Team Up Podcast: Denise Pope of Challenge Success

Former Junior School Principal Paris Priore-Kim ’76 spoke with Denise Pope, who co-founded Challenge Success, which partners with schools, including Punahou, to promote student well-being by broadening the definition of success and implementing research-based strategies.

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Podcast Transcript

Paris Priore-Kim: Welcome to Team Up!, a parenting podcast produced by Punahou School. I’m Paris Priore-Kim, and I’m so pleased to be joined today by Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Denise co-founded Challenge Success, which partners with schools, including Punahou, to help promote student well-being by broadening the definition of success and implementing research-based strategies. She is also the author of the book, “Doing School: How We Are Creating A Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students,” and co-authored the book, “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.” Dr. Pope also co-hosts the podcast, School’s In.

So, thanks so much for joining us, Denise. We’ve just completed a school year that was greatly challenged by the pandemic. In this moment, how can parents best support their children’s wellness?

Denise Pope: Thanks for having me. I’m thrilled to be here. That’s a great question, right? I think on every parent’s mind is, okay, we’ve sort of… We’re through this or we’re almost through it. And, now what, as we look at summer and we look at fall? And, I think what we hear from a lot of parents is they’re worried about what the long term effects of the pandemic has been on kids. You know, most importantly is probably mental health, right? So, have they felt isolated? I know that you have been lucky enough to be in school at least, you know, some kids full time in person, some kids partially. But even that. They haven’t had their normal extracurricular activities. They probably haven’t been getting together with friends as much. There may be some long term effects of what we’re seeing as isolation.

And, I would say, as a parent, you really want to be in tune to how is the mental health of my kid. You know, are they excited to get back into social activities or is there hesitation there? Are they worried still about COVID, and is that holding them back? Maybe your family has had some loss and there hasn’t really been time to grieve. Maybe this is a time for you to kind of take a step back and say, “Okay. You know, last year was crazy. As we move into next year, let’s take some time to grieve.” Even if it’s little things like missing a favorite ceremony at this school or, you know, not getting to see grandparents as much or whatnot. Everyone is grieving something this year and that takes a toll.

And, to really think about ways that you can have conversations about this. Remind them that you’re here for them if they want to talk about these things and really pick up on some cues about what they’re anxious about as you look to the fall. There may be kids who are worried about, do we have to wear our masks again? You know, can I start up with piano lessons again? Or whatever it is. And, I think the more you’re sort of really focused on the mental health, that would be my best advice, is to check in, see how they’re doing. And, if there’s any issue in your gut that there is some long term anxiety or possible depression, we do want you to reach out to school counselors, pediatricians, clinicians, etc.

Paris Priore-Kim: Thanks. That’s super helpful. So, just to reiterate, I’m hearing that it’s actually quite a simple process for parents to check in, to ask their children simple questions about returning, about how they’re feeling in the moment. Right? Just to start those really easy conversations with children.

Denise Pope: Right. And, I think to make sure that they’re going to have social outlets this summer. Once school ends, for a lot of kids, that’s their only sort of sense of normalcy. That’s their only routine and that’s their only sense of social life. And, we want to make sure that you continue that through the summer what… You know, in safe ways, to keep them… Almost to keep them nimble in their social and emotional readiness for coming back in the fall.

Paris Priore-Kim: Totally. That’s a perfect segue way to my next question because a lot of what we did at Punahou this year was based on the same principles that Challenge Success values, ensuring that our students and families and teachers had time to be off screens, that they took time to sleep and rest, to care for their health and well-being. We shifted our schedule and some of our homework policies. Just curious about sort of the global effects of the pandemic on schools. To what extent did the pandemic slow or accelerate what schools have been doing regarding student wellness?

Denise Pope: Well, we’re thrilled that Punahou was following the Challenge Success advice. I think it’s so important, and unfortunately, a lot of schools did not do that. So, even though there are kids here in California who have not physically been in school for over a year, there are schools that, after that first little bit in the spring when we started back up this fall, went right back to their same schedule, their same grading expectations, their same test and quiz policies. Just everything was online. And, they weren’t really making accommodations for kids, and that was causing a lot of stress. It was sort of stress on top of COVID stress and family stress and, you know, missing out on routines and extracurriculars. So, I would say Punahou is in a really good position because not only were you able to come back in person, but you knew to make those changes around the schedule and, you know, start time and sleep and whatnot.

So, there’s some negative, right? We’ve had schools that really haven’t changed and probably should have. But we have seen many schools who said, “Well, now is the time. You know, we were always thinking of doing a late start. Now is the time to do a late start. We were always thinking of not having a six or seven period day. Now is the time to do it.” So, in some sense, there’s a real positive trend happening around a change in schedule, almost because they felt like they had to, and now we want to make sure they keep that, that they’re not going back to their old ways.

We have had teachers who focused much more on getting to know students and focus on social emotional learning, which has always been important. But they knew, boy, if we’re not seeing these kids face to face or, in your case, if you’re only seeing some of them part time, we’ve got to really check in. We’ve got to see how they’re doing. We’ve got to look at mental health. So, we’ve seen some real positives that I want to see continue in the fall. I don’t want us to just poof, go back to normal just because, you know, of the vaccines. I want us to really hold on to the things that we’ve been trying to get schools to do for, you know, long since before COVID.

Paris Priore-Kim: Totally. I think… I’m so glad you brought that up because we’re thinking about sort of framing the future as not going back but going forward to the things that we actually struggled to advance and the pandemic gave us an opportunity to sort of be bold and fearless in certain areas and compelled us, I think really out of necessity, to restructure school day and the experiences of our kids. You mentioned schedule. I think about, you know, learning online and what… When we were online, how that re-forced us to recalibrate hours in the day, hours spent studying, hours on the screen.

I’m wondering about things like sort of new areas that COVID actually made us think about. For example, play, recess. In fact, because we were trying to keep children safe, we actually didn’t move into our normal recess routines with equipment and play structures, and we found that children were actually conversing more, that they were developing more… More conversations around how to play with one another, that they were owning those experiences a little bit more. I’m wondering if you can think of other areas that sort of expanded in terms of children’s growth and development due to actually constraints or restrictions during the pandemic.

Denise Pope: Right. Well, I actually think that the kids taught the adults so much, right? Kind of like you’re saying. Wow, they’re playing a little bit differently. When we would say to the little kids at some of the schools, “Okay. We’ve got to figure out a way to stay six feet apart.” You know, is it airplane arms? Is it wearing hula hoops around us? And, the kids would come up with these ideas, which is a really wonderful thing, right? They’re use… They’re problem-solving. They’re using their imagination. And, they’re doing something very authentic, a form of service, right? That is really authentic and helping the adults.

So, one of the big things that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic that we love is this idea of student voice, where many, many more adults were turning to the students of all ages and saying, “We’re in this together. Is this going to work?” Even to your point about recess, we had big kids who, the teachers would say, “Okay. It’s a break.” But the kids would not get up from their computers. They would not get up from their desks. They would just go immediately to their phones because that’s what they were [inaudible 00:09:08]… You know, they needed the social time. And, we had to start explaining there’s actually something really important about you physically getting up and moving your body away from the screen all day. And, even though, you know, moving between classes doesn’t seem like a necessity, it turns out you do need to move during the day, you know? You do need to take a break.

And so, part of that was reinforcing the importance of breaks, the importance of ramping up and ramping down. We had teachers who maybe were very traditional in their teaching before COVID realize that you can’t just stand up and lecture to a screen. You know? There… So, we had, in a nice way, teachers really experiment with more interaction. Even if they never did small groups before, we had teachers who were willing to try a Zoom breakout room, right? Just so… It… So, there’s some really nice things happening in teaching and then I would say also in terms of assessment.

I think the first thing that people started to do was panic about how do we give a test online. How do we know kids aren’t cheating? And, we… You know, we’ve been pointing out cheating for many years. Before COVID, there was still cheating and it had nothing to do with looking up things on Google. But what we said is, “What are you really assessing and what’s the best way to assess?”. And, a lot of people started to experiment with alternative forms of assessment instead of just quizzes and tests. So, there’s been some wonderful things that came about out of necessity, as you said.

Paris Priore-Kim: Totally. Thanks so much for naming so many of the things that educators discovered and, as you say, going to benefit children, and we want to hang on to those things. I’m super curious about one thing because I… It feels like there might have been some tension between screen time and the connection that it provides, but also, you know, this understanding that too much is not good. Where do you think that sort of fell in terms of the pros and cons, the benefits or the detractors, as so many kids could only connect on screen?

Denise Pope: Right. So, last spring when everybody was on Zoom and nobody was in person, right? We sort of said to families and schools, all bets are off with your past media rules. They’re going to be using media more. It’s their only source of connection. Allow them to do that to fight the isolation. Then, we realized as people started to go back in person, you can’t for a year be on nonstop screens, right? And, so, I do think for many kids the screens were a form of just really important connection. This is how I see my friends. This is how I talk to my friends. Even the video gamers who are talking to their buddies through the microphones and everything. That was their form of connection and play, and we know… You know, you know the Challenge Success rule of PDF. Playtime, downtime, family time, every day. You have to build in time. And, there was no way to do face to face play back then.

As things started to open up, we started to say, “Aim for some, when it’s safe to do so, face to face interaction.” Just because we know… Just.. You know, there is such a thing as Zoom fatigue. There are things that happen where you need to hear the tone of people’s voices. You need to see their faces. You need to interact. And, kids also need touch, right? There’s something very tactile about young kids’ play. So, we did say, you know, okay, maybe it’s not all bets are off. But not all media is created equal. When is media being used for good? When is it being used to connect and make the kids feel really good about themselves and when is it just mindless scrolling of TikTok or, you know, violent video games or whatnot, which are causing reactions that are actually more negative in the long run.

And, I would tell parents to continue asking those questions, right? Not all media is created equal, so I wouldn’t have a blanket rule, right? Especially because we’re not fully open yet. But what media is being used for good? Makes the kids feel good, makes them feel connected. And, what media…? And, you can tell, you know? An hour after is still lingering with sort of the doom scrolling or the violence or whatever it is.

Paris Priore-Kim: Thanks so much. Back to this notion of the advancement of practice, all the good things that happened with regard to engagement with kids, personalization, meaningful assessment. What do you or how is Challenge Success feel that parents can be informed or educated with regard to this sort of paradigmatic shift of not going back to school as we know it but going forward to school as we’ve come to know it and contextualizing some of the improvements that have occurred in the pandemic in a really positive, comprehensible way for parents?

Denise Pope: You know, it’s such a funny thing about the education profession because we’ve all gone through school and so we expect school to look a certain way, right? We’ve had 12, 16, whatever, years of experience like that. You would never go to your cardiologist and say, “You should do it this way.” Right? But I think that there’s this built in thing about school. “Well, it worked for me. I’m a Punahou alum and this is how we did it then and I kind of want it to be the same.” And, what we’ve been saying for a really long time is that there’s a science behind education and we know that there are better ways to teach. We put people in MRI machines and watch them, you know, do math problems.

So, to understand that it shouldn’t look the same way when you were growing up and you went to Punahou, that we would expect it to look different, and now we’ve just had this really intense sort of experiment to put some of those things to the test. Interactive teaching, a focus on social emotional learning, different forms of assessment, project-based learning. Things that maybe, if you grew up in a traditional schooling, are going to seem really different and unusual to you. But know that this is not just nine months in the making. It’s sort of like the vaccines, right? The vaccines look like they were created really, really quickly, but that mRNA technology has been around and been working on for a while.

I would say the same thing about schooling. You know, we’ve known for a while how assessment should be and how much better it is to do project-based learning and how important it is to do social emotional learning. And, now we’ve really had the chance, like you said, out of sort of necessity and being brave and just going for it, and I think parents need to [inaudible 00:15:34] recognize that and help embrace that.

Paris Priore-Kim: Thanks so much. Really, really encouraging words and such a good frame. Actually, let me back up. I’m going to ask a more global question again. Thinking about the good things that the pandemic has engendered… And, we talked about isolation. We talked about the pros and cons of online engagement and learning. I’m just wondering. Are there any other things that you think the pandemic forced schools into that really didn’t work, that we should absolutely pay attention to?

Denise Pope: Well, I think if you talk to some kids, remote learning was not working for them. Whether that was because they really do rely on that individual teacher to make a connection and help keep them focused… I think for many kids, they didn’t have an adult at home who could really help them through remote learning. Particularly, I’m thinking about younger kids. So, you get home from work and the kid hadn’t done anything all day, right? So, I think there’s definitely… For some kids, remote learning did not work at all.

I think we also realized that there’s inequity across the land. There are some kids who still don’t have adequate resources around technology. You can get them a Chromebook, even, but you can’t necessarily then get them hooked up and have internet access or wifi or whatnot. So, that was very eye-opening.

I think the fact that schools had to immediately go into action with how are we going to feed these children, right? I think everybody now knows schools do so much more than just teach academics, right? They feed people. This is where you have eyes on kids for child abuse and mental health issues. This is where… They’re a form of daycare so that parents can go to work, right? So, now that we understand all this about schools, I hope that there is a real sense around, you know, what are we going to do about this inequity. What are we going to do that there are still so many kids out there that never logged on the entire time and we’ve… You know, we’ve sort of lost them?

So, I think that’s one thing that really didn’t work. Plus, this was really interesting from our study. We looked at parent expectations during COVID and compared them to before COVID, and 64% of parents say that they set very high expectations for their children. 66% of parents say I expect my child to maintain a high GPA. And, 46% of students say my parents want me to the best at everything. This is during a pandemic, right? So, one sort of lesson I think for parents is please don’t expect what even… You know, you shouldn’t have even expected this before COVID, to be honest. But certainly in the middle of a pandemic… And, not just a pandemic around health, right? We’ve had a pandemic about race relations. We’ve had really serious stress going on with politics and government. We’ve had climate issues. We have gun issues and violence in our communities.

To have that high of a percentage of parents saying we’ve got to get the good grades. You know, that’s the most important thing. Or, to have that many kids feel that their parents expect them to be the best at everything, that’s a recipe for more stress on top of what’s enough stress already.

Paris Priore-Kim: That’s such an incredibly important point and, you know, something that I think we wrestle with, how to crack the code on that, how to shift those expectations because they’re tied, as you say, to personal histories and personal epistemologies and ways of understanding the world. And, I wonder if part of the journey there is to… To point out the detrimental impacts. That’s not always the best way to proceed when you’re trying to shift a mindset, but, I mean, any clues or any insights as to how to change that paradigm?

Denise Pope: Yeah. I mean, one thing I have been doing with my talks for this whole year is bringing people back to the big picture. And, when you study psychology, you study Maslov’s pyramid. Some people are saying it’s not a pyramid. But this is what we know. Foundationally, the most important thing for a human being, first and foremost, is safety, right? Physical safety. Are you fleeing from the tiger or are you, you know, okay? Health, safety and relationships. That’s the foundation. And, you cannot go any higher on the pyramid… In other words, you can’t learn unless you feel safe, unless you have your health, mental health and physical health. And, unless you are in relation, in a healthy relation, with an adult, whether that’s a family member or a teacher, you know, a sibling, a family, et cetera.

So, if it helps the parents who are agonizing over grades or how are colleges going to see this now and there’s no SAT or, you know, what’s happening with learning loss, right? To really tell yourself to go back to that big picture and say, “Are we safe? Are we healthy?” And then, you can say, “Is there excitement about learning?” Because, really, no good learning is going to take place unless the kids are motivated and excited. And so, handing worksheet after worksheet to catch up this summer is like the exact opposite thing you want to be doing with your kids, right? You want to get them back excited about reading for pleasure, back excited about asking questions and being curious and following that line of curiosity.

And, I know that Punahou does this really well, but I think as parents, you kind of get caught up in sort of grades and college and test scores, and we really want you to be caught up in safety and health and relationships and curiosity and excitement and engagement.

Paris Priore-Kim: So beautifully said. Thanks for deconstructing that and reconstructing it in such a way that is encouraging and positive and simple. It’s very basic. So, thanks for that.

I’m curious about how you see this huge recovery that’s going to happen nationally and with children in so many different places and the lack of equity of access to resource and rich learning. Where does Challenge Success sit in all of this? And, how do schools in the consortium partner, co-design, co-architect a recovery for…? For all kids?

Denise Pope: That’s a great question. It’s… It’s something we’ve been working on for a while now at Challenge Success, is what’s the next step. How can we best help people to plan for a September, as you said, that looks to the future and doesn’t just go… go back to normal? And, we’ve been doing a lot of professional development workshops on things like belonging. During the pandemic, we did sort of how do you make kids feel like they belong remotely, virtually? Now, we’re going back and saying, “Okay. And, now when you are back in the classroom, how do you really make kids feel like they belong? What are…?”. And, it’s little things and big things, right?

It’s making them feel comfortable that you’re a human being and that they’re human beings, giving them voice and choice and whatnot. So, there’s a whole area around belonging that we’re working on with schools. There’s a whole area around assessment that we’re working on with schools because I think people have realized the limits of tests and quizzes, even when you’re back in person. And so, we’ve been doing a lot of professional development there. We’re coming back to our homework workshops, which, you know, we sort of… Homework and schoolwork got blurred in the pandemic, but people started to realize and parents started to realize, wow. This is a lot to ask someone, to go through a full school day and then come home and do all this work on top of that, right? And then, that was before extracurriculars and everything came back in the picture. So now, we’re working with schools. Okay. What is that homework equation? We published a white paper saying it’s about quality, not quantity, right?

So, we’ve got a bunch of workshops. Oh, and a very, very important workshop is the well-being of the adults in the community. So, a very popular workshop of ours right now is faculty and staff well-being on top of student well-being. Let’s not forget that the adults have gone through a year of trauma, that they haven’t had time to grieve, that they’ve been juggling so much, even probably more so than the kids, right? Because they have that ultimate responsibility of keeping everybody safe and healthy. So, that’s been a big piece of what we’re doing as well.

And… And… And, getting schools to see that they’re not alone is one of the best things when we have different schools in our workshops together, where they get ideas from each other. They realize that they’re not alone. Public schools and independent schools learn from each other, which is kind of a rare thing. And, there’s been a real recognition that we’re all in it for the kids. We want what’s best for the kids and what’s the best way to do that without burning ourselves out and making this work for the long run.

Paris Priore-Kim: Thanks so much. I just… You know, and I listen to you. I just feel like there’s… Your voice burns so bright with hope and your… The way that you have identified all the important things for us to do for… As… As educators across the nation makes everything seem so possible. And, I think one thing that we feel encouraged about this year is that all of us feel like we’ve accomplished the impossible and we… Our capacity is far greater than we ever imagined. So, thanks so much for setting our course and for making this work always meaningful and rich and impactful. You’re just… You’re just amazing and we’re so grateful to be connected to you and to Challenge Success.

Denise Pope: Oh, it’s been… It’s my pleasure. And, I [inaudible 00:25:09]. You know I’m a glass is half full kind of person, but I do think we all really do need to celebrate the fact that we made it through this pandemic.

Not just kind of made it through. We actually shined our way through this pandemic and kept what’s really important about kids at the center. And, that’s why… You know, it’s one of the reasons why we love working with Punahou, too, is such thoughtfulness goes into everything you do and it’s really, you know, at the end of the day, about the kids and we all need to celebrate that and pat ourselves on the back that we made it through. Take a rest. Very important. Before we start up again in the fall.

Paris Priore-Kim: Exactly. Thank you so very much.

Denise Pope: Thank you.

Paris Priore-Kim: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Denise. And, for any of our listeners who would like more information about Challenge Success, please visit our Team Up! Website at punahou.edu/teamup. We also want to thank you for listening to this Team Up! podcast. We’re really thrilled about opening up new ways for parents to gain information about issues that matter to them, so please check back for episodes to come.

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