Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arm Wrestling 101

Last week I arm wrestled 14 of the biggest students in Akron, Ohio. In 14 separate assemblies in 4 high schools in Akron, I had the task of sharing with the students results of their My Voice survey and asking for their assistance interpreting those numbers and helping the school improve.  Borrowing from Stephen Covey, at the start of each assembly I made a lot of noise about growing up in New York City (close: Jersey City), being an arm wrestling champion in high school (I was in theater), of setting up intramural arm wrestling at Boston College (I helped found a performing arts council), and of knowing that I could pin any student 20 times in 30 seconds.  "The only question," talking the best smack my acting background could muster, "was whether any student in the auditorium thought they could pin me 20 times in 30 seconds."  The testosterone that filled half the assembly hall took care of the rest.

So each time I brought up one of the biggest students in the room.  Each time I flexed a bicep and gave him a chance to back out.  Each time I told him there were two candy bars at stake for 20 pins in 30 seconds. And each time we started the timer, I looked the student in the eye and said, "I want you to win" and put up no fight the first three times. Pin. Pin. Pin. Then I stopped and fought and started the object lesson. "Look at the timer ticking down.  There is no way you can pin me 20 times without my help. Let's cooperate.  You pin me 20 (I let him win again...4) and you let me pin you 20.  Let's cooperate.  There is no way this can happen unless we do that."  Some of the kids pinned me 5 or 6 times.  One young man pinned me 18 times (remember 4 were freebies!) but not 20, not without my help.

About half of the young men got it.  They put aside ego and picked up two candy bars.  The other half could not get there and if they couldn't pin me those one or two times more, it was a stalemate and they walked away empty handed. They understood what I was asking them to do, but could not make the switch from a Win-Lose mindset to a Win-Win mindset. After the fun, teaching the lesson about how high school was like a ticking clock and that they and their teachers would likely stay stuck...same drop out rate, same amount of boredom, same amount of respect for one another...if they didn't start working together was easy. When teachers and students start thinking Win-Win with each other, beginning by listening to the voice of students and taking their point of view seriously, amazing things can happen.

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