Friday, March 3, 2017

Robot Update 2 - Core Values

I usually don't talk about this part of the First Lego League competition but it is a truly very important part and the hardest to encapsulate.  It goes beyond teamwork and has a name one of the founders coined - 'gracious professionalism'.

At the practice matt at competition, this
picture says so much.  Something is wrong with the
robot, and no coach to be seen (I have the camera).  They
are all on their knees running it and trouble-shooting.
When you are at a competition, teams that operate like
this stand out.  They are engaged with the moment - not
running around or interested in something like free candy.
They are focused and running it themselves,
no adults needed, shared responsibility for the result.
That encapsulates teamwork and one
of the aspects of gracious professionalism us coaches
are striving for.  It is a very hard nirvana to get to -
that is why I take a picture when I see it.
It is the hardest part to learn as there will be natural disappointments and as we have learned the hard way in the past (and this year) times when things aren't fair or someone does something to you purposely.  It is all about how you behave and deal with those situations.  Do you whine and blame others?  Do you take responsibility for your own actions?  Are you your brother's keeper?  Do you feel that while you are competing, it is up to you to help those who aren't doing as well - or even harder - try to help those who could beat you?   And you can tell the kids - but it is a lesson that is only learned by going through trials and difficult circumstances.

My teams now have won in that category more than once the big award and each time they have struggled with it - not fully realizing at first that it was a super high honor for the adults to recognize their character as individuals and together as a team - they may have been wanting to be recognized in the project or robot area instead.  The older ones who are all starting to turn 18 have finally 'gotten it' and realize how important it is and have internalized the lessons.  It has driven their decisions in the last two years as a team and they are shocked to find out that they have done even better when they 'gave up' on parts of the competition and what might be the overall group-think by teams on how to be highly competitive for awards and did 'what is right' instead.

It is something I hammer on - doing what is right and trying to be humble.  It is especially hard to teach these lessons to my younger team who are mostly second children and naturally more hard-scrabble.  In fact, most are 'alpha dogs' who need to broadcast their success to not be upstaged by their talented older siblings.  So I have worked extra hard on them.  One year I had a section of their notebook dedicated to the word of the season.  Grit was year 1.  Humility was year 2.  I would routinely test the kids about the words and meanings and examples and how someone on the team had shown it, so it was hilarious when at one point I did so in front of another parent and their child proudly stated that our team was all about 'Grit and Humiliation!'.  Ugh.  It was back to the drawing board.

Working mid-season at the Center with Robot Love and
our teams
So we stumbled 18-months or more ago into working with a group of kids in Boston with the older team.  Nothing pre-determined or thought about as a good idea, just a series of circumstances that has snowballed and is likely one of the most defining moments for both teams.  It is a community center that is co-located with a set of public housing run by the state.  Lately I learned that federal housing doesn't allow undocumented people to live in it, but in MA our state housing does.  So there are many kids who are citizens or were brought here as infants by a parent who is undocumented.  At the moment, you can see the fear in their eyes and it is heart breaking.  Not all kids are in that boat - but most have some struggle due to family economics or incomplete family unit.  Some have come to work with us with obvious trauma, their interest in seeing a ROBOT up close overcoming their fear of strange people, and some with their Big Brother or social worker attending them.  Malnourishment is so obvious that sometimes our kids feel so bad when they mistake a child older than them as someone several years younger because their growth has been stunted; the area is a 'food desert' in the city.  The almost shocking thing is that the center is one block from a Harvard arboritum that is absolutely lovely (100 species of lilacs) and bordering that property is a very, very, very wealthy part of Boston - Tom Brady and Giselle live just blocks away.  As the center director and I were talking the other day - the Harvard property is 'the tracks' that separates a lower middle-class/poor area to emense wealth.  It is this proximity that makes it easy for me to bring a truck load of kids there all the time as we take a non-direct route, but it is safe.

We have come to know the kids pretty well, some even better as we have done joint activities to help others together.  That is a big thing at this center - and one reason we keep coming back - their mission with the kids includes giving back as well.  The teens work in the municipal parks in the summer to teach kids STEM and there is an orphanage nearby that they help out at all the time.  It is not the narrative that we are fed from TV - people looking for handouts.  It is so, so far from that fake narrative on the ground and why all our robot parents are behind me 100% in doing this.  All the kids at the center are looking for is a shot and they are hungry for learning, willing to share and proud as well.  Many of the kids are at charter schools and travel difficult ways to get an education, some have earned spots at a prestigious exam school - but they are limited in what they can do afterwards because of issues with the economics of college.  They cluster at the center to do their homework and have the usual and more dramatic struggles with the work and grit and focus that is challenged by the environment.

It has been extremely eye opening for all our kids to work with these children or alongside them.  If you spend any time, you notice things.  You notice difficulties with grit because someone isn't there to force them back in the door when something is really fustrating and parents who don't understand and have more pressing needs to get done who have to pull them away to do things like take care of an infant sister so they can go to work.  Frazzled and exhausted are the words I would use to describe many of the parents when we get a chance to meet them, not bad people.  And when they have the time, they stand there and beam at their child trying to work a robot just as the rest of us do.

One young lady is here by herself living with cousins and her aunt.  About to graduate from high school, she confided in me at a dinner I took her and her other STEM club girls to, about how she wants to study business so she can start her own and bring her mother and sister to the USA.  An elegant, tall, Haitian girl with just lovely manners and an amazing smile and laugh - she is a natural for business.  The team cried and cried this fall when we learned that her mother died in the hurricane that struck the country and her sister was missing and she was just devastated.   They could relate as one of the children on the Brainstormers lost his mother unexpectedly just two months before and it hit us all so hard, the team captain and I had to get him to let him know - it was devastating and the whole team dropped everything to be with him for days - we were already close and now so much more so.   I was really proud at how they reached out to her, bound by their common experience.

Going there is a far cry from our rich suburban life where sometimes our problems aren't so large.    Yet, they all share a love of basketball and that is the most common request I get when we are there - can we play b-ball together??!!  So they do (in my opinion, we get creamed every time!).

So we were terribly excited this fall when the center decided to take the plunge and form a First Lego League team of their own with our support.  We had already donated the T-shirts and robot materials and spent several days there teaching.  I helped the coach on the phone weekly with encouragement - knowing what they needed to know every week from my years of experience.  The kids would share videos and text messages and sometimes we found a day we could get in there to help and mentor.  Both the older and younger team did this.

Robot Love at competition (blue shirts) and that guy in the
black and white stripes - Brainstormers team captain
We all went to competition on the same day - but in two different events.  We didn't want to compete against them - but we did want to be there in spirit.  So we arranged that two of the Brainstormers who had worked with them the most were referees at the event.  Smiling faces at the robot table.  All day long - the teams sent each other updates for how they were doing and little pictures of encouragement (lots of thumbs up and smiles).  At one point the team, called Robot Love, was 7th in the standings at their event which is really high!  We had just crushed it at our competition with a huge score.

Text messages going back and forth
between the two teams
But what warmed our hearts was the gracious professionalism of that moment.  Our score was up on the board and we got a text from Robot Love - they were 7th - I ran down the line showing the kids the latest text message and they started jumping up and down for Robot Love and taking pictures to send back to them.  They were starting to internalize what was 'the right thing' - they were just as excited over their sister-team as their own performance.

We didn't do a public poster about this work, as would be standard at the competition.  We all decided that we didn't feel right about that.  I had the kids do a small one themselves, entirely in their own words with no suggested edits by me and only to be shown to the judges to discuss what they had learned working with the kids in Boston.  We debated quite a bit about this, should we or should we not.  It is about respect for the community - and that was a huge lesson they had learned over the last 18-months.  Things like shaking hands, name tags, learning how to pronounce someones name.  As we rolled up the first time I took Robot Revolution to teach vs. demonstrate, I gave them the following advice:  treat these kids like they were a new member of our team.  Teach them what they need to know and think about how you would treat each other.

So it was with much trepidation that I let the kids talk about this with the judges.  And as much as I was uncomfortable with the idea of taking credit, it was the right thing in the end.  As yes, they got a huge award, but even better was the email that came a few days later.  Seems that the head of the FLL program for the state had filled in as a judge that day.  And guess what they saw and heard about - knowing about the little team in Boston that had registered that year.  She knew us already from past performance and wanted to let us know about a big grant to be given out to promote FIRST in disadvantaged and underrepresented communities and that she would like to talk to us about writing a proposal for that grant.

The grant is to not only expand what we have been doing but to figure out the 'secret sauce' - a template for expansion in many centers and then sharing that with FIRST.  This grant process has consumed us for two months and the coach and director of the center and I have gotten all the kids involved as well.  The teens have been formulating and debating what the 'program' should be at the center and attending some of the proposal meetings or reviewing the notes after each one.  The day I left on vacation - we learned that we made the first cut and now needed to write the big, full proposal this month.

The Robot Love team, their cheering posters and a
wonderful thank you poster (with their refs) that hangs
in our work room right now.
It has been amazing and not what we expected over 18-months ago when we agreed to take someone else's spot at a outdoor event and met this group for the first time (and so happy we went back as there was a gang fight that had the event shut down fast).  Tomorrow I have a meeting with several center directors and their computer instructors - we are going in as a consortium.  They are going to be the test groups for our joint plan.  Our goal is to reach 188 inner city children next fall with FLL jr. or FLL.   After the first meeting with the center about the first grant draft - I left and looked at the Brainstormer kid I had taken with me (I know him... he will be writing grants someday and I wanted to give him that high-level meeting experience).  He was almost shaking with excitement - I said "this is going to work, Rob".  He responded - "Even if we don't get the grant - we will make this work.  We will raise the money.  It will happen!".   So watch out - they may use all the avenues for publicity (this blog included) to try to raise money if the grant doesn't come through!  ha ha.

I will write again on how we will do it later - we are very excited and both teams are chomping at the bit for this summer when we start working on our contribution that doesn't require the grant to do.  We will be filming a video series with the center to show other urban environments how to run a team.  They have been story-boarding it and making video clips already from footage we have of seasons past.    The video series will be one of the main resources for the new groups we are bringing in next fall.  If it works out well, we will edit them based on that experience and then release it as a resource for all groups who want to form teams in the future.   And there is a twist that the kids are really excited about - more about it later - but here is the official logo the kids made for their inner-city program.  Can't wait to see it on dozens of T-shirts!

1 comment:

  1. Tricia what a wonderful story. I am so proud of all of your children and the many things they have learned. It takes the leadership that you and your team have to make all of these things work. God Bless all of you.