I was waiting for my flight at the Detroit airport and just before boarding the attendant called me to the counter. I was being upgraded to first class. For the record, I have never been upgraded to first class before, nor since, this flight - and pre-pandemic I flew A LOT! In somewhat of a euphoric haze I took my seat in first class. I nestled in comfortably to those big cushy seats they don’t have in the back of the plane. It’s interesting how flying is more fun in first class! A moment later a passenger sat down in the seat next to me. We exchanged obligatory greetings as I opened a book to read. A few moments later he asked what I was doing in Detroit. I explained that I was in town to work with a school who adopted Organized Binder and I was headed back home to San Francisco, where I lived at the time.
He, it turns out, was from Detroit and headed to San Francisco for work. He was one of the lead architects on what was then the new federal building. As an amature architec aficionado I knew the building, at that time it was one of the greenest buildings constructed in the country. I put my book down and was excited to learn all about it. To my surprise, my neighbor was far more interested in Organized Binder and would not let me get a question in about the building.
We chatted for hours as we crossed the country that night. I explained most of the major tenets of Organized Binder as he continued to ask questions. We discussed how the system empowers teachers with best practices and predictable learning routines, how it sets students up for success as they hone their executive functioning skills, and how we engage parents in the process. It was a fun conversation.
What interested him the most was that a content-agnostic resource could have such a significant impact on student learning and achievement. As we approached San Francisco he told me a story that reminded him of the impact of Organized Binder. He shared that he and another dad signed up to coach their son’s t-ball team because no one else volunteered. Both dads had little to no baseball nor coaching experience. It turned out they were a “bad news bears” kind of outfit, losing their first few games by double digits. He explained that he and his assistant coach knew they had to do something to salvage the season. These poor boys were despondent and usually walked slowly off the field after each game with their heads hanging low.
The two dads got together and hatched a plan they put into action at the next game. That day each coach arrived with a small pad of paper and a pencil. They watched from the dugout for anything one of the players did that they could acknowledge, or celebrate. When they did, they recorded it in their notebooks. At the end of that game, which marked the halfway point in the season, the team once again lost and the players once again walked slowly from the field. To the players surprise, this time the coaches asked the players to sit shoulder to shoulder on the bench in their dugout. Then, each coach took turns walking slowly down the line of players, stopping at individuals to acknowledge, or celebrate, what he had done. For each “celebration” the coach would hand the player a felt gold star that could be sewed to the back of their ball cap. He chuckled as he told me this story because each coach was really reaching for things to acknowledge that first game because the team was so bad. They celebrated things like, “your shoelaces did not come untied this game”, and, “you did not fall down running to first base this game”, to name a few. Not every player was acknowledged at each game, but eventually all were, many times.
That was their plan. This was the only change the coaches made. They did not hold more practices to “get better” by working on hitting or catching. The coaches simply took a moment to acknowledge the players' effort. By the end of the season the team had won nearly half of their games. The funny thing is the players seemed to care little about winning. Instead, after every game, the players would sprint off the field, heads held high, and sit down on the bench as quickly as possible for the ceremony of the Gold Stars.
My new friend was spot on about how his story is an example of what Organized Binder does for students, and struggling students in particular. I share his Gold Star story at every talk or training I give. It highlights how important it is for educators to pause and celebrate student effort. I call them victories. I’ve seen it in action and it works! When we acknowledge and celebrate student effort we motivate students in a unique way.
There is something that happens when someone you trust points out something special about you. In fact, this is true of all humans, not just young people. It happened to me this week. My friend and mentor Aubrey Patterson shared one of my articles last week. In his tweet he said that I was a “wonderfully creative writer”. Truth be told, I do not think of myself as a writer. I am nervous and a bit scared every time I post an article. If you know me, you know I have a lot to say, but I am far more comfortable sharing verbally to a group of people. However, when I read Aubrey’s words something shifted in the way I perceive myself as a writer. I instantly felt more confident and wanted to write more, all because someone I trust recognized it in me.
The same is absolutely true with the students we serve. When we take a moment to celebrate their effort, to hand them a theoretical or maybe actual, gold star, we motivate them in a way that encourages them to lean in and try harder. I have watched students get grittier about their education when they’re acknowledged and celebrated in an academic setting.
I’ll end with the famous quantum theory: if a tree falls in the woods and nobody was there to hear it, would it make any noise? This finally made perfect sense to me when I started teaching. The key in the gold star story is acknowledgment, which takes effort and deliberateness. But, from a student’s experience, if she does something that can be celebrated, and we don’t acknowledge it, did it happen at all? It is my recommendation that we pack as many celebrated victories into our learning experience as possible.