Success Comes In Many Measurements

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Lynn Collins and I met one cold December afternoon on the gymnasium floor at Cincinnati State. It was the iSPACE LEGO League Robotics Tournament. where the mood was nothing short of intense. Loud music ricocheted off the walls sending tremors across the floor, only the sheer concentration of what was happening almost drowned out any other noise than the sound of cheers rising from the stands. Seconds mattered as robots – less than 16 inches high – moved across tables, pulling or dumping objects, turning knobs and pushing levers. Two students just old enough to be called teens, programmers and builders as they were known in that competition, were standing just at the edge of each field making quick adjustments so their robot could change tasks and accomplish as many challenges as possible. Their teams stood just behind them on the floor. Some shouted in sheer emotion. Others stood erect in nervous tension. Referees in black and white striped shirts hovered. And then, in two and a half minutes, the horn blasted and it was over..at least that round. Teams had three tries that day to improve their scores.

Camera in hand, I was moving around television videographers trying to capture what I could. There was one group in particular that stood out to me. I remember watching as one of the students bent over his robot, fumbling to change its attachment. It seemed like a simple enough task inserting one piece into another, but it was a challenge for him. A woman sat in a folding chair several feet away. Her body was taught, leaning toward the table. Her bent elbows pressed into her thighs and her tense face was cradled in the stability of her cupped hands molded around her cheeks. Her eyes were fixed on that young man.

She and I were introduced later that day.

For 25 years, Lynn told me, she has been driving an hour each way to teach Cincinnati’s urban, inner city kids. This year with the closing of Burton Elementary, she’s been at Rockdale Academy teaching language arts to 7th and 8th graders. Many come to her classroom with deep emotional scars, baggage from travels to unthinkable places. Some have huge responsibilities caring for their siblings and others struggle just to survive. Some keep to themselves while their counterparts won’t let anyone push them around. 99% are living below poverty level. 98% receive free lunch.

These are the reasons why Lynn gets in her car day every day and why she stays late after the last bell in case anyone wants some extra help – or maybe just an attentive ear. She does all this because she sees in them the same potential she sees in her own children. They just need to be given the opportunity to succeed. Maybe that’s what makes Lynn so special in my eyes.

“My students don’t need sympathy,” she told me. “They need empathy and understanding. They’re not any different than any other kids their age.

“If you asked them, they would probably tell you I’m mean, but I’m fair,” she went on. “I don’t deviate from my expectations for any one of them. I hold each one to the highest of standards. I tell them ‘we’re all in this together. Your successes are my successes but if you fail, it’s my failure too.’ “

One day Lynn announced to all her students she was organizing a girls and a boys team to compete in iSPACE’s robotics tournament. Anyone could sign up, but if they did, Lynn required them to sign a contract committing to meet at least three nights a week, work together as a team, and of course show up for the actual event.

Eyes widened. There was a sense of eager anticipation. In the end, seven girls and three boys came to Cincinnati State that weekend. They had a long journey ahead so they didn’t waste time.

Two of the girls on the Rockdale Rockettes have cognitive delays. Math, one of the most important skills in programming robots, was about as difficult to understand for them as hieroglyphics are to me. They struggled, and I mean they really struggled to overcome their challenges. Lynn wasn’t willing to bend. One of their tasks was to program their robot to move forward on the table, stop, turn around and come back. The robot needed to make a 180 degree turn, a concept Tera wasn’t able to grasp despite years of trying in math class. Lynn drew pictures on a board to demonstrate it. The group drew their own pictures, brainstorming as they went. They focused as hard as it was possible to focus. Suddenly, a light bulb went off. “I got it! I understand!,” Tera screamed. The eighth grader could barely wait to tell her math teacher.

That moment was one Lynn will never forget. But then again, you get the feeling Lynn has many moments that will linger with her probably for the rest of her life.

The Rockdale Rockets included Samuel who is considered gifted, Tony who is visually impaired, and Charles who is autistic. They are three very differently abled and talented boys, bringing to the team their own strengths and perspectives. “We all have our own strengths and weaknesses,” said Lynn. “My job was just to help the kids identify their own strengths and guide them to know how to use them to benefit the whole.”

Simple enough. Tony has a great knack for programming. Computer skills are definitely his thing. Charles has such an incredibly mechanical mind. He could look at a mission, figure out what needed to be accomplished and build an attachment for the robot in a matter of minutes. And Samuel’s critical thinking, communication, and writing skills made him the natural leader of the group.

A second component to the tournament involved researching and developing a solution to a climate related problem, then sharing their ideas to people who could act upon them like community councils and legislators. Teams presented their projects and reports to judges the Saturday before the robotics challenge in the gym.

Lynn gathered the boys for a meeting. “You guys understand if Charles chooses to not participate, you need to take the lead,” she told them. Actually, she knew Charles wouldn’t participate because she had never heard his voice. A head nod and eye contact had been his form of communication for as long as she’d known him. She just wanted to acknowledge it was ‘ok’ for him to be his own way.

Then Lynn asked, “what is the last thing you say to the judges before you leave the room?” ‘Thank you’ was the boys’ answer.

But something completely out of the blue happened. Something no one, not even Lynn could have anticipated. She was sitting outside the doors that Saturday, nervously waiting while her teams explained their research to strangers. Suddenly the doors flew open and the boys sprinted toward her. “I couldn’t imagine what could have gone wrong,” Lynn said.

“Mrs. Collins, you won’t believe what happened,” Tony and Samuel blurted out in unison. “We turned around and said ‘thank you’ and then Charles turned around and said ‘thank you’ too.”

Charles stood before Lynn and grinned. There haven’t been many times in Lynn’s life where she’s been at a loss of words, but that was definitely one.

“We were never in this to win the highest score. There was no way I’d tell my students there was a total of 400 points. Our goal was to increase our points with each try, learning to improve compromising and communication skills along the way. The Teamwork Award was what I wanted for them,” Lynn said.

Did they accomplish what they set out to achieve? They sure did. The Rockdale Rockettes went from 9 points in their first round to 61 by the end of the day. The Rockdale Rockets started at 20 points and scored 51 points in the third round. And that Teamwork Award? The Rockettes won a 2nd place Teamwork Award while the Rockets won the Judge’s Award given to a group that demonstrates fortitude and diligence.

And by the way, Lynn was also recognized as one of iSPACE’s 2008 outstanding coaches.

PLEASE NOTE: Students names have been changed at Lynn’s request. Unfortunately, I didn’t know I’d be writing her story when we met and did not take her photo. Please continue reading the blog for a look at how Lynn encourages success in her classroom.

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