Imagine this is your student population:
- Urban, Grades 7-12
- 52% Hispanic, 20.4% Asian, 14% White, 10.4% Black, 2.8% Multiracial, 0.4% Native American
- Four out of five students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
- About 75% have learned English as their second language.
- Students enter your school two or three years below grade level in reading and math.
This is University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I am principal. Many of our students enter UPCS with a fixed mindset. They haven't experienced academic success, they don't have role models who attended college, and they don't have the confidence to engage in difficult academic tasks on their own or with peers. However, by the time our students take their high-stakes exams in tenth grade, 50% of them score advanced in ELA and math. Most of the remaining students score proficient, and no student has ever failed the English exam.
By tenth grade, something has changed for these students. They're seeing themselves as college bound rather than predetermined to follow the path of many youths in our neighborhood. They're seeing that hard work beats adversity. They acquire a growth mindset that enables them to improve with genuine effort, and they come to understand that they have a voice and agency over their own lives.
We set high expectations for our students. We teach an all-honors curriculum, providing high-level material intended to scaffold them to do college work by the time they graduate. We expect them to respect themselves and others as learners, tackle new situations with an open mind, and offer and seek help when needed. Achieving these expectations results in students who score well on standardized tests and go to college. And while no two students acquire these abilities at the same pace, they meet these expectations because of the structure, support, and belief that UPCS provides them.
Foster Student Agency
At the heart of what UPCS believes is that when given the chance, students will eventually develop their own academic voice and, through that, agency over their lives. Seventh-grade students do not come in ready for academic discussions with their peers. Discussing a character in a book is a foreign and scary proposition. Through structures like low-stakes writing and group work, students gradually grow more comfortable with conversations like these. As they begin finding their own academic voice, they realize that they can have voice and agency in other areas of their lives. It's common for students to propose new after-school clubs or fundraisers for field trips, and if the activity is appropriate, we give them the autonomy to carry it out.
The below strategies -- group work, student-led meetings, low-stakes writing, team problem solving, and reflection -- are some of the ways in which we help our students reach or exceed our high expectations.
Utilize Group Work to Foster Active Learning
Part of building students' voices and academic confidence is putting them in charge of their own learning. One way we do this is through group work. Many teachers associate a wide variety of challenges and concerns with group work: kids goofing off, copying from each other, and letting one student do all the work, as well as issues around the teacher not feeling in control.
First of all, group work doesn't mean simply grouping kids to work together on tasks that they could accomplish as individuals. Rather, the teacher needs to create authentic and interesting tasks requiring two or more people to accomplish the goal. When I taught George Orwell's 1984, one of my favorite group-work activities was a jigsaw in which five groups of five students each read a different news article about the modern world. Then, each student would join a new group of five where they'd explain their previous group's article and make connections between articles. Using these connections, the group would then construct a definition of the word Orwellian. I could have simply told passive students the definition of this term, but by enabling them to actively construct their own knowledge, I have them internalize the ideas more deeply -- as well as internalize their ability to have voice and agency in an academic setting.
Put Students in the Driver's Seat With Student-Led Meetings
Students come to see themselves as powerful agents in their own lives -- even when things aren't going well. Rather than call in a parent for a "This kid better straighten out!" meeting, middle school teachers may ask a student to host a student-led meeting. In this meeting, the student is in control to set the agenda, identify his or her own strengths and challenges, and propose solutions or ask for help. We give our students the structure, tools, and support to take charge of their lives, believe in themselves, and succeed.
Use Low-Stakes Writing to Build Confidence and Critical Thinking Skills
The key to low-stakes writing is to investigate meaningful, thoughtful questions every day. We're not looking for perfect grammar; we're looking for original thought. By removing the grade and the red marker from the equation, writing becomes less scary -- a learning tool instead of a way to be judged. Over time, students become less afraid of putting pen to paper and see improvement in their writing, showing them how hard work can help them improve and achieve their goals.
In fact, when it's time for a high-stakes assignment -- like a major paper on a novel or the essay on an exam -- students feel prepared. As a former UPCS history and English teacher, if I asked students to write a paper on A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that they'd already written several times on the play. They'd considered whether they love, hate, or are confused about Stanley Stella, or Blanche. They'd considered why Stanley would reference William Blake's The Tyger in scene 10, and they would have created a chart to track and comment on Tennessee Williams' use of light and color throughout the play. They'd given all of the characters some thought, formulated ideas, and supported those ideas with evidence. They had plenty of ammo to work with. Massachusetts’ high-stakes exam requires students to write a lot. Our students pass these exams because they're absolutely unafraid to tackle new situations through writing.
Implement Team Problem Solving
Social-emotional issues are at the heart of many problems that arise at school. Since our founding, we've maintained a weekly, two-hour, common planning block where we can meet in teams, departments, and as a whole faculty to discuss the past week of school and make plans on how to address any issues that have arisen. The issues may be large or small, and the solutions may range far and wide:
- Connecting a younger student with a mentor or tutor
- Referring a student into our Student Support Process
- Calling parents in for a meeting
- Asking the Student Adjustment Counselor to check in with someone
- Asking older students to present a workshop to younger students on cyberbullying and internet safety
As the adults driving school culture through team problem solving, we attempt to instill in our students the belief that no problem is too big or too bad to address. If a solution doesn't work, we try something else, but above all, we show students that they don't need to hide from their problems out of embarrassment or shame. They have the power to address and take charge of their lives in healthy ways.
Reflect Openly and Honestly
At UPCS, rather than dwelling on the past, we try to honestly evaluate where we currently are and make a positive plan moving forward. This is true at the faculty and student level. At the beginning of each year, we reflect on the past year's data and ask ourselves if we're satisfied. We identify areas of concern and set goals to address them throughout the year. Each week, we check in with each other about how students are doing. Teachers openly and honestly ask for help from colleagues, the instructional coach, or administration as needed. Struggling with a student isn't a sign of weakness; rather, asking for help in reaching that student is a sign of strength and community. Similarly, we ask students to reflect through low-stakes assignments about how they did on a test, how they functioned in a group, or why they got kicked out of class. (The iceberg reflection sheet [PDF] and the longform reflection sheet [PDF] for students acknowledges that there are likely many feelings below the surface of any inappropriate behavior.) Reflection is embedded in our culture at the student, classroom, and schoolwide level. By modeling reflection and giving our students ample opportunity to practice it, we're fostering self-aware, capable students who are empowered to take charge of their own lives.
Our mission as a school is to help kids internalize the Walt Whitman line, "For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you." Our students may be from what is viewed as a tough neighborhood, they may be learning English, they may not know anyone who has gone to college, but they are good enough to achieve all of this and more. They are as smart and can be as powerful as any of their counterparts in the suburbs. Through mindful problem solving, reflection, and low-stakes assignments, we employ student-centered active engagement in academics to help kids develop voice and agency in school and in their lives as a whole.
How do you develop a growth mindset and agency in your students? Please share in the comments below.