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March 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 6

Tell Us About

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School Culture

Tell us about how your school made a change after listening to student voices.

Transformational Interviews

As a principal, I interviewed 25 4th and 5th graders individually and explained that staff needed to hear their thoughts about school in order to develop improvement plans. Each student read 30 statements, checked the ones they agreed with, and then explained their reason for agreeing. Twenty of the students checked several of the same statements, such as, "I have a hard time asking for help," "I try not to be noticed in class," and "Teachers use words I don't understand." When teachers saw the interviews, they became committed to making instructional shifts such as creating a safe environment for students to ask for help without feeling shame or embarrassment, checking for understanding using multiple methods, making time to re-teach, and systematizing a way for students to communicate their concerns. As a result, students learned the importance of voicing their feelings to make a positive impact on classroom instruction.
Cheryl Wilson, faculty, Reach Institute for School Leadership, Oakland, California

A Civic Duty

Two juniors in my social studies class created a student-led voter pre-registration drive with Google Slideshow. Their efforts persuaded many of the 140 students enrolled in my classes to pre-register to vote. Their presentation also resulted in 12 students signing up to work the 2018 midterm election polls, another four students agreeing to sponsor the school's upcoming midterm mock election, and two more students agreeing to host a midterm election eve party. You can find out more about the students' presentation here:
Peter Paccone, social studies teacher, San Marino High School/San Marino Unified, San Marino, California

They Say They Want a Revolution

At our middle school, we developed proactive circle advisories to listen to student voices. Teachers and staff gathered with students on many occasions to connect and reflect on pressing issues and concerns. During one of these meetings, members of the Diversity Club shared that they wanted to promote equity, increase student activism, and spread change, and they wanted to do it themselves. In essence, they wanted to lead the social change in the school. With the help of two amazing teachers, Ms. Nuccio and Ms. Szabo, these students led a small revolution. They created and presented advisories to their classmates and led engaging professional development sessions for teachers, staff, and families. They taught others about implicit bias, stereotypes, and inequity. Students shared that when we teach others about culture, we need to embrace, accept, and promote the beauty that each adds. As a principal, I learned that if you want a true school culture and climate shift, you have to move out of the way and let students take charge.
Nilda Irizarry, principal, Irving A. Robbins Middle School, Farmington, Connecticut

Advising on Advisory

After careful research, our school decided to use a research-based advisory program that is highly respected around the world. After implementing it, however, our students reported that it was not a good fit for us. We adjusted several times until we ultimately decided on a model where our 8th graders help to plan and lead our advisory lessons for our 5th, 6th, and 7th graders. By listening to our students and then empowering them to make a difference, we have seen a huge positive shift 3in the culture and climate in our school. As part of the advisory group, for example, our 8th graders decided to create banners to send to the Parkland school in Florida after the school shooting there.
John Fritzky, principal, Byram Intermediate, Stanhope, New Jersey

The Council Says …

Noting a need for a stronger connection to our students' voices, we established a Student Voice Council. Four students from each high school meet quarterly to discuss big issues and potential solutions. As a result we updated our high school dress code and developed informational videos regarding appropriate use of cell phones while at school.
Jesse Welsh, superintendent, Paradise Valley Unified School District, Phoenix, Arizona

Focusing on Well-Being

In my previous role as director of ed tech, I created a vision and six end results that focused on technology integration, technology curriculum, infrastructure, community, and more. There was a group of three students on the steering committee, and one day when we were doing a review of where we were, these students brought up the topic of well-being and how tech was impacting well-being. From there we created an action plan and put into place a number of structures that supported students, classes, and families in managing the impact of technology on well-being. Students from 4th grade and older were heavily involved in collaboration with teachers to develop some of these structures.
Liz Durkin, middle school principal, Stamford American International School, Singapore

Project Happiness

Over the past three years, our middle school has been working to develop a social-emotional curriculum to be a part of our advisory period. We piloted some standalone lessons adapted from a social-emotional learning curriculum and last year implemented a weekly SEL lesson across all three grades. While a lot of the lessons and topics were meaningful and important, we struggled with student engagement and buy-in. At the end of last year, we asked all students for their feedback and input around what topics they would like to discuss and focus on in advisory. The themes that emerged across all grade levels were team-building; stress management and mindfulness; and study skills. A small team of cross-discipline and cross-grade-level teachers worked over the summer to provide resources and curriculum to advisory teachers that addressed each of these skills. We created a website to house resources and mapped out a plan to incorporate these skills weekly throughout the year.
Nat Vaughn, principal, T.A. Blake Middle School, Medfield, Massachusetts

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