First Things

The kids spoke first. Before we talked about mission or vision, before the new principal, me, did his best to introduce himself, and before we ticked through the “to do” list of the first week back, four intrepid students stood up in front of the staff, looked all of us in the eye, and reminded us what really mattered.

IMG_4070 (1)Truth be told, only three were able to be in the library that Monday morning, the first day back on campus for teachers still wearing shorts and summer tans. Four had met with me over the summer and we’d talked about what makes our school special, the anxiety and stress students face, and the messages they would share with the adults in their lives if given the opportunity.

They were messages of hope, honestly told, and stories about their own first days at ACMA when their anxiety was high and the biggest reassurances came from their teachers.

So on that first day back, as the staff settled in after a pancake breakfast, the first speakers of the morning were the kids. They were awesome.

As one student stood up and told the staff, “Some students face problems beyond being new to ACMA, though- difficult home lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, life changes like divorce or moving, or even something as simple as applying for colleges, and everything else that comes with that. For these students and all students, you’re something we can count on every single day we show up. This may be the most stability they’re getting at this point in their lives. And undoubtedly, many count on you for that whether they show it or not. Students are always listening. Not always when we want them to, but they are. Things that you say, even offhanded or trivial things can change a student’s entire perspective, for the better or the worse. And that’s a powerful thing, knowing that our relationships can change someone’s day, their year, their life.”

Another empathized with his teachers, explaining, “I’m actually also a teacher. I’m a gymnastics coach at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy. Now, I’m not trying to say that i’m on the same level as you guys, I mean, the most education that I have is sophomore year of high school. However, in other ways, our jobs are pretty similar. I grade them on their drills, and I make progress reports for them to take home. And according to them, I’m also in my 40s. But above all that, they see me as a role model. They reflect the energy that I put out there all the time. If I’m positive and I’m being a good cheerleader, they catch on, and they see that since I love what I do, they should love it too. And when you guys show that we should respect and trust the people around us, we begin to to do the same with our peers.”

A third told the teachers, “You change our lives, and not always with what subject you’re teaching but with how you support us. I want to thank you for the influence you’ve had on me, and I hope that you will continue to have a positive influence on each student who comes to school next week.”

The staff listened.

This was the reason we do what we do: students.

…and then they invited us outside to play.

The almost fifty adults followed our student leaders out to the quad where they circled us up and invited us to join in on a theater game called “Freeze!” As one student explained, this was a game that invited us to avoid the word “no” and concentrate on embracing the idea of “yes, and…” as we extended the impromptu scene.

IMG_4064Laughing together, we did our best to do just that, teachers tapping in to perform scenes from ACMA life and relishing the opportunity to have fun with each other.

When we finished, the students brought us back inside and reminded us that that feeling of nervousness that we felt before we jumped into the game, those butterflies in our stomach, were not unlike what so many of our students would be feeling the next week when they arrived for classes. We, the adults who would welcome them, could make a difference.

We got it. Yes, and…

I said that only three of the four student were able to come to our meeting, but that’s not quite the truth. At our last summer planning session the fourth, a young filmmaker, realized that she had to be out of town that morning, so she made a video we could play for teachers. Her earnestness and caring, projected on the screen in the library that morning, captured the essence of what is right about “kids today.”

Looking out from that screen and into our hearts, that fourth student spoke her truth.

Don’t underestimate your influence,” she told the teachers. “You have the power to potentially change a student’s life.”

I think that starting our school year together as a staff by listening to students helped to set the tone for the months ahead. Laughing and interacting with kids and colleagues reminded us that we are all in this together, a professional family working toward the same goal: supporting our students and each other.

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San Dieguito’s Student Forum

Given the chance to talk and listen students become adults.

One of my very favorite parts of San Dieguito is our monthly student forum. Unfettered from adults or official ASB guidance, students at SDA gather together in the art studio, a space large enough to hold multitudes, to talk about the topics on their minds.

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Sometimes the ideas are big ones: How do we help integrate all grade levels for a more cohesive school? Other times the topics are profoundly practical: We need more toilet paper in the girls’ bathrooms! From time to time my role as principal puts me in the hot seat: We need more student parking. We do. Often the kindness of the students astounds me, as when a student addressing our visiting superintendent compared me to Beyoncé. Huh? …and thanks!

Mostly, the forum is an opportunity for students to have a voice in the life of their school.

IMG_6162Without shouting or having to mount a podium and fiddle with a microphone, every student, not just elected officials, has equal access to all her fellow students. The audience listens, really listens, students write down what is being said, and the audience responds respectfully. It is an exercise in democratic free speech that is inspirational.

Traditionally, two student moderators lead the forum, standing in front of a group well fed with pizzas provided by ASB. A blank document is projected on a screen at one end of the room, a place for notes, a list of topics suggested by the students, and announcements. It’s a document that will be shared with the staff as soon as the forum is over.

Not that staff isn’t there… Every forum all four of our administrators, many teachers, counselors, and classified staff join students at the forum to listen, answer questions, and hear about San Dieguito from a student point of view.

IMG_4364This point of view, or perhaps better said these points of view, are spoken, not shouted. Students are passionate about what they are saying, but the norms of the forum, built over years, are expectations of respect, kindness, and patience. Freshmen speak, seniors too, and students and staff listen to what they have to say.

The results can be immediate (more toilet paper), take a little longer (parking solutions), be subtle or transformative. Regardless of what comes out of a student forum, however, it is the existence of such a tradition that makes the biggest difference.

Any school is a better place when students are heard. Strong student newspapers are one way of sharing student perspectives, vibrant student governments are another, and here at San Dieguito it’s amazing to know that there is a place for every student to share her point of view. Our school is richer because if it!

Student Voices

photoThe three seniors and I sat around the table in my office and we talked. Our discussion had started with a time capsule; construction of a new classroom building had unearthed a 2’x2’ metal box, heavy, rusted, and welded shut. The students were curious about this mysterious piece of campus history. We honestly don’t know what’s in it, none of us, students or adults. It’s a great equalizer, the unknown, and a welcome catalyst for conversation.

We talked a bit about the past, then shifted to the present: they’d like to put a time capsule of their own into the ground. “Where,” they asked, “do we get a time capsule?”

Plans made, our conversation drifted to other topics: the new term, what it had been like to move to Encinitas and start at San Dieguito, and the pressures of applying to college.

When I hear the question of how schools can promote “student voice” my first thoughts are of the big things like our Student Forum and the fabulous funkiness of “The Mustang,” our student newspaper. Formal opportunities like these are important, and a vibrant student newspaper and active ASB are indicators that a school hears what students have to say.

photo 1 (19)Here at San Dieguito we’re blessed with both, and both know that the spirit of our school is rooted in the belief that students should have a huge say in what happens here. Our San Dieguito culture of acceptance comes from the thousand little acts of kindness students show each other every day.

The dozen or so teachers new to San Dieguito saw this back in August when a panel of students came in to tell them what our school is all about. As the principal, I had yapped at the new teachers already, but it was when these amazing students took the stage that the true nature of our school filled the room. As students talked about the respect and encouragement they felt from teachers, their voices helped our newest additions understand the possibilities of the year ahead.

Important in this process, and true at San Dieguito, is the adults’ willingness to trust that what the students have to say matters.

mannyHere at San Dieguito one way of celebrating that unexpected and often delightful voice is the fact that our school’s official Twitter account is run by students and fronted by our school mascot. I love that the students have this voice, unfiltered and filled with the exuberance of youth.

And yet it’s in those quiet conversations, like the one one I had with those three seniors, that I feel student voice is at its strongest. Those students didn’t need to be told that their opinions mattered. They didn’t have to shout to be heard. They knew that what they had to say was important and would be listened to.

The more often conversations like the one I had the pleasure to share with those three students happen, the more students spread the word that they can, should, and will be heard. Each of these conversations makes our school healthier, happier, and more closely connected.

Out of the Box

It hit me, as I read the prompt for this week’s #YourEduStory challenge, that I didn’t have an answer I was proud of. The question of the week: “How can you empower student voice in your school?”

Sure we talk with students, informally at lunch, in student groups run through counseling or intervention programs, and in our ASB class, where student leaders articulate their perspective beautifully. But even with those mechanisms in place to hear what students are thinking, as a school, I know we can do more.

So…

I took this week’s prompt as a call to action more than a chance for reflection, and I brought this question to the people I really wanted to hear the answer from: students.

Early in the year I’d met with a trio of amazing kids who wanted to talk about homework. We actually looked at a few articles together, and began an interesting conversation, but in the sturm und drang of the school year, I’ll confess that I let it fall away.

This week I got them together again and asked: “How can we empower student voice at Diegueño?”

Here’s what they said:

To empower student voice, we can do multiple things, all of which will encourage students to speak up. One of the things Diegueño could do is have a box placed somewhere easily accessible on the campus, where students can place their opinions on school related matters, anonymously or named. The box would need to be gone through once a week or so, and the top five things brought up would need to be considered seriously. The staff could also host a meeting every month or on some periodical schedule that any students would be welcome to attend. At the meeting, some of the ideas put into the box could be brought up, and the students and teachers could discuss how to solve them. The box and meetings would need to be kept in shape by the students, as this would be a chance for them to discuss things openly with other students, and possibly with teachers. Whatever matter the students decided to resolve should be announced during morning announcements or lunch, and the students would be responsible for making sure it is taken seriously and responsibly (with help and approval from the teachers, of course). Also, the surveys Diegueño staff occasionally posts online are great in my opinion.”

What a great set of ideas.

So in keeping with the idea of this question as an opportunity, I’m setting these four goals, and giving myself the challenge to blog about each sometime in the next few weeks:

First, I will meet regularly with a group of students to ask questions and listen to what they have to say about their Diegueño experience, and I’ll use what they tell me to inform the work I do to make our school the best it can be.

Second, I’ll get working on that box!

Third, I will work with ASB to organize a forum for students to discuss their points of view about our school.

Finally, I will find a way to make transparent and public our conversations.

Hearing students is an important part of being an educator, and acknowledging when you haven’t done a good enough job of it is part of improving. I’m thankful to have had my spring interrupted by the challenge of this topic, and to have been given the opportunity to adjust what I’m doing to get better.

What will the kids say? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

And when someone asks me about empowering student voice next fall I’m looking forward to having an answer I can be proud of.