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Learning From Students Part 2: The Results

The following is the second of three blogs reporting on a new protocol used to interact with and collect and analyze data from students about their school experiences.

The new protocol engages four junior high schools and a teacher on a day’s visit throughout the Prague; seeing the capital city through the eyes of the students and engaging them in conversations about their school experiences.

The results are organized by what we learned about the protocol and what we learned about the students’ school and community-based activities.

In terms of the protocol we learned that it is an effective strategy to engage students, understand their leadership and observe their ability to work effectively as a team. The process of engaging four students away from the school environment created a small intimate learning community that yielded quality opportunities for the students to share their experiences and demonstrate their skills.

We did find that in order for the protocol to be effective a number of conditions need to be met, including:
  • Ensure the school leaders support the day’s activities and are aware and interested in the purpose of the interactions with the students;
  • Provide the students with enough time to design the day’s schedule;
  • Allow the students to lead and be willing to trust their leadership;
  • Establish an opportunity to meet and develop a set of agreements prior to departing for the day’s activities;
  • Ensure the students understand the purpose of the interactions and feel free to ask questions of us;
  • Create a set of questions that can be asked throughout the day; and
  • Ensure a formal reflection activity at the end of the day to share the day’s meaning for each participant.
In terms of learning from the students about their school experiences we were able to initially learn their about their ability to (1) work effectively as a team, (2) share leadership and (3) create a trusting environment for us all to share and learn together.

The following reflects the students’ experiences and insights:

School Structure: According to the students the most important aspects of the school’s quality and character are respect and relationships. They made it very clear that respect among all students, all staff, all parents and school partners is essential for students to feel a sense of belonging and be successful. In addition, they reported quality positive relationships between students and staff, between all students, between all staff and with parents and community partners. The students stated that these relationships impact their positive sense of the school and effectively lead to their development. The students identified the following four components as the foundation of Riverside Junior High School:
  • Academic subjects (science, math, English, geography, history, religious studies, second language, art, music, theatre and physical education)
  • Student clubs (opportunities for students to choose groups focusing on issues they care for and engage with other students)
  • Skills for Life (enhances the school’s curriculum to prepare students for life outside of and beyond school)
  • Sports (inter-mural and competition with other independent schools)
Student Leadership: leadership and teamwork are expected attributes of each student and Riverside Junior High School provides a variety of formal and informal opportunities to acquire and enhance leadership knowledge and skills:
  • Student Council
  • Student Clubs
  • Sports
  • House Leadership
Student Engagement: students are offered many opportunities to be engaged in classroom and extra-curricular activities, they offered the following examples of quality student engagement:
  • Students are treated respectfully by teachers encouraging them to express themselves and offer suggestions
  • Students are encouraged to enhance their school experiences through classroom, art and sports activities
  • Students believe the school provides room for debate on issues students value
  • Students reported the opportunity to interact directly with the principal
  • Students are able to evaluate teachers
Parent Engagement: students reported that their parents are very encouraging and supportive of their school experiences:
  • Parent-teacher conferences include students
  • The school PTA engages parents
  • Parents organize food sales and other fund-raising activities
Volunteer Experiences: opportunities for students to give back to the community by working with social agencies; in response to what they learn from their volunteer experiences, they replied:
  • We have it good
  • Other people have needs that we can address
  • Giving is important
  • We see that too much food is wasted that could go to the soup kitchen
  • Parents are very supportive of our volunteer experiences
We compared the students’ leadership, engagement and statements with the school’s foundation documents including the Mission Statement, About Junior High School and the Skills for Life and Outdoor Pursuits Programs.

The mission statement includes
“The staff team is dedicated to building positive relationships with students and preparing them to be accomplished, global citizens.” Our experiences with the students demonstrated their sense of being global citizens and their responses to our questions focused on building positive relationships with teachers and others students. Thus, there is a positive relationship between our experiences with the students and their responses to the Riverside Junior High School Mission Statement.

The About Junior High School document states
“Junior High provides an education that is inspiring and challenging for the individual through an engaging, dynamic and innovative curriculum. It motivates our students to reach great heights and explore new initiatives through a variety of projects. These enable students and teachers to participate in exciting pathways which are relevant to the developmental needs of this age group.” Our experiences and observations of the students along with their responses to our questions align with the commitment that students will reach great heights – in fact, the students exceeded our expectations by organizing, facilitating and sharing a day in Prague with us.

The Skills for Life overview states that activities
“…provide our students with specialist instruction and promote higher levels of challenge, enabling students to raise their self-esteem and develop their skills in leadership and teamwork.” All four students demonstrated positive self-concepts, leadership and teamwork skills that go well beyond normal competencies of junior high school students. Their ability to create and implement a plan for our day together, make positive adjustments and share leadership is extraordinary and not often the skill set of students their age.

All four students shared leadership and supported each other to ensure the information they provided was correct and that we understood Prague’s history and their pride in their city. They welcomed our questions about their school and community experiences and made sure we understood how those experiences impacted their school, family and community life.

We learned that they and their fellow students have multiple opportunities to gain academic knowledge and skills along with developing skills for life through engagement and leadership opportunities. The point students made throughout the day was that positive relationships among their fellow students and with the school staff are the foundation to their progress and success both at school and in the community.

The third and final blog will identify implications for our work and the work of others to better understand students’ school experiences, insights, talents and skills.

About the author: Terry Pickeral, president Cascade Educational Consultants has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
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