One of STEM’s guiding principles is a value of relentless reinvention and adaptation. There has been no time in my career in education when I have seen learning communities’ requirements for this kind of thinking so strongly needed.
To say times are hard is an obvious understatement. Our parents, teachers, staff, administration, and most importantly, our students are feeling the weight and pressure of not only high school academics but social distance, difficult national conversations, and the dangers of a pandemic.
As we engage in learning during these difficult circumstances we know we cannot be complacent about how we work together to create the best school experience possible for students and staff. We will reinvent and adapt!
Often, crisis brings to the forefront what is most important. We knew coming into this year that the social-emotional support of students was going to have to be a focus of our efforts. Initially, I believed this work would play a supporting role to help maintain our always high academic standards. However, as the demands of blended learning and social distancing have taken hold it has become increasingly clear that the social connectedness between our students and staff is the core of what brings magic to STEM.
But how can we stay connected in a distanced world?
One way we are working to maintain strong relationships is through our advisory programing. We revamped advisory this year after gathering feedback from staff and students. Advisory moved from daily to once a week meetings with much more intentional time dedicated to the endeavor.
This year, every Friday, a group of 25 students meets with a teacher advisor for 45 min with the explicit goals of building staff-to-student,student-to-student relationships,and an overall healthier school culture. Knowing that these connections take time to build, these advisories will stay together for the duration of students’ high school experience. A freshmen advisory for instance will stay together with the same advisor for the next four years. Learning and growing together and acting as a grounding place of support throughout all students’ high school experience.
Our curriculum for advisory leverages best practices from Sources of Strength, an evidenced-based approach to building communities in schools. We also draw ideas from other national organizations such as Facing History and Big Picture Learning. Our hope is that students will know that they have an adult advocate, their advisor, in their corner, as well as a group of peers who, even if physically distanced, are here to support them and have their backs.
Our focus on relationship building and social care can’t stop at the end of the advisory block. Our teachers care deeply about the success of our students. Not just academically but emotionally and socially too. This year many high school teachers have opted into book studies on social-emotional learning (reading Belonging and Becoming) and culturally responsive education (reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain). These groups will engage in weekly discussions of these texts. Gleaning information to help improve their individual classes as well as our collective systems to implement these practices across the school. These groups act as social supports for our teachers too. After all, our teachers crave connection and care as much as our students.
Being in a hybrid model makes the execution of these initiatives more challenging, but also more important. Our teachers are relentlessly reinventing what it means to build relationships with students in this new reality. Whether it’s adapting our advisory curriculum through Zoom games during advisory, check-ins online during classes, or restorative conversations via email or over the phone.
We are in uncharted territory these days and it can leave all of us (parents, teachers, students) feeling ungrounded. However, if we can stay focused on bringing grace, care and compassion to each other as we move forward with a focus on strong positive relationships, we will find again the magic within our STEM community.
Dan Hoffman, Assistant Director (9-12)