L.E.A.P. 8th Grade Leadership Retreat & 7th Grade Pay It Forward

Years ago, the Junior High School embarked on a mission to re-create, re-frame, and re-purpose advisement in our middle-school division. To make a long, and wonderful, story short, we re-crafted the backbone of advisement to provide a spine of leadership development. Sixth grade focuses on the “intrapersonal” aspects of leadership, seventh grade focuses on the “interpersonal” aspects of leadership, and the eighth grade focuses on the “extrapersonal” aspects of leadership. Because leadership, at its core, is really about service and interdependency – not egocentric, authoritarian independence – the entire program maintains shape thanks to the glue of service learning and project-based group initiatives. We call the entire scope and sequence “L.E.A.P.” – the Leadership Experience Advisement Program. What follows are two brief slices of time for pieces of the seventh-grade LEAP program and the eighth-grade LEAP program.

7th Grade LEAP Day: Pay It Forward

Yesterday, our seventh grade participated in a LEAP day called “Pay It Forward.” Here is a copy of the email summary and thanks that our grade chairs sent:

Many, many thanks to you all for all that you did to make Tuesday such an amazing experience for our seventh graders. I have received positive feedback from many of the students and faculty members. Thanks so much for the time and effort you all put into the day…here’s what we all accomplished together:

1070 sandwiches made for Atlanta Union Mission
18 canvases touched up for Hospital Art
$4,000 in coins rolled for Habitat for Humanity
Two new beds planned and created in our on-campus garden
Over 30 large trash bags (and a wallet) collected in campus clean up
175 letters written to the troops serving our country to be sent by the USO
103 cheerful artwork pieces created and laminated for people in assisted living facilities
17 double sided fleece blankets created for the Atlanta Union Mission

Impressive! It would not have happened without each one of you…so thanks! And please, as always, send along any feedback or ideas for the next go ’round!

James and Jan

Below is a short iMovie* of one of the initiatives – Hospital Art:

8th Grade LEAP Retreat – A Double Overnight at Blue Ridge Assembly

In eighth grade, our LEAP program is threaded with aspects of the NAIS 20/20 project – the 20 biggest global issues to be addressed in the next 20 years. Over the course of the academic year, our eighth-grade advisories take on a global issue and address it with a local project. For several years, we made the pilgrimage to Blue Ridge Assembly in February, and the trip involved a lot of indoor project planning. Since the last retreat, the grade chairs and deans and advisors decided to change the retreat to early November so that the advisory groups could focus on team building and interdependent leadership…in order to establish a stronger foundation for the project planning and implementation that will occur next in the multi-phase advisory plan.

Our leadership retreat involves a number of adventure-based, challenges or initiatives. You can peruse a set of initiative descriptions through the embedded Scribd document, and you can view a 13:00 iMovie* showing highlights of the retreat.

[*NOTE: iMovie video effects have been added to the movies because of a new school policy about student images on faculty blogs.]

Be safe and teach them to drive!

Safety is paramount! Safety is really rule #1. As a parent and as a professional educator, I believe fervently that safety is critically important. Safety, precaution, and care come in many different forms. When my boys, now ages four and six, were infants, my wife and I “baby proofed” our house. We used stick-on pads around the brick-cornered hearth, plastic-insert caps for the electric outlets, etc. We essentially restricted use of these items and places. However, as our boys grow older, our precautions are taking different forms.

We are a family of water enthusiasts and boaters. We require that our boys wear life jackets when they ski, tube, and kayak. When I kayak, I wear a life jacket, and I use safe boating practices. I clip a safety whistle to my jacket, for example. For my kayak paddle, I even employ a leash so that the paddle cannot get away from me if I capsize or run into other trouble. I boat safely, and I teach my sons the critically important rules and expectations of boating safety. They see me utilize these safety practices, and they hear a lot from me about how to have fun in safe, appropriate ways. When they learn to drive, I imagine I will use similar processes, just as my parents did for me – from a perspective of experienced, wise use.

Engaging in social media and technology for the purposes of fun and education should follow a similar philosophy in my opinion. Just as I ready my boys for safe, responsible use of boats and water equipment, I believe we must ready our students for safe, responsible use of the Internet and social media spaces. When they are “too young,” we should even restrict their access to certain tools and places. However, as they reach a certain age, the best education is teaching and modeling wise, responsible use.

My school is forwarding a substantial technology shift for us: moving from PC to Apple, and moving closer toward 1:1. As we do so, a number of policies and foundational philosophies are becoming exposed, reconsidered, analyzed, and re-examined. That is a good thing! However, a few people seem to be allowing fear and media hype to cloud perspective. Let’s not be guilty of letting the 1% of bad overshadow the 99% of good…even though media tends to report 99% of the time on all that could go wrong. Think: chances of being in a plane crash vs number of safe journeys that happen everyday…and what media reports when a rare crash does occur. Same trend happens with regard to tech use (particularly with “social media”) among school-age learners.

Safety, of course, is paramount! Restricted access to particular services, sites, and domains for certain ages is certainly part of the equation. Nevertheless, deliberate teaching of digital citizenship is a MUST DO! In addition to those shared in the introduction to this post, a few other metaphors and analogies come to mind:

Driver Education

For safety’s sake, we would probably be safer (in the short run) to restrict driving until about age 22-25. But we don’t. We educate children how to drive. That education occurs each and every time they ride in a car with an adult, and it continues with drivers’ ed and preparation for a learner’s permit and a full license.

As adults, we teach teens how to drive by modeling for many years. Then, when the time nears for the teens driving themselves, we take a seat in the passenger position, and instruct them how to drive. We do this from a perspective of years of driving ourselves. Many times, my parents wished they had a set of pedals and a second steering wheel – if their body motions from the passenger seat were any indicator. My dad pumped an imaginary brake and grabbed the dashboard more than a few times. He cringed when I ground the gears learning to drive a stick shift. My dad and mom encouraged, fussed, hollered, and praised. But they never said, “You are not driving until you are much older!” They knew I was preparing to drive myself, and they prepared me for the real responsibility of driving as a good, careful citizen of the roads.

We do not give the car keys to 10 year olds. The example in this video would be ridiculous!

But we do give the car keys to 15 and 16 year olds. And they learn by doing. I believe responsible use of the Internet and social media should be similar. I do not believe 11 year olds should be using Facebook or Twitter. But by age 13, I think we should be teaching them how to drive – by modeling and instructing. By letting them learn by doing.

Freedom from Chemical Dependency

When I was an undergraduate, majoring in economics, I studied the economics and public policy of vice and substance use/abuse as one of my focus areas of application. Through the lenses of demand and supply models, I came to understand the critical importance of demand-side intervention for drug abuse. Because of the profit margins in drug sales (unfortunately), supply-side interventions fall short – there sadly seems to be an endless line of folks who become willing to sell and supply. Therefore, consumer education rises as a fundamental, primary strategy. People must know the dangers of what they are doing/might do if we hope to win the war on drugs…if we hope to curb demand of the bad stuff. Part of that education must include information and practice of how to achieve natural highs…if we hope to build demand for the good stuff.

Use of social media is similar. The tools and services are human dominated. A supply-side only restriction is doomed to failure in a market place with strong demand for the commodity. So we must educate our consumers. We must teach good use, model good use, practice good use, and advocate good use. We must enhance demand for positives and decrease demand for negative/harmful use.

A Number of Interesting and Excellent Resources

Articles abound on Internet safety and school-age children using tech tools such as social media. The articles tend to run a spectrum – from total restriction of use to teaching safe, responsible use. Here are a few:

Social Networking Policies for School Employees
By Christopher P. Stief, Fisher & Phillips, LLP (Philadelphia)

Kids Connecting With Adults Online
Teach students how to learn with adults from around the world.
January 2010 by Will Richardson

Why Parents Should Both Monitor And Empower Kids Using Social Media
From the Huffington Post by Tina Barseghian

For me, two of the most powerful resources are these next PLP (Powerful Learning Practice) posts. In brief, I think they both speak to us educators (including us parents, of course!) being prepared and PROACTIVE about learning and teaching wise, responsible use of technology tools – especially the exponentially growing category of social media spaces and applications. Forest Hills Elementary Schools is developing a purposeful, deliberate scope and sequence curriculum for instructing elementary students about the safe and SMART use of social media.

Thinking SMART about Digital Citizenship
By PLP team members from Forest Hills Elementary Schools

All Principals Should Be Tech Savvy
By Lyn Hilt

In the book, Communicating and Connecting with Social Media, authors Bill Ferriter, Jason Ramsden, and Eric Sheninger end the book this way:

Most importantly, though, social media tools are redefining the way your students are interacting with one another. In fact, three out of every four online teens are already using services like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to stay connected with one another (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith & Zickuhr, 2010). Isn’t it time that we worked to respect, rather than ridicule and ban, the spaces that our students are creating? Wouldn’t responsible teaching involve showing students how the social tools they have already embraced can be leveraged for learning – and couldn’t experimenting with new spaces for communication and professional development leave you better prepared to find ways to responsibly integrate social media into your building’s instructional practices?

Those are the kinds of powerful questions that are waiting for your answers! (73-74).


1. Let us adults model good, wise responsible use of the Internet and social media by engaging in these practices ourselves – let’s show kids the great ways these tools can be used for learning and positive engagement and change.

2. Let us adults empower students to learn to drive themselves, to boat safely and enjoy the water, and to understand the dangers, as well as the countless opportunities, that exist in the virtual, connected world.

It’s about learning!

Works Cited:

Ferriter, William M., Ramsden, Jason T., Sheninger, Eric C. Communicating and Connecting with Social Media. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN: 2011.

NOTE: Thanks to @gcouros for the link to the YouTube video “Should Kids Be Driving Alone?”

8th Grade LEAP and DGW (Know About It!)

On Thursday-Friday, February 10-11, 2011, our 8th grade (200 strong) embarked on the fifth annual Leadership Retreat. This yearly event provides time and training for the advisement groups to make great leaps and bounds on their leadership projects. During the 8th grade year, student-advisement teams address a global issue or social-justice concern with a locally enacted project. The projects take the form of direct action, indirect support, and/or advocacy.

To give you a small sample of the projects, here are a few of the current ideas and implementations:

  • Lifestraws (safe drinking water)
  • Refugee housing in Atlanta area
  • Gift baskets for hospitalized children
  • Literacy

At the retreat, advisement groups rotate through a number of sessions. Some sessions are based in outdoor/adventure education as a means for students to develop deeper team skills and understanding of complex leadership traits. Other sessions are specific to the advancements of the particular projects. Below are two resources: 1) a 20-minute video showing clips of the various sessions, and 2) a document explaining the sessions and a schedule of retreat events. Additionally, a search for #20minwms on Twitter (during Feb. 10-11) would provide a micro-blogging window into the trip.

Our fabulous students, superb advisors, and critical support staff (Deans Little and Breithaupt, Grade Chairs Cutbirth and McMillan, Ms. Schoen from the Glenn Institute, and Ms. Brown and Mr. McMahan from Discovery) made the trip a great success!

At this year’s retreat, we achieved an added bonus. One of the retreat sessions involved the showing of Darius Goes West, an amazing documentary film about a group of friends who travel across the United States to raise awareness about Duchenne Muscular Distrophy (DMD) and ADA wheelchair access. Thanks to the tireless work of Leslie Ann Little, Darius Weems and Barbara Smalley (mother of Logan Smalley – watch his TEDxAtlanta RE:SOLVE talk here) joined us at Simpsonwood to inspire our students and faculty about how to make a difference.

On Thursday night, Ms. Smalley sent the following e-mail to Ms. Little:

Hi Leslie Ann,

In a word, WOW! All of us agreed that visiting your “crew” tonight was amazing. Your students were so enthusiastic and so attentive. Darius loved the standing ovation and all the great comments and questions. Thanks so much for having us, and let’s all keep in touch.

I’m including some DGW updates in this email for you to share with your faculty and students…

Quick timeline:
2005: Trip taken
2006: Movie edited by Logan while a senior in college
2007: Film festival circuit, where DGW won 28 film festival awards (woo-hoo!)
2008-09: Darius and crew spent an entire year back on the road visiting schools and hosting screenings all over the country.
2010-11: Still going strong. Emphasis is on our school program now. Darius does a lot of skypes with classes.

Darius’ health:
During the year-long road trip (in April 2009), Darius came down with what we thought was a bad cold/cough. During a short break in the trip, he went home and to the doctor, then was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It scared us all, because with DMD, the heart and lungs are the last to go. The doctors in Athens know nothing about DMD and told Darius, “You’ll be with the angels soon,” then told his mom to call Hospice. We took him to a specialist in Atlanta, who put him on heart meds. Darius started watching his diet and lost 70 pounds. He is in great health (all things considering) now, and we expect him to be around for a while.

Darius’ raps:
I’m attaching an MP3 file of one of his newest raps called “On a Mission.” Please feel free to share with everyone.
You can also check out/download another of his newer raps, called “Don’t Stop Believing,” by clicking here. This rap has a video that goes with it that shows all the places Darius and the crew visited during their year on the road.

Cool stuff:
* In May of 2009, Darius won a prestigious “Do Something” Award and was able to travel to NYC to accept the award. During the ceremony, he got a big surprise: MTV announced that they would show Darius Goes West on MTV2 and mtvU…and that happened on Darius’ 20th birthday, which was September 27 2009. A representative of MTV went as far as to apologize to Logan and Darius in an interview with CNN (how amazing is that?). Here’s a link to that interview. Note that all of this came about after four years of Darius and the crew stumping for their cause. Lesson learned: Never give up!

* MTV also donated $10,000 to Charley’s Fund in D’s honor. Yay!

* As part of the “Do Something” Award, Darius’ picture and story are now on the back of 40 million Doritos bags. Tell everyone at Westminster to see if they can find one of these in their local supermarket. They are the 99 cent bags.

* Darius and Logan were on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, where she surprised them (plus the entire DGW crew) with a cruise. Check out the video of that awesome announcement by clicking here.

* People always ask Logan and Darius if they’re going to make a sequel to DGW. Nope! But they have been posting videos since the trip. Check them out on YouTube’s DGW page by going here.

How you can get involved/help our cause:
* Spread the word by sharing Darius’ story with others. One good way to do this is by hosting a screening, and we have an online screening kit to help you with that.

* Help us raise more funds for research by purchasing DGW merchandise (Goslabi shirts, Lamborghini orange DGW wristbands, DGW DVDs, and bumper stickers). If you use the attached form, you get a $5 discount on Goslabi shirts plus free shipping if everything is sent to one address. Another way to help us raise money for research is to take the Goslabi Challenge...if you dare! You can sign up as an individual or as a team. Or, get creative with your own fund raising ideas. We love it when students do that!

* Friend Darius on Facebook so you can keep up with what Big Daddy and his crew are up to. Darius has three accounts, and two are full, so look for Darius O. Weems. Also join our “Darius Goes West” Facebook group.

* Come to Athens this summer to help us celebrate our 7th Annual Darius Goes West Day(s) the weekend of July 22-23. And if anyone has any connections to a great rapper/rap group that might want to play at our concert that weekend, holler!

Thanks again for having us. Westminster rocks!

Know about it!


DGW Headquarters
135 Pine Tops Court
Athens, GA 30606
(706) 613-7237 (Voice)
(706) 613-5109 (Fax)

Embracing Differences

Today, a culminating event occurred in the Junior High School – an event that is an important part of a bigger effort and critical project. Today, we experienced the “Embracing Differences” culmination. Yet, it feels wrong to call it a culmination. It is more like a new beginning, a new start, a new chance to move beyond tolerance…to move beyond acceptance…to move to embracing our differences.

For months, students in Mrs. Woods’ and Mrs. Curtis’ art classes have been engaged in producing works of art that expose student feelings about drawing the line against prejudice. Other students participated in the “Power Over Prejudice” workshops. Together, they helped open a student exhibit at Oglethorpe University.

After an advisement session last Friday, today students participated in the “Dots” activity. The advisors used the following resource to facilitate the activity.

Then, we moved into an assembly with a special visitor. I hope you can find 20 minutes to watch the video below, which captures two advisement groups during the Dots, as well as key pieces of the assembly. I am so proud of our students, our advisors, our diversity coordinators (Lalley, Reina, and Jones), our art teachers, our Glenn Institute and Ms. Schoen. What a fine example of project-based learning. More importantly, though, what a fine example of Embracing Differences!

Great Expectations

When I returned from Chicago recently, where I was attending a 21st C. learning summit, I was excited to hear how the eighth-graders at my school had responded to a new experiential ed initiative. In particular, I was excitedly interested to learn how the students in Synergy 8 had faired. I mean, they had had nine weeks of collaboration practice that the other eighth-graders had not had. They should be able to set the standard high for experiential education. To my surprise, however,a trusted colleague reported to me, almost in a glib way, that the Synergy 8 students had seemed more dysfunctional than the other advisement groups. “What?,” I wondered, “How could that be?” Then, other adults corroborated the stories. The Synergy 8 students seemed to suffer from more-than-usual disagreement and angst. They seemed to be victims of indecision illness. Certainly not all 24 of them, but that’s how adult after adult seemed to describe their issues.

Of course, people had higher expectations of the Synergy 8 students. Why? And why did the students fall short of the expectations? Do they want to be the problem-solving experts of the middle school, or is this just another class that takes 55 minutes a day. I look forward to discussing with the students.