Depth Charts in the Classroom

I dropped into my chair without attempting to resist gravity. I was beat. It was the end of another grueling day in Siete de Abril conducting surveys for the third and final phase of our improved cookstove program. The paper surveys were all kinds of misshapen. I was doing my best to stack them neatly on the tabletop, when one of my students, Christine Exley, sat down beside me. She took half of the stack. And, survey by survey, we began carefully reviewing the day’s work. To our dismay, a number of survey questions had been inadvertently skipped. Without me having to ask, Christine started making a list of every incomplete survey, every household that we needed to revisit and the question(s) that needed to be asked (again). That was inspiring. But that was Christine. And, during our nightly debrief with the rest of the class, as I started to address the incomplete surveys, Christine stepped forward and told her peers in no uncertain terms that they needed to do better, there was no accepting anything less than excellence and they had better step up. They looked to me for guidance. And, I looked back at them with a best-do-what-she-says smile on my face.

That was the moment when we (as a class) set our high expectations. We expected excellence. Now, of course, I had been asking for excellence from them all along. However, this time the ask was coming from one of their own. Someone who was just like them. Someone who was working under the same conditions as them. And, that’s a different kind of ask, a harder ask for them not to answer. Because, if they did not answer her call to excellence, what was going to be their excuse? They had none. Christine’s demand for excellence was the beginning of our way of doing things. Moving forward, we approached our work as professionals. And, if you wanted to be one of us, you had to meet our standard.

That was 2008. And, a couple years later, on another trip to Honduras, I overheard a few of my students referring to Teams A and B when talking about themselves and other students in the class. According to their “Teams A and B Classification System”, a student was considered a member of Team A if they were willing to meet our standard for excellence. If not, they were a member of Team B. Now, if you’re an educator and you’re starting to feel a bit uneasy, I get it. I was initially wary of their classification system as well. Indeed, as a Rewilding educator, one of my responsibilities is to monitor the health of our culture. In particular, does the current and emerging state of our culture facilitate the transfiguration of my students into active participants in the shaping of their own history? After careful consideration, I concluded that their “Teams A and B Classification System” was consistent with this objective.

Essentially, my students had created a depth chart. Team A was varsity and Team B was junior varsity. And, as someone who played football from fourth grade through college, I was accustomed to (and comfortable with) depth charts. In football, there are depth charts for both sides of the ball. For example, on the defensive side of the ball, the depth chart has the title of each of the eleven positions prominently scrolled in bold (linebacker, defensive end, strong safety and so on). And, under the title of each position, the name of the starting player is listed first followed by the names of the other players at that position in descending order of competence. Depth charts are commonly and prominently displayed on the wall in the coach’s office on in the locker room. They are not considered good or bad. They are considered to be a communication tool. They tell you (the player) if you are starting or not. And, if you are not starting, they tell you who is starting and where you stand relative to the other players of your position. If you want to be a starter, they also tell you who to emulate. Namely, study the starter. Watch how they conduct themselves on and off the field, during practice and during games. And, if you really want to take the initiative, go ask your coach what you need to do to improve.

Teams A and B were how my students (in particular those students who were members of Team A) communicated our expectations to the class. It was not an official depth chart. Nor was it prominently displayed. And, I never sat a student down and told them that they were on Team A or B. Indeed, I did not make any reference to the Teams A and B when communicating our expectations to new students. I had my way of communicating our expectations.

For the most part, Team A was composed of students who had already been to Honduras and were taking the class for the second time (and sometimes third time). And, of course, new students started out on Team B. Team B also included a few students who were not new to the class and may even had been to Honduras with us before. However, they had yet to meet our standard for excellence; but, by re-enrolling they signaled a desire to do so.

Unlike sports teams, when students on Team B rose to meet our standard for excellence, the pre-existing members of Team A did not lose their “starting” positions. Team A just got bigger! And, that’s what we wanted. So, all semester long, an immense amount of effort was dedicated to developing our Team B students. They got coaching and encouragement from me, the members of Team A and from our Program Director in Honduras. They were also assigned a mentor from our alumni network. Before arriving in Honduras, we needed them to learn how to look forward, set a goal, map out a course of action, and see it to its conclusion. We needed them to be able to do these things while facing a headwind of adversity. And, we needed them to do these things without hierarchical direction. To be honest, our coaching and mentoring of them was not enough for a lot of them. And, when it was not enough, I would pull them aside for a one-on-one sit-down.

These conversations could be emotionally charged and difficult. I was asking them to be and to become more than they had been asked to be or become before. And, since most of the students taking my course were high-performing students in other (traditional) classes, they were not accustomed to participating in these kinds of conversations. Indeed, it was common for some of them to think they were actually members of Team A. Now, this was understandable. Because, if their other courses had had Teams A and B they would have been on Team A. Moreover, excuses for not caring enough, giving enough or meeting our standards were over-abundant during the semester. There were other professors and classes clamoring for their attention. There were other tests, papers or assignments to be completed. There were extracurricular activities and/or athletic practices to attend. There were parents, grandparents, siblings or cousins asking them to fulfill their familial responsibilities. There were friends or partners asking them to ditch their work and go have fun. There were also bosses or part-tine jobs calling them in at the last minute. Everyone (and not just members of Team B) could easily rationalize their sub-par commitment. However, once in Honduras, they were separated from the university and everyone back home except for us. In turn, all of these excuses were systematically eliminated. So, before Honduras upended all of their rationalizations, I needed to tell them how they were not meeting our standards. That way they could while they still had time to do so. Because, well, Honduras was Honduras.

Honduras was the harshest of sieves. It unapologetically (and almost immediately) sorted every member of the class into those who would and those who would not answer our call for excellence. Moreover, in Honduras, everyone knew right away who was on Team A and Team B. And, unlike during the semester, there was no escaping this knowledge. It was public information. And, as you can imagine, this could be an upsetting experience for some students. Hence, another reason for the one-on-one sit downs during the semester. For the most part, if a student was a member of Team B during the semester, they continued their membership in Honduras. Now, there was a time or two when a student who was holding back during the semester would become indispensable in Honduras. They would start taking the lead when the lead needed taken, anticipating problems and smoothing out the road ahead for their team and other teams. Given this possibility, we continued to coach and encourage the members of Team B while we were in Honduras. However, at some point we had to make a choice between working with the members of Team B or our clients.

Unlike our Program Director who was in Honduras year-round, we (the class) were there once a year and only for six days at that. So, when we were in Honduras, we had a lot to get done. Indeed, our pace was borderline hectic. We got up early. We stayed up late. And, in between, there was no sight-seeing or shopping for souvenirs. There was only work. We worked all day with our clients. And, at the end of each day, we held nightly debriefs. During these nightly debriefs, we reviewed our checklists and ticked off the objectives we had achieved. We assessed what was working and what was not. We brainstormed on how to get better. We made adjustments. We set our objectives for the days ahead, made lists of needed materials and checked our inventory of supplies. I reminded them that if they needed materials, time or something else done for their project then they were responsible for advocating for their project. And, at the conclusion of our nightly debriefs, each project team would break off to plan and strategize on their own. I would float from team to team checking in, asking what they needed and how I could help. We repeated this pattern day after day until we departed. It was emotionally and intellectually exhausting. But the members of Team A were on point. They took the initiative, freely reacted to events as they evolved and made decisions as the situation required without asking. They executed their decentralized authority. And, with so much to do with so little time, in Honduras, I needed the members of Team A more than ever. So, they got more (most) of my time and attention. Consequently, a separation occurred between the members of Team B and me. Not fully and completely. But enough so that it was noticeable. Not noticeable because I wanted it to be. Separating myself from them was not a strategic choice. It was situationally demanded.

During the semester, developing the members of Team B was a fundamental priority. However, once we were in Honduras, our clients became our priority. And, I had to make a decision: allocate my limited time and attention (which was being pulled in multiple directions simultaneously) to continually encouraging the members of Team B to get done what needs getting done or allocate my limited time and attention to working with the members of Team A who are getting done what needs getting done? I chose the latter. And, in so doing, I told the members of Team B that they needed to be and become more. Right here. Right now. In this moment. Some would rise to the occasion. Some would not. Most would not.

Now, in their defense, what I was (what we were) asking them to do contravened years of schooling and conditioning. And, we were sensitive to this. So, we always kept the door open for members of Team B to join us. And, I believe that our unofficial depth chart played an important role in giving the members of Team B a path forward. Namely, watch the members of Team A. Observe them. Hang out with them. Listen to their language. Analyze their behaviors. Learn from them. And, on occasion, that’s what would happen. We (members of Team A and I) would be having a nuanced conversation about the ethics of our presence in Honduras or strategizing about a project and a member of Team B would be hanging around observing us. Then, every once in a while, one of them would take the risk of injecting themselves into our dialogue. And, when they did, we would welcome them. Because we all knew what was happening. We were looking at someone stepping into the Arena. We were looking at the future. The future of us. And, we loved these moments. Because, they were infused with commitment. Commitment to us, to the cause, to the work. And, their commitment was all that we ever wanted.

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You can learn more about my pedagogy by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn

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Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

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