Credit: Max Seabaugh
Evidence is growing that students do better not only socially but also academically when they feel safe and regarded as important members of a learning community. In response, a number of reform efforts are focusing on creating small schools or schools within schools where students are known and valued as individuals by other students as well as by teachers and staff.
Some schools have instituted practices such as looping (teachers stay with the same students for two or more years), multiage instruction, and block scheduling to connect students with their schools. Other schools or school districts have instituted character education, violence prevention, and empathy programs, such as the Developmental Studies Center's Child Development Project, the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program, Responsive Classroom, and Second Step.
But even simple actions that cost little or no money can positively affect the school climate and create that all-important sense of belonging and safety that many researchers say makes the difference between thriving and floundering at school.
Everyone Makes the Team
The way Jerry Goldsberry, principal of Plainfield Community Middle School, in Plainfield, Illinois, sees it, middle school educators cause more harm than good when they require students to compete against each other to make the soccer team or the cheerleading squad or the school chorus.
"What happens to those who are not selected for a program?" Goldsberry asks before answering his own question: Those kids say to themselves, "I'm not sure the coach likes me" or "They have favorites" or "I'm not as pretty, not as slender" as the students who did make the cheerleading squad.
By turning kids down, educators create a problem where none existed. "Then you have to undo some of the perceptions that exist as a result of that process," Goldsberry says. Plainview may have 56 wrestlers and more than 700 band and choir members, but unwieldy as those numbers sometimes might be, they represent students who feel they have a place at their school and know they are valued.
No 'Hey, You'
Walking down a corridor at Ohio's Westerville South High School, Assistant Principal Mark Raiff calls out a student's name. The student turns around, looking puzzled and a little nervous: It's usually bad news when a school administrator knows you by name. "Nice volleyball game last night," Raiff says. The quizzical look changes to a wide grin. "Thanks." And then, obviously pleased, "How do you know my name?"
"I do everything I possibly can to remember people's names," says Raiff, who, at the beginning of each school year, takes home student photos and starts memorizing names and faces. "It's so much more effective when you call somebody by their first name."
Sophomore Nicole Richards couldn't agree more. "It's almost like I don't think he's a principal to 2,000 kids. I think he's a principal to me," says Richards, who felt overwhelmed and lonely when she arrived as a freshman but has since started a drug-free club and become a cheerleader.
She credits Raiff with igniting her enthusiasm for the school and says he appears to be everywhere: in front of the building when the buses arrive in the morning, in the cafeteria for all three lunch periods, at football, basketball, volleyball, and other sports games, in the corridors between classes.
In the early freshman days, when Richards didn't even want to come to school, Raiff would stop her in the corridors and ask how she was doing. He encouraged her to start the drug-free club, something she had done in middle school, and he encouraged her to get involved in other school activities.
"I don't even know how he knew me or knew my name," she says. "He makes me want to be more involved and makes me want to do better at my school. If all the teachers were like him, we'd probably have the best school."
Veteran school administrator Tony Bencivenga is not swayed by the current love affair with zero-tolerance policies. In fact, he finds that a no-policies-at-all philosophy adds up to a "win-win-win" situation.
"A policy, whether it's about bullying or wearing hats in school, or cafeteria behavior, always applies to someone else," says Bencivenga, principal at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "When something happens to someone's child, the parents typically want a policy. But when their child is not the victim, but the instigator, it's a different story. The student has a great record, why go hard with one mistake? She feels horrible about it; can't we let it go with an apology?"
Bencivenga also knows that miscreant behavior often has complicated roots. For example, after the Columbine school shooting, a girl at Ben Franklin compiled a hit list of students and teachers on her Web site.
Parents wanted to know what Bencivenga was going to do. He suspended the girl for a day and placed her on home instruction for several weeks. The time "gave her an opportunity to regroup and provided a moment for everyone else to be reassured that no great threat existed," Bencivenga says. It also allowed time for psychological evaluations and counseling.
Evaluators determined that the girl wasn't serious about hurting anyone, but she was troubled and needed help. In a characteristic effort to keep everything out in the open, Bencivenga also brought in the police. "If we learned anything from Columbine," Bencivenga says, "it's that the way to help children is not to isolate them, not to punish them because of some arbitrary policy."
If the goings-on in a fifth-grade class in Skokie, Illinois, are any indication, we'd all be better workers if we smiled and shook hands with our colleagues each morning. At John Middleton Elementary School, students of teacher Eric Henry are better able to concentrate and work cooperatively after their daily 20-minute Morning Meeting.
Using a structure created by the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning, the first thing on the agenda is a greeting between students and students and students and teacher. It can be a high-five, a handshake, sign language, or any other fun and friendly hello.
Next comes sharing, which may be a quick recounting of a weekend family expedition or a favorite out-of-school pastime. Then follows a group activity, which can be anything from a song to a group chant to a cooperative game, such as Rainstorm, in which students, with eyes closed, create noises that sound like rain.
Finally comes news and announcements, which include a message from Henry ("I hope you enjoyed the chilly air and warm sunshine over the weekend"), a general outline of the academic plan for the day, a job board, and a question that students need to answer in writing, such as "What did you have for supper last night?"
"At this point, I can't see starting the classroom day any other way," says Henry, an 11-year teaching veteran who has been holding Morning Meeting for seven years and likes it because it builds a sense of community and lets students know they're important, which leads to trust and a sense of safety that promotes classroom success. "It lets kids really be known by their teacher."
Henry will ask about a camping trip or a favorite sibling. He'll also be able to spot unusual behavior and track down a cause. "It speaks thousands of words to kids when you notice them," he says.
After every athletic competition -- whether they've won, lost, or drawn -- student athletes at Walnut Middle School, in Grand Island, Nebraska, take a vote. It's not about most valuable player or most runs batted in or most three-pointers. It's about character. The Walnut Wildcats determine the two players from the opposing team who they think have shown the greatest character, and then they award those players gleaming medallions.
"It all boils down to living the Golden Rule and being respectful and being treated the way you want to be treated and doing the right thing," says Walnut principal Vikki Deuel. "Respect and responsibility became the watchwords."
Athletic Director Larry Rutar says he has seen a difference in players' actions -- from both teams. And it's not too difficult for his team members to find players from the opposing teams who have helped someone up or taken a bad call without an argument. If at first, the award was met with quizzical looks, now students, parents, and other sports fans sincerely appreciate it.
"I was astonished to hear my number being called for the award," wrote a student from a rival school. "The award you gave me was a great way to end my football season at Sunrise Middle School. Thanks once again. It will be something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."
'Hi, My Name Is . . .'
On the first day of classes at Jefferson School, in Franklin, Massachusetts, Principal Jane Hyman hands out name tags. No one is exempt from wearing the marking-pen identifiers at the K-5 school, including Hyman herself, teachers, classroom aides, staff, janitors, and students.
"People are looking at each other and instead of saying, 'You, with the red sweater' they call you by name," Hyman says. "It becomes more personal. It's like if an animal has no name, someone will kick it as a stray. When you call it Duke, it's different."
Besides having the pleasure of being called by name, the 700 students and staff pretty much know each other by the time the two-week name tag session ends. By then, the students have gotten the motivating message that they are an important element of the school community.
"Everybody feels like Jefferson School is made up of Jane, Linda, Barry," Hyman says. The worth placed on the individual makes the students more interested in contributing to the entire school. For example, when recycling days come along, Hyman can be almost certain of schoolwide participation.
Because trust is such a big issue at the River School, a charter middle school in Napa, California, Principal Linda Inlay can count on her students to show maturity in what could be a disastrous assignment: student evaluations of teachers. "Because they know we take them seriously by listening to them, they become more and more articulate," says Inlay. "They don't become jaded. They don't become blasé and have an attitude."
The listening comes in many ways, during class and in regular teacher-students meetings where more personal issues are discussed. Inlay says she wanted the 180 youngsters at the school for grades 7-8 to "have some say in the quality of teaching they get." The evaluation letter to students from Inlay states that "the teachers and I are being evaluated, not for a grade, but for self-improvement. . . . Since you are the reason the school exists, we would like your feedback to help our teachers improve, so we ask you to do this teacher evaluation with honesty."
Some of the areas on which students are asked to comment are teacher preparation, knowledge of subject, organization and neatness, flexibility in accommodating individual student needs, and returning homework in a timely manner. Regarding core values, students are asked if the teacher follows through, understands the student's point of view, is willing to learn from students, is fun to be with, and accepts responsibility for his or her own mistakes. "It definitely makes you aware of your teaching and your practice," says teacher Mary Lynn.
Lynn says she takes the evaluations "very seriously" and talks to the students about the evaluations to get more feedback and specifics. For example, if students say they'd like social studies to be more exciting, she asks them how. They'll reply by saying they'd like to discuss more current topics or have a debate or a group test. "I listen and try to modify where I can," Lynn says.
Colleague Matt Denney says he also likes that the evaluations provide students a safe way to give feedback to teachers. "Now that we do the evaluations twice a year, students get to feel as though their feedback has a positive impact on the learning environment in the present year -- not something that gets thrown out and does not affect them," he says. "This gives them power in that their words are taken seriously."
Student-Led Parent-Teacher Conferences
In Talent, Oregon, middle school students aren't shunted aside to be talked about behind their backs when it's time for those annual or biannual parent-teacher meetings. Instead, students are in charge. They lead the conference. They share information about what they believe are their strengths and weaknesses, what are their goals and how they're going to achieve them, and how they have handled homework assignments.
"The more connections you can build between school and home, the more students feel secure and safe in their schools," says Talent Middle School principal Patti Kinney, coauthor of A School-wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences.
Parent turnout for the conference is up from 45 percent to 90-95 percent since the student-led conferences began seven years ago, so the home-school connection is definitely increasing. And "it's really powerful," adds Kinney, to put the responsibility of assessing their own work and sharing that assessment on students. She says she believes students try harder both because their parents are more involved in school and because they've taken time to reflect on their own performance.
In addition, the quality of the conversation with their parents about school is high, something that may not always happen at the dinner table. "When students are well prepared to tell their own story, they seem to experience a sense of responsibility, pride, and accomplishment," says Kinney. The students also have a personal relationship over the three years of middle school with the same teacher or staff member, who is charged with helping them organize their presentation to teachers and parents.
In Anchorage, Alaska, the school district is having "listening sessions" with students. In groups of about 25 students, 200 teenagers are being asked for their opinions on their school experiences and what they expect from school and teachers. If their opinions filter down to the classroom level, which Wendy Constantine, the district's Peaceable School coordinator, is hoping will happen, teachers will put a lot more focus on getting to know their young charges.
"Absolutely hands-down every session, students wished that teachers would know their names and something about them," Constantine says. "Kids have said that to us for years: 'Know my name. I know you get 120 kids a year, but know my name, and say my name right. And know something about me.'"
Some teachers do hear what the students are saying, Constantine says, and even at the high school level, where some teachers believe that their job is strictly to teach the content and that's it, they are doing icebreaker activities in class that have nothing to do with subject-matter knowledge. "It's hugely important," says Constantine. "Clearly, the new brain research on emotional engagement demonstrates strongly that people's brains are more receptive to learning if they have a relationship with the teacher."
2 by 10
Just as he did for 26 years as a teacher and administrator, staff development specialist Dennis Loftus still makes time to connect with students in classrooms, in hallways, and in cafeterias in the Syracuse City School District, in Syracuse, New York. And one of his favorite ways to do that is through an activity called 2 by 10, used in a program called Discipline with Dignity. It amounts to choosing one or more students to talk to informally for two minutes, ten days in a row. "How are you doing?" "What are your concerns?" "How are your brothers and sisters?"
Loftus will ask a student who has come to his attention, usually because the student is having academic or behavioral problems. "They're often expressing need for attention in strange ways," says Loftus. At first, the student may grunt an answer. But after a few days of chit-chat, the youngster is answering in complete sentences, and he or she is starting to get the idea that there's an adult nearby who cares.
Many of these kids have trouble with authority and get defensive when they're admonished or punished, and so the problem just escalates, Loftus says. As someone who has established a relationship through the 2 by 10 plan, you can get through when problems arise.
"If you get a kid who is not carrying out what he said he'd do, instead of chastising the kid, you want to keep a relationship," Loftus says. "'Did you do what you said you'd do? If not, what do you think caused you not to do it? Are you happy with that choice? Did it help you get where you want to go?' You want to be able to teach the kids that life is a series of choices -- some are successful, some are unsuccessful."
Like everyone else, students want to work hard or share with someone who likes and cares about them. "If teachers make comments to kids that are personally challenging or insulting to them as a person, the kids will never look at their own behavior." The connected approach, on the other hand, has gotten positive results "hundreds of times," Loftus says.