5 Ways to Leverage Student Ownership for Improving School Communication

Communication shows up on just about every school’s plans for self-improvement in one way or another. A school might work on newsletters, automated texts, or social media, all of which are worthwhile.

However, as I recently learned at an active transportation conference,

Good solutions solve many problems; access to active transportation solves mobility, but it also addresses obesity, isolation & depression, and connecting with ‘the other'” (Tyler Norris).

Similarly, focusing primarily on student ownership is a good solution that can address many problems; it solves students feeling more invested in their learning, but it also strengthens the school/home connection, lifelong learning, and a more empowering school culture.

Here are some examples of how leveraging student ownership might help improve school communication in particular:

1. More transparent process. Ownership might look like students planning how to spend their learning time, leading workshops to teach peers, co-constructing success criteria, and more. All of these lend themselves to a tone of transparency that will most certainly make its way home to students’ families.

2. Authentic audience. Rather than waiting for that unproductive “what did you learn at school” conversation, students can provide their families with a window into their learning as it unfolds. Tools like Seesaw, student blogging, and more make this doable even for young students.

3. Students’ ability to identify and develop learning goals can grow in ways they can articulate to parents…

4. …which also lends itself to more meaningful conferences.

5. Students learn how to take more meaningful action that often carries over to their local community.

 

Student ownership has so much potential to strengthen our students and our schools. Putting more of the planning and decisions in their hands can yield astonishing results if we are courageous enough to control less and share more.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Owning That They CAN’T Always Control What We Think They Should

I used to think…students could control a lot more I do now.

Now I know…there is a whole lot more out of their control than I realized.

I used to think…part of my job as a teacher was to hold them accountable so they could learn responsibility.

Now I know…holding a child accountable for that which they have only partial or zero control is fundamentally unjust.

I used to think…self-control was all about helping them take care of themselves.

Now I know…sometimes our emphasis on control is less about their needs and more about our agenda. 

So as you view images like this “What I can/can’t control” example…

…consider these questions:

  • how might the home environment impact a student’s control homework completion (including but absolutely not limited to internet access, books in the home, library access, care for other siblings, etc.)
  • how might the way certain values are (or are NOT) emphasized and valued at home impact the way a student views them, such as education and hard work?
  • how might the stability (or lack thereof) of a students’ upbringing impact his/her ability to trust people enough to ask for help, try again, or respond to challenges in responsible ways?
  • to what degree should hold students accountable for values we have always been taught to cherish when they may have been taught that other values matter more (taking care of family over studying for a test, for example)?
  • how might chronic or toxic stress impact a student’s capacity for self-control?

I suspect the list of questions could go on for some time.

Which is why:

1) we can’t ignore the reality of compassion fatigue and why self care should be a massive emphasis for teachers everywhere. It’s incredibly draining for teachers who choose to seek understanding and responsiveness amid a myriad of difficult circumstances.

2) it’s worth considering why self-regulation > self-control.

3) I love Brene Brown’s Engaged Feedback Checklist, which I’ve shared on this blog many times. “I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).”

4) we should step away from the stickers:

“If a child is demonstrating stress behaviours, they may be telling us that our expectations are too much for them. Reducing the stressors may mean changing our program or our routines. If we are asking young children like Michael to sit for too long, listen for too long, or complete too many worksheets, then no number of stickers is going to be enough incentive for a child who is not developmentally ready.”

How can assuming more ownership over this issue of control with a stance of curiosity impact the students in your classroom?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

7 Questions to Ask About Your School Fundraiser

Fundraising season is in full swing. On the one hand, I completely understand the sad need for fundraising in our underfunded schools; on the other, I am growing increasingly concerned about our tactics.  The more I consider my own experiences, from childhood through adulthood, the more full of questions I become. Here are a few so far:

Do the prizes for top sellers tend to go toward one racial or economic group of students? I still remember the name of the boy who won the top prizes every year when I was in elementary school; his dad was a surgeon, which also meant his work colleagues were able to load him up with purchases. If a fundraiser serves to reward kids who are already privileged, we should re-evaluate.

Do the prizes highlight haves & have-not’s in any way? My first job after graduation was at a school that used school uniforms. Students who brought $1 on the last day of each month were permitted to dress in casual clothes the next day. Though this was a more affluent area, I was still horrified to see how it shamed the few students left in uniform who could not afford it (often because they had a lot of siblings). We should be wary to avoid creating such a spotlight.

Are there ways to celebrate school-wide efforts? My daughter’s school is planning to have a school-wide special assembly to celebrate everyone’s efforts (whether they were able to sell or not). I love this because it builds school-spirit and removes individual pressure from students.

Do the prizes create status issues among students? Winning badges & trinkets for selling X amount may seem trivial to us, but within kids’ social circles, they can MATTER. SO. MUCH. We must be careful not to add to their burdens, especially when so much is out of their control. And we must protect the privacy and dignity of families who may be struggling.

Are there more discreet ways to fundraise? Amazon Smile gives .5% of all purchases, the annual Target grant offers $700 for field trips, several chain restaurants offer portions of meals, DonorsChoose, adding a donation button to your school Facebook page (100% goes toward your school), & more.

Are the prizes actually attainable? If we’re pulling students from valuable classroom time to be dazzled at an assembly by prizes they are unlikely to even earn, we might want to revisit our approach.

Are you selling something the community wants? Try asking what the community would be interested in purchasing before deciding on that year’s fundraiser. Do they really want more wrapping paper, or maybe they’d prefer bags of potatoes from local markets? Or maybe they really would just prefer a donate button on your school’s website or social media page. Whatever the case, if we’re going to ask students to solicit the community, we should do our homework first in finding out what the community wants.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Creating Flexible Yet Significant Parent Volunteer Opportunities

Here’s the catch 22 of parent volunteers: you want them in your classroom, so you provide meaningful opportunities. They want to volunteer, but with other children, sicknesses, and other commitments, they don’t necessarily show up as planned. So teachers make their volunteer opportunities a bit less consequential — or even give up on providing opportunities altogether — so that no-shows won’t cause too much trouble.  And then when parents do come, they feel disappointed at the lackluster opportunity.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve come to the right place.

Here are some suggestions:

1) First, stick with meaningful opportunities. Keep those one-on-one reading slots, small group math work, and science stations. Focus instead on finding a system featuring built-in reminders for parents — with everything else going on, most teachers really don’t have time to send reminders, let alone coordinate cancellations! Keep reading to find an option that might work for you!

2) Rely on room parents. If you have a room parent, leave it up to him or her to coordinate opportunities with volunteers. This might include sending text reminders to parents who have signed up or helping to arrange subs.

3) Leverage Google appointments. Google appointments only work with school or business accounts, and they are wonderfully simple to use! You can add a single slot, or multiple slots with the duration you’ve set. You can also add a description so parents know exactly what they are signing up for! Then, simply give parents the link to your school’s “calendar appointment page” (which will be built in with your school account), and let them sign up. There are even instructions for cancellation. Full details here.

Bonus: use a URL shortener to get a short-link for your calendar appointment page and print it out on a handout to go home to reach parents that don’t check email. Do this throughout the year to remind them of opportunities you’ve added!

4) Use the Remind app. Send texts to all your students’ parents to let them know about volunteer opportunities, whatever your platform.

5) Pick a volunteer sign-up platform. I’ve seen SignUp.com and VolunteerSignUp.org. I’m especially impressed with the simplicity of VolunteerSignUp.org — it is very quick to add opportunities, and it automatically generates an email and a shortened URL to share with parents on social media or on flyers.

6) Work with your working parents. A post in Edutopia gave some great ideas here, including:

  • Scheduling reading circles and volunteer shifts at the start of the day so that parents can help before work
  • Using telecommunication platforms like Skype or Google Hangouts so that parents can read to the class or help with pre-scheduled assignments without being physically present in the classroom
  • Inviting parents to update the class website and social media
  • Preparing learning center materials from home
  • Helping in the school garden on the weekends

7) Solicit for special skills. Perhaps you have a graphics-savvy parent that might be willing to help with logos and posters. Maybe some even have connections with community members that might enhance your students’ unit of study.

8) Focus on cultivating genuine relationships with families. This goes beyond just sending an email when we need volunteers or when a child is struggling with behavior. As eloquently summarized by Larry Ferlazzo on ASCD:

“A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners.”

The above article describes possibilities like home visits and doing more listening than talking. I also wrote a few months ago about 10 ways we can partner with parents.

Above all else, we need to remember that we exist to support families, not the other way around. Volunteer work and all other aspects of the home-school relationship will be enhanced when we bear this in mind.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On A Sustainable School Year: An Open Letter to Parents I Wish I’d Sent

Dear Parents,

The year is still shiny and new. We’re feeling refreshed after the summer break, and ready to tackle a new year. In your renewal, you may be feeling tempted to sign up for all the programs and pack all the cute lunches and be all the things.

As teachers, we get it. We feel determined to apply for all the grants and find all the flexible seating and be all the buzz words.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do our best for those kids, especially when we feel like we have energy to spare.

But the truth for us all is, as any long distance runner will tell you, starting off at a sprint is just not sustainable. The crash will come, and if you’ve poured in all the energy at the beginning of the year, the crash will be swift and complete.

My personal favorite illustration of this burn-out effect was Jen Hatmaker’s hilarious blog post a few years back:

“[husband] Brandon: “You don’t have to do all that, you know. Just blow it off.”

Me, staring blankly:

“Well, what a lovely thought you’re having there in your brain. How nice for you to be thinking that thought. I want to live in your imaginary world where my failure to do the School Stuff doesn’t mean our kid is the only one not wearing a purple shirt or didn’t have his pictures in the slideshow or didn’t bring in a handmade card for his teacher like every other student. I’ll just ‘blow it off’ and our kids can work it out with their therapists later.”

If we start out feeling like we have to do it all, and do it all perfectly, I will be astonished if any of us make it to the New Year.

This year, let’s set a more sustainable pace from the start. The same blogger posted last Christmas about “Big Day Sabotage,” with suggestions on how to return to a calmer, healthier holiday season, like lowering stimulation, avoiding over-scheduling, casting a simple, manageable vision, and talking about big feelings. These tips absolutely apply to sustainability here as well. Here are a few more to consider:

Be mindful of pace, for your child, for yourself, and for your family. Talk with your students about how they are feeling, talk to them about how you are feeling, and share those feelings with me. While I can’t be all things to all people, I am happy to accommodate your needs the best I can.

Don’t be afraid to opt out. It’s not laziness to opt out of a program or event that doesn’t work for your child or your family. Read about the time I opted out of what I’m sure was a lovely home reading program here.

Work more on your culture of agency than on perfecting details. Instead of trying “keep up” with the level of involvement you might perceive from other kids and their families, focus your energy on letting your child take the reins. If it’s important to her to look like an amazing Amelia Earhart for the wax museum, don’t make it the default for you to do all the work — teach skills like sewing, planning shopping lists, or calling the school office to check for available butcher paper or old cardboard boxes. And be ok with what will inevitably be a messy rendition. (other ideas for a culture of agency at home here).

Stay in touch regarding your needs! I remember when a parent told me that her child had been spending hours on math homework each night. By the time she talked to me, they had clearly been maxed out for some time, and my heart sank — new teacher that I was, it never occurred to me that any of my students would be pouring in that much time on the work I had assigned. I was happy to have the chance to set it straight then, and I learned for the future that I need to consult parents much more thoroughly regarding homework moving forward.

Meanwhile, I will work toward greater sustainability as well by seeking out student voice, putting learning in students hands, and managing self-care.

Let’s work together, not just to “make it,” but to approach learning at a pace and tone that will be sustainable this year, and for many joyful years to come.

Thanks,

Mary Wade

Let’s Preserve the Complexity of Our Icons

A phrase that stood out to me most from reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was:

“We seem to feel that a person like Helen Keller can be an inspiration only so long as she remains uncontroversial, one-dimensional. We don’t want complicated icons.”

This was the chapter where I also learned that Helen Keller was a socialist — and indeed, that it was so much a part of her adult life, that it’s truly shocking that most of us never learn this fact in our history books.

I own one of the “Value Tales” biographies of Helen Keller, the very theme of which is “The Value of Determination.” While I certainly want my kids to be inspired by her determination, I also want them to learn about her complex activism and beliefs, and to form their own conclusions. She wrote:

“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate — that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased…I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment…Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”

It is truly an injustice to our students to assert that people can only be inspirational if they are essentially perfect.

Unjust because it creates a false sense of unattainable achievement (“only those kinds of saint-like people make a difference”).

Unjust because it conveys that we don’t trust them with complicated truths.

Unjust because it’s the kind of rhetoric that fuels partisan politics and the idea that people are only worthwhile if their views 100% align with our own.

Let’s trust our students enough to trust them with truth. To create spaces where they can sort through difficult topics. To encourage them to form their own conclusions and realize that all people are messy, with strengths and failings. Let’s preserve the complexity of our icons.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When Not Everyone Is Inspired by Your Inspiration

My first year of college, I enrolled in a freshman support group of sorts. One of the requirements was to take a student development course on building a sense of community. The main mentor text in this endeavor was Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks.

Seems innocuous enough, right? I really like Paul Fleischman, too. But I hated that course, and as a result, I also disliked the book.

Looking back, I can more clearly pinpoint why. It was the pressure to conform, to pretend inspiration in order to feel a sense of belonging.

Sometimes, an approach, text, or training might dazzle most but not all; when that happens, does it lead to blame or shame or even exclusion? Are labels applied like “not a team player” or “not fully invested,” when the truth sounds more like, “Still thinking about this application” or “Stressed about my massive inbox right now.”

This applies just as much for teachers during professional development as it does for students during back-to-school icebreaker games.

Adding a large dose of agency to our approach (actual agency, not the pretend kind — a concept that Doug Robertson nailed in a post a few months ago), is a great way to move away from this sense of in-group/out-group. It also conveys that you trust teachers and students to find their unique way forward, which ultimately leads to greater success.

“It’s great to be successful. It’s even better to make sure you followed your own distinctive, and not necessarily always obvious, path to the success that can truly fulfill you.”

How we can show our teachers and students that we are as open-minded as we hope they will be? How can we help co-define & construct success? How can we promote an atmosphere of agency in our learning?

A few resources below might provide some ideas to help all participants find inspiration!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto