silver, and bronze) depending on how old you are. There are specific ways for students to upgrade from one tier to the next as they progress through their secondary school careers. All of the awards center on achievement in four areas: volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition. Students looking to receive the gold Duke of Edinburgh's (DofE) Award also have to complete a residential requirement. Students need to volunteer with a charitable organization for twelve months to be eligible for a gold DofE award. (There's an opportunity board on the DofE website that helps connect student volunteers and organizations.) Students need to participate in some kind of athletic activity (team sports, fitness, extreme sports, martial arts, dance, etc.) to meet the physical requirement, and they need to join an after-school club or develop their own skills enrichment program in a topic that interests them (performing arts, science and technology, media and communications, board games, etc.).* They need to focus on one of these areas (either physical or skills) for twelve months and the other for six months. For expedition, students need to explore the great outdoors -- hiking, cycling, or boating -- and complete a project based on their experience. Two suggested projects were "planning a route around three of the places that inspired Wordsworth's poems in the Lake District" and "using the cycle system in the Netherlands to undertake a research project on the provisions and quality of cycle paths compared on Britain." Students need to be out in the wilderness for four days and three nights.

* Possible skills listed on the DofE website include: taxidermy, (underwater) basket weaving, dowsing and divining, snail farming, historical period re-enacting, and snack pimping. What is snack pimping? How does one become a snack pimp? Can I be a snack pimp?

Finally, students aiming for the gold DofE need to complete a residential requirement, which means that they have to be away from home for five days and four nights (presumably to prepare them for university life). The course website encourages students to participate in residential experiences that promote service (like "rebuilding a school roof in Lesotho"), learning (like "improving your Spanish language skills on a course in Madrid"), activities (like "going white water rafting in New Zealand past glaciers and mountains"), and environment and conservation (like "doing dry stone walling in the West Tyne Valley in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall"). Again, there's an opportunity board on the website that connects students with possible residential opportunities. Clicking on the board this afternoon, I found an opportunity being advertised to create a Viking performance in the Lake District. That's right. A Viking performance. Tell me that you don't want to start your Duke of Edinburgh's Award journey RIGHT. NOW.

While some components of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award might seem expensive (like the residential requirement), I scanned the opportunity board and found that most of the residencies are located right here in the UK and cost about £300. You can find less expensive ones (usually on nature preserves) or more expensive ones (usually abroad). However, you don't need to be "minted," as the British might say, to receive your gold DofE. Although I think being "skint" might be a bit prohibitive. Luckily, registration for the DofE only costs £20-27 depending on your award level.

Awards in the UK aren't just limited to the DofE. There are other programs like the Arts Awards and the Dynamic Youth Awards. The Arts Awards, especially at the higher levels, emphasize designing and leading your own arts project. The Dynamic Youth Awards (which seem to be only available in Scotland) are for students ages 10+ and require a minimum of five hours of work. I like the Dynamic Youth Awards because everyone has five free hours in their schedule and since there are so many free enrichment programs available for young adults, it makes the award achievable, even for students who aren't necessarily "all-stars" in their schools or who come from low-income communities. Essentially, the Dynamic Youth Awards reward students just for trying out a new extracurricular activity or exploring an academic interest. It dangles awards in front of students to help them become more well-rounded or to help them discover interests that could lead them down a career path. And we know that dangling awards works. Just look at Texas. (If you don't know anything yet about Texas's one-act festival, it's the competition that has turned theatre education into a cornerstone of the Texas education system. Seriously. I know that blue states might be reluctant to ask their red state neighbors for advice on the arts -- but Texas, Florida, and Georgia are leading the pack in theatre education. We need to be adapting their best practices all across the US.)

Find below the poster for the Arts Awards' Journey Gold Level and the Challenge Sheet for the Dynamic Youth Award. I first saw the Arts Award poster hanging on the walls at Toonspeak and, in fact, Toonspeak will be engaging in a partnership program with Youth Theatre Scotland next year to help bring these awards opportunities to even more low-income communities. These awards opportunities are great for what the National Theatre of Scotland's LEARN Department calls "sign posting." Students who've finished an enrichment program (like a LEARN Department production) will be "sign posted" towards another activity that will help them continue their learning. That might be a structured degree or training program, an internship or part-time employment position, or an awards opportunity that will encourage them to pursue their interest further. For the Dynamic Youth Awards, students complete a Challenge Sheet throughout their experience. The Challenge Sheet teaches and reinforces basic "soft skills" that students are going to need to succeed at university and in the workplace: action planning, record keeping, and peer assessment. It's a basic form -- but then again, remember that the Dynamic Youth Award's five-hour requirement is one of the reasons why it's so easy to get students to participate in the program. As previously mentioned, I'm strongly in favor of all of these awards schemes. I think that the students that I've taught in NYC public and charter schools would have benefited greatly from a structured program encouraging them to go out and discover what interests them. I'll always remember one parent-teacher conference in which I asked a parent what her child's hobbies were. She told me that her child likes to watch TV. I feel that, if we had programs like the Arts Awards or the Dynamic Youth Awards in the US, I could have said to that parent: "How about signing your student up for a three-week film production course? She'll get her Dynamic Youth Award!" It also might encourage schools and teachers to offer more short-term "taster" extracurricular programs.


Life-Coaching Stage Left (Or, Toonspeak's SHINE)

In a building not entirely dissimilar to a US shipping container classroom, a group of teenagers maps out a familiar narrative: the character has a goal, there are obstacles preventing that character from reaching her goal, the character overcomes those obstacles and achieves her goal. However, while these students are creating a show about their character's goals, they're also working with a life-coach to discover ways of accomplishing their own goals.

Welcome to Toonspeak's SHINE program. SHINE teaches students artistic skills while also providing them with life-coaching. While any student who lives in Glasgow can apply to SHINE, the program tends to be geared towards students from low-income communities, frequently who have no previous theatrical experience. I first learned about Toonspeak from Scottish Youth Theatre (SYT), which provides Toonspeak students with full tuition scholarships for their courses. (SYT doesn't have a formal financial aid program and instead depends on partnerships with programs like Toonspeak to fulfill their diversity initiatives.) During the ten-week course, SHINE students receive life-coaching, which the SHINE program team describes as "a way of seeing yourself and what you want out of life . . . then figuring out what you need to do to get it." There are two facilitators in the studio at all times: a professional theatre-maker and a professional life-coach.

Toonspeak Plastic-Bag Dragon. Word.

During the first class, students wrote down five words that describe themselves on index cards. They then sorted those words into three categories: positive, negative, and "question mark." Afterwards, they created characters in small groups -- drawing their character's silhouette on poster paper and writing how their character would describe himself/herself inside the character and how others would describe him/her outside the character. This encouraged the students to think about other people that they might know (friends, family, teachers, etc.) and how their perception of that person could differ from who he/she actually is. In subsequent classes, students started thinking about their goals. The life-coach had them write out a bucket list of all of the things that they wanted to accomplish and experience; students created a 15-second commercial about their top bucket list item. This segued into them thinking about the characters that they'd previously created and what their goals might be. What might be standing in the way of them achieving those goals? How might they overcome those obstacles?

Students then worked in small groups to create a short five-scene play. In Scene 1, their character introduces his/her goal. In Scenes 2-4, he has to overcome different obstacles getting in his way. And in Scene 5, he either accomplishes his goal, or he doesn't. During the class that I attended, the students came up with the basic objective for each scene ("he tries to get his friend to help him break out of jail") and then improvised the scene. The theatre-maker side-coached and kept them on-track. When a joke had gone on for too long, he told them to move the scene forward; when the actors had nowhere left to go, he suggested that they end the scene. While the students did all of the creating themselves, this guidance (where to stop, how to move on, etc.) was invaluable. By the end of the class, one of the groups had an incredibly solid short play -- especially for students with little formal theatrical training. They were even able to draw a strong performance out of a student who seemed especially reluctant to be there, just by focusing on where his particular personality might fit into the narrative and letting him create a character from there. It was a good reminder that, unlike with scripted drama, there's room for everyone in devised theatre.

Check out more of the SHINE program below. I'm interested in seeing if this model can be duplicated in the US, especially for students who have dropped out of the education system and are struggling to identify or achieve their goals.


To What End, Educational Research? (Or, Kaleidoscope Conference 2017)

I just wrapped up two days at the Kaleidoscope Conference at the University of Cambridge. I was presenting research on the EU's Let's Dance program that I observed in Granada, Spain. (You can find my Powerpoint presentation uploaded to the RESEARCH section of this website.) First of all, I had a fantastic time at the Kaleidoscope Conference. It was my first time venturing out to an academic research conference; all of my previous experiences have been at practice-based conferences geared towards teachers. Not only did I get to listen to educational researchers from across the globe, I also was able to present at my mother's alma mater. (I had to send regular text message updates about what neighborhoods I was walking through and which buildings were still standing. Since we're talking about the University of Cambridge, where John Milton and Isaac Newton went to school, the answer to that question was "most of them.")

Ye Olde University

I wanted to talk briefly about the two most interesting sessions that I attended: the Cambridge Faculty of Education panel (How can we produce research of international impact and what steps should we make to facilitate international collaborations between researchers?) and Workshop 1 (Who is my research for? Positioning ourselves as researchers). I have to admit that I was baffled by the beginning of the Cambridge Faculty panel. Prof. Jan Vermunt gave a presentation about journal citation reports. These tell you how many times a specific academic journal has been cited in the past year, so that you can decide which journals you should submit your research to. The higher the ranking on the journal citation report, the more prestigious the journal. (I should mention that one of the journals that I read the most often, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, was at the bottom of the list.) Academics apparently have all sorts of score-keeping mechanisms, like Google Scholar. Their database lists the number of times that a specific journal article or book chapter has been cited. So if I wrote a journal article and three other researchers cited my work in their journal articles, then a little 3 would pop up next to that article on my Google Scholar profile.

So yes, if you want to get citations, there's a strategic way to go about it. However, this was where I started to wonder: Why are any education researchers measuring their impact by the number of journal articles citing their research? Let's be honest: the only people who read journal articles are other researchers. Who have probably either a) never spent a day as a classroom teacher or b) retired from the public education system long ago. Who cares what those researchers think? Who cares who they read or reference? Who cares what number pops up on your Google Scholar profile? In education, there's only one valid measure of impact: How many students has your work affected? It doesn't matter if you've written the best-cited article in Google Scholar history and scored a million gold rings, Sonic the Hedgehog-style. If your research never pops up in classrooms in Wichita, Kansas -- integrated into Mrs. Miller's fourth period class -- then all of your gold rings mean diddly-squat.

Cambridge's Faculty of Education

Thankfully, Dr. Sonia Ilie started nudging the panel out of the Ivory Tower. "Don't leave research at the journal," she implored her audience. Take that journal article and "translate" it into a two-page policy brief for local government officials. Edit it down into "sound bytes" that can be published in the union magazine on the coffee table in the teachers' lounge. James Underwood (whom I'll talk more about later) said that there's no problem with only ten people reading your work, "as long as [it's] the right ten people." If you're a public policy researcher and the only person who ever reads your work is the Prime Minister of the UK? I'd consider that research a success. Even Prof. Vermunt of the journal citation reports concluded that "we have to publish our research twice at least" -- once for the academic researchers and once for a more practice-based audience (teachers, government officials, NPO managers, curriculum writers, etc.).

If Dr. Sonia Ilie gently nudged, James Underwood shoved the conference out of the Ivory Tower and left it splattered on the pavement below. This man was my education researcher spiritual soulmate. He had us question if research even needs to be published, or if research can be conducted simply to benefit yourself. (To what end, educational research?) He told us that an interview question for prospective lecturers at his university (the University of Northampton) is: "How has your research directly impacted a school, a group of students, or a student?" They don't ask about your published articles or your conference presentations or your ranking on Google Scholar. They want to know how your work had a real-world impact on actual teachers, principals, students, and families. At that moment, I knew two things: 1) If I ever wanted to get my PhD, I would be applying to the University of Northampton (sorry, mum!) and 2) I'm never getting my PhD.* The world that I discovered at the Kaleidoscope Conference was a great place to visit, but I don't think that I'd like to live there. It's not enough for me to write an article and then send it out into the void. Unless I can take my findings and immediately create a new program or draft a new bill or write some new curriculum, I won't be satisfied. I supposed that I'll never be an education researcher; I'm destined to always be a teacher-researcher instead.

* There's one exception. I'm open to pursuing a PhD (or other doctorate) that's firmly rooted in practice. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, for instance, has a DPerf (Doctorate of the Performing Arts) where you stage 4-5 theatrical projects with comprehensive write-ups and take supplemental coursework to become a more informed artistic practitioner. That degree sounds right in my wheelhouse, especially if I end up staying in Scotland for a while. Not saying that I'm staying in Scotland for a while or anything. Or maybe I am. We'll see.
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