Monday, March 12, 2012

Beyond These Walls - My School & Community Engagement Project

I had a vision at the start of this school year of engaging as many co-workers as I could in a community engagement project. I called it "Beyond These Walls." The presentation included above is a PowerPoint (minus the song and transition effects) that I showed to the faculty to kick it off.

The crazy thing, as I reflect now, is how "prophetic" it turned out to be. I thought we were busy before, but this year has cranked everything to a whole new level! It is more challenging than ever to stay focused on what matters most.

There are demands and pressures coming at teachers and administrators from all sides. Unfortunately, some of them have very little to do with keeping the main thing the main thing - a focus on student learning, which is, appropriately, our district's central aim.

My hope with this project was to simply reinforce that students are whole beings. They live multi-dimensional lives. Learning is affected by numerous factors, and responding to this reality only makes us better educators.

The project consisted of three phases that anyone could opt in or out of at anytime. The first task that faculty and staff members were asked to consider was riding a school bus. (Yes, with kids on it!) The second task was to be a "student for a day," following one student's schedule throughout the school day and doing all they were asked to do - take notes, read silently, get to class on time, etc. The third task, which many of us have yet to complete, is to interview a family about their dreams and goals for their child as well as their perceptions of our school system.

While I am still compiling the feedback from the adult participants so that I can share it with the faculty, I want to reflect on an interesting twist I added once the project was underway.

About mid-way through the school year, I told my students about the project and asked them two questions:

(1) What do you think teachers learned from riding your buses and going to your classes and trying to see your world from a new perspective?

(2) Is it important for teachers to do things like this? In other words, is it worth it for the adults in school to spend time trying to better understand students' lives or should we focus on other tasks instead?

Many of the responses to the first question centered on one theme: "how hard it is to be a kid." They discussed issues like the challenge of changing classes, the way behavior changes when adults are around, crowded hallways, etc.

Now, none of this is really all that surprising or dramatic. We all have experienced these dynamics. There is no "news" here. However, what I found most intriguing about all their comments is how honest and open they were about the fact that everyone changes how they act when other adults are around.

In fact, what caused them to cry foul the most was the thought of educators getting any kind of an accurate picture of what really goes on through an experiment like this one. They objected that each teacher, bus driver, or other adult in authority over them would change attitudes and actions when another adult was present to observe. And, as far as their own attitudes and actions, they didn't even try to hide the fact that they change when adults are around. They treated it as a given.

Right now, I am just sharing. I am not reflecting or evaluating this feedback. I am not saying that it is good or bad. I am not even saying that it is fair or accurate. There are deeper social and developmental factors that color these circumstances. It is interesting, though, just how pervasive the cynicism is that they have toward us.

So, why throw it out there? Because regardless of how we feel about their perceptions, they exist. Most of our work with people is living with the situation that another person's perception creates a reality for you and I to deal with, just as ours does the same for them.

Ignoring it is an option, for sure, just not a wise one.

By the way, their answer to question #2 was an emphatic yes.

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