Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Here we are, at the start of another school year! You are bracing for new students with excitement and a little anxiety I'm sure, if you're anything like me. You are unsure of new student personalities, backgrounds, and how the class dynamic will play out as you proceed through the year. You refreshed over the summer, and are now returning to school this year with great ideas for new lessons, classroom management techniques, and exciting learning activities for your bio class
All of that is fantastic, as most of you probably spend the bulk of your day with subject students. I on the other hand, having worked the entirety of my career at a project-based/community school, spent the bulk of my time with my advisory students. I was more of a facilitator of learning and a life coach than I was a life-science teacher (although I taught subject seminars as well). Thus, I can now say with confidence that I'm an experienced advisor. I spent almost a decade observing colleagues (some of the best advisors out there) run their advisories and interact with their students. I have experienced a lot of trial and error. I tried many things that I was sure would be a hit that in the end were epic failures. I modified and tried again with a different approach, or I scrapped the idea entirely and tried something new.
I understand that I am biased, given my work experience and philosophy, but I believe to my core that having a strong advisory community is just as important, if not more, than having an awesome lesson planned for your evolution unit. Now hear me out...
Let's start with the basics. An advisory in theory is a place where individualized learning takes place. Each student is recognized as a unique individual. It's a space where students feel supported, valued, freed from judgement, comfortable speaking their minds and sharing their ideas. It is a place where they learn valuable life skills and career skills, build self-esteem and form a positive self-concept. It's an opportunity to implement social-emotional learning experiences.
Students should see an advisory as a safe space to realize their interests, ideas, and potential. A place where they have voice and choice. For some it is a home away from home. Or in some cases the home they never had to begin with. What a strong advisory system does is encompass the most important aspects of not only education, but life.
As educators, we know that certain needs have to be met before human beings can focus on anything else, especially grades and test scores in your subject classes. We get frustrated by the lack of engagement, effort, motivation, productivity. If that's what you're finding with a lot of your students, look below the surface. They may not be getting all of their basic needs met. Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs illustrates those requirements, which includes physiological (food, shelter, etc.), safety (protection and freedom from fear), love and belongingness (friendship, intimacy, trust, affection, etc.), esteem (dignity, independence, etc.), and self-actualization needs.
A great advisor strives to meet these needs for each individual student. If your advisory is a "homeroom", where students simply check in, scroll on their phones, and possibly chat with a friend for 30 minutes before continuing on to their other classes, I urge you to change that. I know it is an extra task, that may need extra prep time when first implementing. If you feel as if a strong advisory program is lacking in your school, discuss with your colleagues and principal. Seek training and additional prep time for an advisory. It is so worth it for kids and teachers in the long run. Student academic success and mental and emotional health depend on it.
As you solidify plans for the coming year, check out some of the great advisory resources below. Some provide training, some give awesome activity ideas, others highlight the research found on the importance of an effective advisory. Utilize some or all of the resources I've offered here if you are someone who wants to establish an advisory community, someone who wants a major advisory face-lift, or you just want to add to your already impressive advisory repertoire.
All Things Advisory
When I was working, my title was teacher AND advisor. Because it was a project-based school, I "advised" the same 20 students most of the day over the course of their entire secondary school career. When I first started teaching I was completely in over my head. My undergraduate degree was in ecology and my teaching training focused heavily on life-science education, not individualized learning in a project-based atmosphere. I assumed I could walk in the door, talk to kids about what I was passionate about - science - and they would follow suit. I was arrogant and was quickly thrown into reality.
I worked with at-risk teenagers, most of which did not have all of their basic needs met outside of school. They needed me, their advisory community, food, shelter, love, support, more than they needed to know about the structure of DNA. I knew that I had to change things up. So I did. I put everything I had into my advisory and those kids. My advisory students are bonded for life, close, tight-knit. When your advisory is strong, you find that even the most unlikely pair of students become friends over time. They are bonded by experiences, conflict and reconciliation, common goals and shared passions.
Thus, the first resource I'm putting out there is a list of activities I have used over the years to establish a strong and positive advisory culture. It is one thing to know the importance of building a strong advisory, it is another to implement strategies to achieve that goal. This resource gives practical lessons and activities to use to bolster your advisory community. It is a free download that can be found on my TpT page. Click here to get to the download.
Advisory Information Jackpot
Edutopia has a "topics" page with articles on every educational topic you could imagine. Their "advisory" topic is particularly strong. Articles posted under the "advisory" topic vary from social-emotional learning, to building relationships, to tips for reaching out to parents. You can search whatever topic you'd like. If you're trying to incorporate life skills seminars into your advisory schedule for example, search "life skills" on the site's search engine and go from there. I did this and naturally took interest in an article called Teaching for Life Success: Why Resourcefulness Matters by Marilyn Price Mitchell. I like Edutopia in general because they put a spotlight on innovative practices. Edutopia partners with Lucas Education Research, which conducts research alongside universities and world class educators. Together they identify what works, and through the topics website, share that with us. Find this resource by clicking here.
Books to Build a Community of Learners
This resource is a blog post written by a teacher who is suggesting that advisors (or any teacher really) use reading to foster a positive culture in the classroom. I love resources that come directly from teachers and their experiences. I don't need all of my information to come from child psychologists. They may know behaviors, but teachers are on the front lines. Have they tried it? Did it work for their students?! Fantastic, let's try it too! I watched my colleagues for years work their advisory magic. They were the best resources I could ask for. This specific resource is aimed at elementary students, but the idea would work across all age groups. The post provides lists of books under community building themes such as teaching kindness. I work with teenagers, so her books wouldn't apply to my advisory. But I have read many of the books she mentions to my own young children, such as Spaghetti in a Hotdog Bun. So cute. Many of the books cited on this post can be found on Storyline Online as well, which is an audio/visual version of the book, read by celebrities. It's easily accessible, the video animation is fun. The downside is that there aren't words displayed. If the purpose is teaching children how to read, Storyline Online is not a great resource. But in this case, if the purpose is to teach lessons on compassion, listening, kindness, etc, it could be a helpful website. The blogger does not offer before or after reading activity or discussion ideas. It would make this resources even better. I would recommend doing before or after reading activities and/or discussion, if that isn't obvious.
If you are working with older students, consider using this basic concept with more age appropriate and content appropriate books. Older students are obviously at different developmental stages than 3rd graders. High school students for example could read books that focus on building empathy, self-esteem, developing a good moral compass. Some great books for teenagers that might be effective in building a strong advisory community include "The Hate U Give", "Of Mice and Men", "Speak", "A Long Way Gone", "The Perks of Being a Wallflower", "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", "Wonder", and "The Absolutely Trued Diary of a Part-Time Indian".
There are so many skills and abilities that we hope our students acquire before they enter the big bad world of adulthood, other than knowing the difference between Mendelian and non-Mendelian genetics. I am not trying to underplay the importance of understanding heredity. The hope is that most adults have a basic understanding of inheritance. However, an artist will rarely find herself in a situation where she needs to whip out a punnet square. Other skills like resourcefulness would come in handy at a dinner party, when said artist is trying to figure out the chances of her offspring's ability to curl his tongue. The capability of managing one's time, dealing with conflict in an appropriate and effective way, controlling impulses, acting with integrity, I would argue are just as important, if not more important, than learning how to do a punnett square. Anyone can learn how to do that by doing a quick Google search.
I would also argue that social emotional skills are among the top most important competencies to possess to survive adulthood. Strong advisories should take a leading role in fostering these social-emotional skills. This resource provided here is awebinar from Edweb called 7 Mindsets, also the name of the organization that is paving the way for social-emotional learning. The webinar is free and it's awesome. The idea is that students, or anyone really, can navigate this tricky world we live in by embracing these 7 mindsets. It feels a bit cheesy, a little self-helpish, but when it comes to your students, those skills are necessary for happy, healthy lives in the present and the future. I keep these 7 mindsets in the forefront of my mind when planning any advisory activity.
For example, one of the mindsets is "live to give". I take this mindset into account when planning service learning opportunities for my advisory students. The image below is prominently displayed on my desktop as a reminder of the significance the 7 Mindsets in not only my student's lives, but mine as well. If you have an hour, watch the webinar using the link above. If you don't, just check out the list of mindsets below. There are a variety of awesome advisory webinars on the Edweb site.
Get to Know Your Students
Getting to know your students on a deeper level is a multifaceted endeavor. It takes more than a few icebreakers and a "hello" each morning to understand their strengths, weaknesses, challenges at home, interests, responsibilities, fears, all things that play a major role in academic performance and mental health. Teachers (including me) tend to get frustrated when students are unmotivated, aren't producing, aren't paying attention in class. There are a variety of reasons this may be so. When you know your students, you can better tackle the issue occurring in the classroom. I have always struggled with sleepy students. They aren't tired because they're "bad" or "troubled". They're tired because they're in school all day, work after school to help pay their family's rent, come home and power through projects so they can graduate on time, fall asleep at 2 am, wake up at 6 am to repeat the process all over again. Of course they're tired.
Knowing your students well as independent people isn't just important to manage classroom challenges. For some students, you may be all they have. You may be one of few adult positive role-models in their lives, that is a strong leader, a compassionate person that advocates for them, believes in them, and cares about their future. Knowing your students well also helps guide future instruction. If you know that a lot of your students are interested in music, you can provide relevant learning activities, such as assigning a music project, asking a music producer to come in and speak to your students about his or her career, or arrange a service learning project that would result in instrument donations to low-income students. I have found that every student I have ever encountered is extraordinary in their own way (alright maybe there are a couple there that I had to do some really deep digging - like the one that stole my computer, or another that stole my keys). I was physically threatened by only one student in my 9 years in education, and I still to this day care for that student.
My students have taught me so much about myself, about life. It is me who is the lucky one for having known them. The hardest part about leaving my job to stay home with my children was leaving my students. I knew them. I cared for them. We spent years building trust and a mutual respect for one another. Even if you aren't buying what I'm selling, ultimately, what is the HARM in getting to know your students? Nothing bad can come of it. So, with that, there are a lot of ways to learn about who they are. There may be a fortuitous, unplanned bonding moment between you and a student. You might get to know them simply through casual conversation. Make time for each student. Shoot-the-shit! With some students it will happen organically. They will be the first ones to come into class that day, talking your ear off before you've even finished your coffee. Others will be more challenging. They may be more reluctant to share their lives with you for a variety of reason. You may not be approachable. No offense. Some people aren't.
Evaluate and reflect on your approach. Be firm with your expectations, but understanding of extenuating circumstances. They may be introverts. They may have a history of negative experiences with authority figures. You will have to work extra hard at those students, but they probably need that companionship the most. Make it a priority. One way to get the ball rolling is by asking students to do a variety of surveys. My school required that these be done during orientation at the beginning of the school year. These activities will not activate an instant bond. What they do is provide a foundation to then branch out from. I looked for a website that had all of the great ones right in one spot, but I came up short. So here is a list of some of the surveys we used with our students to set the relationship building in motion:
Interest Survey - this is exactly what is sounds like. It's a survey of questions that you give to your students that gives you an idea of their interests. This can be used to propel student projects or learning activities. I like the one created by Scholastic. Click here to get to the page. If you would rather create your own survey, do it! It would probably be more effective, as you know the demographic you are working with. If you would rather create your own, check out these tips from Edutopia.
Multiple Intelligences Survey - Howard Gardner's theory on multiple intelligences is the idea that everyone possesses different "intelligences", and therefore learn, understand, retain, and operate differently. Knowing each student's "intelligences" is a great tool for better understanding their needs and motivators. This link is a pretty good one. It's brief, which kids appreciate. Results are shown using a bar chart and percentages. Some online multiple intelligence assessments show results on a color wheel, which might be better for more visual learners. Check out the variety of multiple intelligence assessments online and choose one that works well for you.
Learning Styles- speaking of "visual learners", there are also quick assessments that determine how student's best learn. They likely already know the answer to this. You can probably just ask them. But they may not. It could be fun and informative for both of you to get the final results. Whatever the final results may be, this is a great thing to know about your advisees, as you can then better accommodate for their learning needs. You can plan learning activities that fit learning styles. This learning style survey is good. It's simple, straight to the point, and again, brief. I discovered that I'm an auditory learner (vs. visual and tactile) by taking this survey, which is utterly shocking. Try it yourself! It's kind of fun.
Myers Briggs - last one on the list! We made it. Tactile learners probably didn't make it this far in the post! The result of the survey is a 4 letter code that represents a unique personality type. The code includes extrovert vs. introvert, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. I won't get into the details of each here, you can learn this from the survey website if you don't already know. Knowing a student's personality type is essential for understanding their actions. An introvert can't be trained not to be an introvert. Right? Maybe that's incorrect. I spent most of my life wishing I was an extrovert. As I've aged I have learned to accept it and even embrace it. The introvert in me absolutely guides many of my decisions. If you find from this test that a student is an introvert, use that knowledge to your advantage. Knowing these things can eliminate frustrations and misunderstandings by both students and instructors. Check this one out. It's a pretty comprehensive website on all things Myers Briggs. One downside is that it's a little long and the language a bit convoluted. Be prepared to answer students questions and offer assistance. Take a look at my results in the image below. Nailed it.
Alright, I suppose it's time to bring this novel of a post to a close. The INFJ in me likes to exhaust topics! I hope some of the material here is helpful this year. I wish everyone a fantastic school year ahead! Cheers!
For those of you that are seasoned advisors, please share your thoughts, wisdom, and resources. What do you do to build and maintain a strong advisory community?
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.