Team Building Prevents Students from Sinking

CASE Teaches Students to Work Together to Survive

Character And Skills Education (CASE) is our after school program for middle school students. In this program youth receive academic tutoring and homework help, in addition to participating in a variety of special enrichment activities. After starting this program in our own neighborhood, last spring we opened a secondary program site at Dupont Hadley Middle School. Students at Dupont Hadley find themselves up against harsh socio-economic challenges. 64% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indication of their household income levels. In addition, less than 50% of students test as ‘proficient’ in Math and English. Rebekah Davis, one of our consistent teachers at the Dupont Hadley site, writes this reflection.

I love experiential learning. I love facilitating team activities, and seeing inhibitions dissolve as kids come together to achieve something. These kinds of organized challenges often provide an emotionally-charged moment that help ‘drive home’ valuable life lessons.

The first week that I met my new group of students at Dupont Hadley, I had my activity prepared. ‘Titanic’ was the game: a simple but fun challenge that I had seen kindergarteners successfully complete. The task was to cross an open floor space (a swift, icy ‘current!’) stepping only on a limited number of ‘ice’ blocks they were given. Falling off a block meant they would have to start all over. Their goal was to get the whole team across the divide, safely into the ‘lifeboat.’ Like any team challenge, the game required patience, problem solving, and a dependence on others in order to succeed.

Typically, when I facilitate these times, I take a backseat position and watch how it turns out. I like to be there to enforce the rules, keep things safe, and make mental notes for later discussion. I let the kids learn from their mistakes; it never takes long for them to discover what doesn’t work and adapt accordingly.

As usual, on that first day I stepped back and let the middle school students begin working through the game. I laughed with them at their first mistakes, then smiled again as they made the same mistakes the second time. Then they tried a third. By the fourth round they were getting frustrated, yet still continued to make the same bad choices. I watched as they failed to pay attention, help, guide, or listen to one another, and simply rotated roles as ‘leader,’ only to make the same mistakes again.

After 45 minutes they were nowhere near completing the challenge. What surprised me was that they didn’t even seem bothered. They seemed accustomed to brushing off their mistakes and used to making no progress. This bothered me more than the fact they hadn’t succeeded. We ended the time with some reflection, and I promised to give them another chance the following week.

Throughout the week I reflected on this experience and began observing the kids during their academic periods. During one casual chat with a 6th grader, she pointed out to me the size of her feet and I asked if her dad was tall. “I don’t know who my dad is.” She was quick to tell me. I asked a bit more about her home life. Did she have a stepdad? “I don’t know,” she said. I thought she’d misheard my question. “Has your mom remarried?” I clarified. She hadn’t misunderstood. “I don’t know, my mom won’t tell me. I live with my grandparents.” I was beginning to get a picture of the disadvantages this young student was up against.

The other middle schoolers in the program shared similar stories. One 5th grade girl complained that she wished she knew who her dad was. “All my other brothers and sisters know who their dads are, I wish I knew mine.” I was beginning to see how such instability prevented  her from developing trust, vulnerability, and consideration of others. I realized: No wonder they could not complete a team maneuver, the concept of “team” doesn’t have a baseline!

Rebekah Davis helps students to learn the lessons related to her Titanic game: looking out for others, remembering mistakes that have happened before and planning out their strategy. 

Students were able to laugh about their mistakes together, knowing they all contributed to the losses, as well as the win.

The next week, we tried the Titanic challenge again. This time I was much more involved. I broke the kids into smaller groups and coached them along the way, explaining basic concepts that would help them succeed. “Leadership doesn’t just mean going first,” I explained, “It means you are responsible for everyone behind you. Look behind you and think about what they need to make it across.” Finally—slowly, quite slowly—they moved through the challenge and, with a significant amount of help, at last succeeded. When the final student leaped into the ‘lifeboat’ the energy in the room burst open with relief and satisfaction. It was a win. Not a pretty win, but a win nonetheless. Immediately they asked if they could do the exercise again.

Academics are important. But what this experience taught me is what so many youth sorely lack: instruction in interpersonal relationships. Often with little to no self-awareness, or even a connection to a lineage or history, they need some coaching on basic social interactions.

As we continue to work with this group of students, one of my hopes is that they leave our program with practice working within a team, tools on how to help them work through conflict, and an appreciation--free from jealousy--for the diversity of talents that every person possesses. These skills are invaluable. They will take them further than math, and serve them better than science. Giving kids an opportunity to be a part of a team, no matter how basic the challenge, will help them feel the support and encouragement they all deserve.

Rebekah Davis
C.A.S.E. Program Tutor