By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach
There’s a Wildwood tradition that’s a familiar rite of passage on our elementary campus, and fairly unique almost everywhere else. Every Friday, it looks something like this:
An 11 year-old stands on a lighted stage, the sole focus of a crowd of over 400 people. She’s there to make a presentation—about herself—which needs to be clear, coherent, and engaging enough to hold everyone’s attention.
She’s nervous. And, she delivers.
By the time the crowd roars its approval, a smile spreads over her face. Relief, and accomplishment. For her, the hardest part is over.
The ASM went well! ZPD is real. But wait, we’ll get to that….
The whole process of leading an All School Meeting (ASM) at the elementary campus was instructive for Eliana B, who presented on robotics.
“I had big plans for my ASM presentation, and I had to learn to manage my time to get ready.”
She needed to build half a dozen robots that she bought with her birthday money. “Each of the kits took a day to build, so I realized that I had to start building early if they were going to be ready for my presentation.”
Eliana also remembers the patience and flexibility that she had to tap. “Many of the kits’ instructions were confusing, and my cats kept walking all over the robot parts that I was trying to organize. Then, when the date got closer and I started practicing, I started getting really nervous.”
Each week a pair of Wildwood 5th graders leads the weekly All School Meeting. As a team, they open the session, solicit school-wide announcements, and introduce guest performers. Then, each student takes on the individual component: Meet the Leaders. For several minutes, the crowd gives it’s undivided attention to each of the students as a way of honoring the leadership and longevity of our elementary campus’s oldest students.
Public speaking can be anxiety provoking for everyone, especially novices. With the ASM leadership exercise, Wildwood 5th graders often find they are up to the challenge. They tap bravery, practice, and lots of modeling to master their fears, lead their community, and prepare for similar situations in their futures.
Many of Eliana’s classmates echo her sentiments: Leading ASM is a mix of excitement and fear.
“I’ve been on stage in plays before but this was a huge leap,” says 5th grader Will W. “I’m not up there with 20 others; it’s just me and one other person. A very new experience… and very unnerving.”
Graham W. noted something that surprised him looking down from the stage. “The Commons looks a lot bigger when you’re up there by yourself. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Liad L.’s ponderings indicate another common feeling among his fellow 5th graders. “When it comes right down to it,” Liad suggests “you are the subject matter; you can be who want to be when you lead ASM.”
Confidence doesn’t imply perfection, and Liad was ok with that, too. During his presentation, Liad demonstrated his acumen with juggling sticks, called flowersticks. “I’ve only been practicing for about a year so I didn’t get upset when I dropped my sticks a few times in front of everyone.”
Conventional school wisdom says that when you set the bar high for kids and provide them with modeling and appropriate support, they will rise to the occasion and be able to learn and do things that may have seemed out of reach last year, last month, or even last week.
There’s solid theory behind that wisdom. In educational psychology terms, leading All School Meeting is an example of learning within one’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). It’s an idea that began with the writings of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky back in the 1930s.
In the space between what a child can do on his or her own—without any assistance—and something that he or she is incapable of—even with help—is the ZPD.
It’s the sweet spot of learning and doing into which capable educators coax students.
Ultimately individual learners need to bravely venture into the zone.
Wildwood provides its 5th graders the appropriate scaffolding to be able to lead ASM. Students practice in multiple meetings with Seth Gordon, the performing arts teacher in charge of ASM, including a full run-through the morning of the meeting.
And, all Wildwood fifth graders see their peers go through the process—and come out happier and more confident on the other side.
Students like Jenny S., who began her Wildwood career in the pods, have seen this leadership modeled since kindergarten. “When I was in the Pods,” Jenny says, “I couldn’t imagine myself being up on stage as a leader.” She also benefitted from watching her older sister, Molly, lead ASM when Jenny was in 2nd grade. “So as I got older,” she says, “I started thinking that this is something that I could do.”
With the scaffolding in place, when the stage lights go on, Wildwood students rise to the occasion.
And what’s on the other side? Relief, satisfaction, and new learnings.
“Was I nervous? Of course!” says Will. “But as soon as I finished my presentation, all of the ice was melted and the butterflies were gone.”
“When I’d finished, I was so excited that I wanted to do it again,” remembers Graham. “And I wanted to show everyone that they don’t need to be scared. In fact—it’s really fun!”
Jenny is looking ahead to 8th grade when she knows that she’ll need to transfer what she’s learned from her ASM experience to a much higher-stakes challenge: Her Gateway Presentation. “My sister is preparing hers right now, and I can totally see how this experience will get me ready for needing to present about myself for 45 minutes.
Another benefit of leading All School Meeting is the connections that the experience allows others to make with you, as Will aptly describes: “Leading ASM is all about coming out of your shell in front of the school. It’s like opening a secret compartment in yourself that no one else knows about, and shining a light on it.”