Dr. Shelley Montgomery is the instructional partner at Etowah High in the Attalla City Schools system (which also includes Attalla Elementary and Etowah Middle).
by Shelley Montgomery
What happens when, over the course of a week, you load 150 teachers onto school buses and take them on a tour of their students' neighborhoods? You show them where their students rest their heads every night – and where they rise every morning and get dressed before they arrive at the schoolhouse door?
In some ways, the experience might just break your heart, but it can also motivate your spirit. This is exactly what happened a few weeks ago as part of our Vertical Alignment meetings in our school system.
As part of an effort to strengthen connections among the three schools in our system, all of the teachers in Attalla City participate in three professional days each year with teachers from other schools.
We focus on the content areas and include teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Those who teach electives at the middle or high school (such as Agriculture or PE) will plug into one of the subjects where they feel most comfortable.
We began these meetings last year and they were so valuable we have committed to continuing them. Our first meeting in early October was a half-day and we've planned two full-day meetings for later in the year.
The Instructional Partners at each school collaboratively plan and facilitate all of these sessions. The first session sets the stage for the year, and our subsequent sessions are driven by the feedback, suggestions, and needs of the subject-area teachers. The spring sessions will continue our focus on building relationships and fostering engagement, with opportunities for teachers to collaborate and plan with the grades below and above their level.
This year, one major focus for all three schools in our system is to build authentic relationships with every student in every class. Teachers, administrators and staff all feel this is an area where we can grow and every improvement will directly benefit the students we serve. With this in mind, we decided to jump-start the 2014-15 school year with a powerful experience for teachers, rather than just an activity.
As part of the effort to change the culture of our schools and encourage teachers to make a true connection with the students they teach, our Instructional Partners team decided that we wanted to begin our year by showing the teachers the community where our students live. We thought this was important for two reasons:
(1) Many teachers in our system are "outsiders" (they didn't grow up and go to school in this community)
(2) Understanding the whole student, especially their home environment, helps us understand reasons why they might be disengaged at school.
Thinking through student engagement
Some of our high school faculty members examined an article from the September 2014 issue
of Educational Leadership titled "4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement" at our second PLT meeting
of the year.
The conversations that ensued were both honest and thought-provoking, as we examined our opinions on student engagement versus student compliance. The article by Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda also illuminated the need to understand the factors, both internal and external, that might keep our students from being fully engaged in learning.
These conversations about student engagement (or lack thereof) were so powerful, we thought it would be an excellent topic for every teacher in our district to delve into during our systemwide professional development sessions.
The reading selection we chose came from the book Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning
by Jennifer A. Fredricks. We used the first section of the first chapter "Myth 1: It's Easy to Tell Who is Engaged" (pp. 11-16), although we omitted the chart on pg. 15. (Free PDF here
For the activity, the teachers were divided according to school level (elementary, middle, and high school) so they were working with others with a similar frame of mind about students. This was important because a disengaged high school student can look quite different than a disengaged middle schooler. Plus, the table conversations tend to be more honest and open when teachers are among colleagues with whom they feel comfortable.
The activity required everyone to read the introduction on pages 11-12. Then each group was given one of the "portraits of engagement" to consider: Fiona and Franco (Fully Engaged); Beatrice and Benjamin (Behaviorally Engaged Only); or Rachel and Ryan (At Risk).
Using a T-Chart, each group was asked to compare the characteristics and beliefs of each pair of students, as well as the outside factors that influence their behavior.
Group table conversations were very powerful as teachers shared insights and made generalizations about their assigned pair of students, relating them to the students that fill the desks in their classrooms every day.
I heard statements like:
► "Beatrice reminds me of a student who is fully capable of honors classes but doesn't take them so she will make easy A's in the others"....
► "Benjamin is a typical honors student who is only concerned with making an A, not really learning anything"....
► "Rachel and Ryan make up most of my classes"......
Each table then shared their findings with the whole group. Most teachers said they believed their classes are made up of students that fall into all three categories of engagement. The fully-engaged Fionas and Francos would, sadly, be in the minority, but usually one or two students per class came to mind.
Many mentioned that their honors classes were full of the behaviorally-engaged Beatrices and Benjamins who just wanted to know what they had to do to make a good grade.
Surprisingly, a majority of teachers felt that a large portion of their students fell into the at-risk scenario, especially because many of the students in our school system come from low income, single parent homes. One main point that continually surfaced was the importance of building a relationship between the student and the teacher.
So what's the best way to build a relationship with every student in your class, especially the difficult to reach ones? One conclusion is this: Before you can meet them where they are, you need to know where they come from.
So where do they come from?
This is the basic premise behind our community tour. Simply titled "Mystery Activity" on the agenda, the teachers had no idea we were loading them onto a big yellow school bus and driving them around our school district for almost an hour. (And after our first group met on Monday, we asked everyone to keep it a secret so the next group would be surprised as well.)
Several years ago, some of us did a similar bus tour and remember the eye-opening experience in vivid detail. In the interim, we've had such a large turnover in staff that most of those who boarded the bus earlier this month had no idea what they were about to experience.
To determine our routes, we enlisted the help of our middle school Resource Officer (SRO). He has been on numerous home visits since taking the position. In the summer he also still works as a police patrol officer, and he has seen virtually every aspect of some of our students' lives. He is also a huge advocate for the importance of building relationships with the students in our schools.
Before we left the school, the teachers completed an anticipation guide. In the left column, they answered either "Agree" or "Disagree" in response to each statement. The right column was completed after returning from the trip.
Our tour took us throughout our school district and showed us many things. Some students come from nice homes with parents who are involved. Some live in places with shockingly few amenities – some even in sketchy hotels. Honestly, most of it was truly heart-breaking.
Many of the areas we drove through were places most of us never knew existed (especially if you did not grow up in this community). And I heard many of those who did grow up here remark that some of the areas had really changed for the worst since they had last seen them.
All in all, it was a very powerful experience for everyone. It's unsettling to see firsthand the homes with cardboard for windows, and front doors standing wide open because there's no air-conditioning. You might think a battered house must be vacant and then hear from our Resource Officer that we have students who live there and board the bus there every day. We saw places you read about in the newspaper where big drug busts occur.
New perspectives on our community
Although no family or student names were ever mentioned on the tour, the SRO did point out the bus stops where many children get on the bus and houses where he knew school-age children resided. It was enough.
When we returned to school after the bus tour, the SRO walked us through the demographics of our district. It is a fairly small community (6000 residents), much smaller now since Republic Steel closed several years ago. The median household income is well-below the state's average. Sadly, it has also only risen $1700 since the last census in 2000.
The education statistics show that very few have completed a four-year college degree. Many do have one or more years of college because we have two community colleges within 30 miles. The crime rate is exorbitant for a community of our size.
All of this paints a picture of poverty in our little community that shows up in the percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunches in the three schools that make up our district. The elementary school percentage (84%) is probably most indicative.
Our School Resource Officer closed his presentation by sharing Angela Maiers' beautiful and very meaningful poem “Promises”
, written from the perspective of a student and highlighting the importance of a real connection with the teacher. It really hit home.
I think that, of all the activities, PD sessions and meetings I have ever attended or led, this has to be the most powerful, motivational thing I have done as an educator. To catch a glimpse of some of the home situations of the students really lit a fire for change in the hearts of every member of my school district.
What will we do for a follow-up?
Since our recent community tour, I have attended classes two days as a “student” at my school, just to gain more insight on what it is like to be a kid in our classes. The experience was phenomenal!! (More to come on that here at the ABPC blog.)
I have seen first-hand some major changes in classroom environment that are directly related to the experience teachers during the tour on that school bus last week. I have listened to many of my colleagues tell me things like: “I was that kid who had nothing” and “It reconnected me with the reasons I became an educator; I want to let kids know they CAN make something of their lives, even when they come from nothing.” This is why I would recommend that everyone get out an “explore” some of the addresses of your students.
Our next Vertical Alignment meeting is scheduled for January for an entire day. During that time, we will have an opportunity for teachers to share how they’ve grown/changed since our bus trip. We will also look deeper into factors that might be affecting our students’ engagement in class.
Shelley Montgomery received her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from The University of Alabama, as well as an Ed.S. in Science Education. Her Masters and undergraduate degrees were earned at Samford University. Before moving into instructional coaching, Shelley was a science teacher for 15 years at both the university and secondary levels, after a brief "first career" in pharmaceutical sales.
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