To help kids most effectively, know them as a whole person, not just as a student, an athlete, etc.
Be adaptable, and able to re-assign and re-define student roles according to their particular abilities.
Creating a “low stakes” environment allows students to become more comfortable with their own failures and mistakes.
What have you found to be the most effective way to develop an activity to be challenging and mentally stimulating for all students?
I think the biggest part for me, and for Harlem Lacrosse in general, is this school-based component to our model. Program directors are in school all day every day, from pretty much the beginning of the school day until programming ends in the afternoon or early evening. We are collaborating with teachers, we’re checking in with administration. So we really know their needs, both behaviorally and academically. And so from there we can either create activities that are relevant to what they’re studying in class, or, being a separate entity from the school, we have the freedom to develop our own activities.
Say the team is struggling with communication, I’ll look online for resources that have really good activities for teaching communication to middle school girls in particular. And so we’ll use our study hall time to do an activity based around communication. Our model of knowing the kids super well, and having that constant full-time interaction with them, allows us to really know what they need and to create programming that’s challenging and mentally stimulating.
Also, something that’s really helpful is that if a kid isn’t feeling well or is hurt in practice, we can still give them a role. It doesn’t have to be playing lacrosse. It can be keeping score, it can be getting the water bottles, it could be having a stationary role where they’re just passing instead of running. In both the practices and in study hall, we can create roles for the kids who might struggle with that particular activity or just aren’t feeling it that day. Because it’s easy, especially if you have a team of 20 or 24 girls, for a kid to get lost in the fray. So you have to be really intentional about making sure each kid has a role and is challenged.
How do staff best facilitate student reflection during and after an activity?
Something that’s huge in our program is shout-outs. We typically do them at the end of every practice. We get in our end-of-practice huddle in a circle, and I ask the girls for shout-outs. They’re practicing empathy by thinking about their teammates and how they performed, and celebrating something that they thought they did really well. It can be something from study hall or from practice, so we’re not just focusing on what happened in practice but what happened throughout the day. It’s a way to practice empathy, and to affirm teammates’ actions in a really healthy way, as well as to reflect on how the program is doing in general. I think it’s actually a good way to get a pulse of the culture of the program: seeing how the shout-outs go and who’s giving them. It’s also just a fun way to see them be selfless and reflective, and to celebrate their teammates. It’s something they don’t do in their classrooms during the day. So it is new and challenging but it’s also a skill that they need to practice and is important for general life, so they’re getting more and more comfortable with it every day that we do it.
How do you show your students the connection between program activities and real-world problem-solving?
One of the three components of our programming, in addition to the academics and the lacrosse, is the component of community engagement. So we go on field trips, and they range anywhere from going to visit a college for the afternoon and visiting their lacrosse team, doing a tour of college campus, to career trips. For instance, this year we went to Fidelity Investments The kids learned about stocks, and they’re able to apply what they’re learning in math or science or one of their other school subjects to real world problems. Another example, we went to Turner Construction, and again they’re able to really see that real-world application of what they’re studying in that professional setting. I think that’s something that’s unique to our program, and exposes kids to opportunities that they might not otherwise have. I think it’s so important for them to see, rather than going through the daily grind of math class to social studies class to science class to english class, how people in the real world use these things. We went to the JFK museum, where we learned about JFK and his legacy of community service. It’s invaluable to give them those tangible examples of concepts that they’re learning in school.
We do field trips a lot. This past weekend I took 13 girls up to Vermont for the whole weekend. This is the second year in a row we’ve done it. We stayed with host families, we went to a farm, we went to the University of Vermont to watch their women’s lacrosse team play. It was fun, it was a blast, they wanted to stay in Vermont forever. Then the next day, we went over to Middlebury College and did a clinic with their team, and ate lunch in a college dining hall. The planning of these trips is up to the program director. It’s really an entrepreneurial position and you can create whatever opportunities you can think of, really. It can be as often or as infrequent as you want. It’s really really cool.
- Shout-outs at the end of the day allow kids to reflect not only on their own work but on their work of the peers
- Build flexibility into lesson planning so that there is opportunity to focus on skills students may be particularly struggling with
- Field trips to both colleges and corporate partners allow students to connect their classroom learning to the real world
How do you draw the line between what activities are appropriately challenging for students versus which activities are too challenging for their current ability levels?
It’s definitely hard because we have kids from all grades, all learning ability levels, from special education students to some higher learners. But I think sports really lend themselves to making mistakes and failing. If something is too challenging, we don’t dwell on it and tell the kid that they’re doing it wrong. We let them make a mistake, let them fail, because that’s not just okay but also expected, to make mistakes. We create low stakes, safe environments. Sports really lend themselves to that. There’s no consequence to dropping a ball; maybe the other team is going to get it, but we create a low stakes environment by expecting failure and being okay with it and accepting it. So if something is too challenging, we will go back to the drawing board and assess as a program. But we just have this mantra of, “If you’re not failing or making mistakes, you’re not learning.”
It is something that you have to be really intentional about, but I think it also comes back to just really knowing the kids and having specific roles for them to play if something is too challenging. Because you also don’t want to create an activity or have a practice that is too easy for some kids, since they’re at such different levels sometimes. I think just creating a culture of, “It’s okay to make mistakes and fail, and in fact you’re expected to.” And kind of instilling a growth mindset. That’s a huge skill that we try to instill in the girls is, you know, “You’re going to make mistakes, and fail, and what’s most important is that you continue on and know that that doesn’t define you.”
“We really strive to help the kids help themselves. When students ask for help, a common strategy we use is responding with questions. That way we’re not just giving them the answers, but helping them navigate and figure out the answer on their own, and pushing them to use critical thinking skills.”
Harlem Lacrosse provides school-based, full-day, year-round support for students by placing a full-time staff member at school sites for each of its programs. After-school programming happens daily, and consists of both study hall and lacrosse practice elements.