What happens when, over the course of a week, you load 150 teachers onto school buses and take them on a tour of their students’ community? Show them where their students rest their heads every night…… and where they rise every morning and get dressed before they arrive at the schoolhouse door?………Well, I’ll tell you……… but it might just break your heart and motivate your spirit. This is exactly what happened to me personally as I helped lead this last week as part of our Vertical Alignment meetings in our school system.
As part of the effort to change the culture of our schools and encourage teachers to make a true connection with the students they teach, we (the Instructional Partners at each school) decided that we wanted to begin our year by showing the teachers the community where our students live. We thought this was important for 2 reasons:
(1) Many teachers in our system are “outsiders” (didn’t grow up and go to school in this community)
(2) Understanding the whole student, especially their home environment, helps us understand reasons why they might be disengaged at school.
So What Did This Look Like?
Some of the members of my faculty examined the article from the latest issue of Educational Leadership entitled “4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement” by Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda at our last PLT session. The conversations that ensued were both honest and thought-provoking, as we examined our opinions on student engagement versus student compliance. It also illuminated the need to understand the factors, both internal and external, that might keep our students from being fully engaged in learning. Since my teachers had such powerful conversations about student engagement (or lack thereof), we thought it would be an excellent topic for every teacher in our district to delve into during our system-wide Vertical Alignment sessions.
The selection we chose came from the book entitled, “Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning” by Jennifer A. Fredricks. We used the first section of the first chapter “Myth 1: It’s Easy to Tell Who is Engaged” pgs. 11-16, although we omitted the chart on pg. 15 [Link to free pdf of this chapter is HERE].
For the activity, the teachers were divided according to school (elementary, middle, and high school) so they were working with others with a similar frame-of-mind. This was important because an disengaged high school student can look quite different than a disengaged middle-schooler. Plus, the table conversations tend to be more honest and open when teachers are among colleagues with whom they feel comfortable.
The activity required everyone to read the introduction on pgs. 11-12. Then, each group was given one of the “portraits of engagement” to consider- Fiona and Franco (Fully Engaged), Beatrice and Benjamin (Behaviorally Engaged Only), or Rachel and Ryan (At Risk). Using a T-Chart, each group was asked to compare the characteristics and beliefs of each pair of students, as well as the outside factors that influence their behavior.
Group table conversations were very powerful as teachers shared insights and made generalizations about their assigned pair of students, relating them to the students that fill the desks in their classrooms every day. I heard statements like….”Beatrice reminds me of a student who is fully capable of honors classes but doesn’t take them so she will make easy A’s in the others”…. “Benjamin is a typical honors student who is only concerned with making an A, not really learning anything”…. “Rachel and Ryan make up most of my classes”……
Each group then shared their findings with the whole group. Most teachers said they felt as if their classes are made of students that fell into all three categories of engagement. The fully-engaged Fionas and Francos would, sadly, be in the minority, but usually one or two students per class came to mind. Many mentioned that their honors classes were full of the behaviorally-engaged Beatrices and Benjamins who just wanted to know what they had to do to make a good grade. Surprisingly, a majority of teachers felt that a large portion of their students fell into the at-risk scenario, especially because many of the students in our school system come from low income, single parent homes. One main point that continually surfaced was the importance of building a relationship between the student and the teacher.
So what’s the best way to build a relationship with every student in your class, especially the difficult to reach ones?
Before You Can Meet Them Where They Are, You Need To Know Where They Come From
This is the basic premise behind our community tour on the school bus. Simply titled “Mystery Activity” on the agenda, the teachers had no idea we were loading them onto a big yellow school bus and driving them around our school district for almost an hour 🙂 . (And after the first group on Monday, we asked every group to keep it a secret so the group on Thursday would be surprised as well 🙂 ) Several years ago, a lot of us did a similar bus tour and remember the eye-opening experience in vivid detail. But, we have had such a large turnover in staff in those years, most of those who boarded the bus had no idea what they were about to experience.
We enlisted the help of our middle school School Resource Officer (SRO). He has been on numerous home visits since taking the position. In the summer, he also still works as a patrol officer so he has seen virtually every aspect of some of our students’ lives. He is also a huge advocate for the importance of building relationships with the students in our schools. He was the one who mapped out the routes for our tour and enlisted the help of some of the coaches in taking turns driving the bus during the week.
Before we left the school, the teachers completed an anticipation guide. In the left column, they answered either “Agree” or “Disagree” in response to each statement. The right column was completed after returning from the trip.
Our tour took us throughout our school district and showed us many things. Some students come from nice homes with parents who are involved….. and some live in places with shockingly few amenities, some even in sketchy hotels. Honestly, most of it was truly heart-breaking. Many of the areas we drove through were places most of us never knew existed (especially if you did not grow up in the community). I heard many of those from the community remark about how some of the areas had really changed for the worst since they had been there last. All-in-all it was a very powerful experience for everyone. There’s just something unsettling about seeing firsthand the homes with cardboard for windows.. and front doors standing wide open because there’s no air-conditioning.. and thinking a house was vacant and hearing that we have students who live there and board the bus there every day…and seeing places you read about in the newspaper where a big drug bust occurred. Although no family or students’ names were ever mentioned on the tour, the SRO did point out the bus stops where many children get on the bus and houses where he knew school-age children resided. It was enough.
When we returned to school after the bus tour, the SRO walked us through the demographics of our community.
The median household income is well-below the state’s average. Sadly, it has also only risen $1700 since the last census in 2000. 😦
The education level of the community shows very few who have completed a college degree. Most have high school or less, although many have 1 or more years of college because we have two community colleges within 30 miles.
The crime rate is exorbitant for a community of it’s size. The other communities which fall below it are much larger but have a much lower crime rate.
All of this paints a picture of poverty in our little community which shows up in the percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunches in the three schools that make up our district. The elementary school percentage is probably close to accurate, while the middle and high school percentages are most likely below what they show (older students tend to be embarrassed to return the forms to receive free/reduced lunch).
The overall average percentage for our school system is calculated from these as 75%. It is, without a doubt, lower than it actually is in reality. Many of our students at the middle and high school levels do not return the forms despite our best efforts to encourage them to do so.
Where Do We Go From Here?
To conclude our session, we wanted to focus on something positive so we showed this short video clip about the turnaround of George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, AL.
What a wonderful, encouraging story of a high poverty school where teachers made connections with the students in their classrooms, which, in turn, helped the students exceed expectations and excel! Such a powerful motivation to connect with our students, keep them engaged, and help them succeed. 🙂