Crew Member

By Ann Louise Wolf, Brunson Elementary

I spent a huge part of my year serving at Brunson Elementary participating in a new program they started this year called Crew. It was pretty hard for me to wrap my head around. Every Tuesday and Thursday, for about thirty five minutes, the entire school had crew, all at the same time, and they all had a very similar lesson across the elementary school. 

I was assigned one class as my “crew” for the year. These lessons were not lessons on math or science or reading, at least not directly. These lessons had nothing to do with rowing, or, at least, not in a literal sense. In fact, they are a little hard to explain. The first thing I was told about crew was, “Everyone’s a crew member, no one's a passenger, and in a sense that is the best explanation of crew as a whole. I found crew to be a time to encourage students to take an active and eager role in their own lives and education, and to give them frameworks and tools for doing so. No passengers, no apathy, no powerlessness. Often these lessons were based on the ten habits of character: respect, empathy, and so on. We did projects on goal setting, on getting to know our fellow crew members, and—my favorite—a massive community service project. 

Since I was there as a member of ArtistCorps, I brought the arts in all the time. We made posters, we wrote skits, we played endless drama games. Crew was a natural place for the arts to take hold in unexpected ways, and a wonderful place for the arts to make deep impact in ways beyond traditional rehearsal and performance. 

Still, Crew was hard. Crew was REALLY hard. Crew was a brand-new program. There were lots of bumps and hiccups to work out. My crew was a fifth grade class. Fifth graders are not like other elementary students. They do not easily buy-in. They desperately need to look cool. If they sense they are being patronized or talked down to, you might as well just become the trombone sound effect teacher from the Peanuts cartoons. But these kids are still kids, not really teenagers, and they need lots of support. On top of this, whenever I told other people which class was my crew, I received reactions that let me know that I had ended up in not just any fifth grade class, but an exceptionally difficult fifth grade class. (A class that I came to love, by the way.)

Then, in March, something shifted. Up to that point, my crew was like every other crew in the school; the crew was made up of the classroom kids, the classroom teacher, and one more adult (in this case, me). Like many kids third grade and older, my crew largely saw crew as patronizing and an enormous annoyance. Then, in March, it just so happened that I was one of a team of two writing six weeks’ worth of crew lessons on community service for all of fourth and fifth grade, and just as my lessons started to go into effect, my crew was split in two. Some of the students would spend crew in their regular classroom with their regular teacher, and ten of them would go to a different room with me and a second adult (an employee of the school, since I was not actually an employee of the school and not supposed to lead entire classes by myself.) It was then, in this group of ten students and two adults, that I really learned—the hard way—the power of crew.

Over time, I learned these lessons to hold in the front of my mind whenever I began a crew session:

Lesson one

Lesson content is secondary to lesson opportunity. Whether we were making posters about the experience of the year, designing a community service project, or playing drama games together I learned that my most important job was not to make sure that the task was completed as outlined in the lesson plan. In some ways, the task could become irrelevant. The task was a way to have a conversation, a conversation that we wouldn’t get to have otherwise, and if the conversation needed to lead away from the task, then that's what had to happen. Sometimes there’s a little chaos. We can live with a little chaos.

Lesson two

All answers are useful answers. I made the conscious choice to take this stance when I started leading the crew, and it took a long time for it to sink in, but I was determined to stick with it. A good example was when making posters reflecting on how students had changed over the course of the year, I asked one student how he was different now from how he was at the beginning of the year and he responded, I’m more bored and angry. I could tell that he was expecting to get chastised and told to behave. What he was not expecting was my answer, which was to look him in the eye and say, That’s really important. I think you need to make your poster telling us all about that.

I will admit, this approach can be terrifying at times, since you have to be prepared to deal with whatever comes up, and sometimes what can come up, once they stop just giving you the answers they think you want to hear, can be infuriating, incendiary, or heartbreaking. But it also means that creativity and honesty is possible in a way that just wouldn’t be otherwise. If you’re brave enough. 

Lesson three

Ask for more. My crew members quickly learned that my favorite word was specific. I was always asking for more detail, asking how did that happen, why did they think that was, what could have happened instead. I was also asking for participation from the non-talkers as well as the talkers. Great job, how can you make this better? Ask for more AND believe they can give it.

Lesson four

Unconditional positive regard. Boy, this one is hard some days. This comes from Carl Rodgers and is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. It’s different from coddling, and it doesn't mean not having consequences. But it also means consciously beginning every interaction with the decision that each student is a good person and capable of succeeding while still holding them accountable for their actions. 

Lesson five

Failure. I failed. I failed often and hard. So did my students. Framing and modeling failure is incredibly difficult but incredibly valuable. I don’t know if it gets easier. It hasn’t for me. 

Lesson six

Support. Especially at the end of the year, as kids opened up more and I started to learn more and more about them, it could get really hard. These kids by and large had significant struggles in their lives. They would bring things up about their lives and say them casually, and therefore I had to treat them equally casually, no matter how much they worried me. Moderating this tight-rope walk of life-skill building is completely exhausting. I needed lots of support.

I wouldn’t trade my time in crew for anything. I grew and learned so much in my time with those ten kids, and saw them change and grow in ways they never thought they could. I have become a better teacher, a better person, and an infinitely better artist, but I had to do it consciously. I had to make those choices to walk in and frame every interaction, every statement and question around the ideas: Am I listening? Will it get them talking? Will it get them talking constructively?

At the very end of the year, we had a huge crew meeting with all of 3-5th grade, and each crew sent a representative up to talk about what crew meant to them. Our crew chose a member who got in trouble and sent to the office nearly every day, but had done very well by contrast in our crew, especially lately. When asked what habit of character meant the most, his answer was vastly different from the others. Every other student responded with a similar and safe answer. My crew member responded, with the familiar tone in his voice that told me he wasn’t sure if he was about to get in trouble for his honesty, Integrity. It can be hard to make the right choice when the teacher’s not looking. The entire school applauded.

I couldn’t have been more proud.

July 04, 2017