Normally I would write a post on the importance of advisory culture at the beginning of the school year when students are getting to know you and each other and settle in. I highly recommend revisiting this post in the fall for that reason. However, around this time, classroom moral can tend to take a dive. Students are exhausted, the winter keeps dragging on, state testing is on the horizon, seniors are anxious about what the future holds, and so on. I understand these feelings, as I feel many of them myself. This is the time to reflect, reset, and kickstart spring with a renewed attitude. I have found that this is best accomplished by starting at the source: classroom culture.
When your advisory (or any learning group for that matter) is strong, a positive attitude, motivation, productivity, inspiration, and engagement tend to follow. By "strong advisory" I mean a group that trusts one another, is inspired by each other, work well together and are enthusiastic about doing so, and support each other through the tough moments. There is a kinship, a camaraderie that is so unique to this specific group of individuals.
So, if you're feeling a lull in your advisory, classroom, homeschool co-op, or any other learning group, start by building the group back up. I wouldn't say that I am the best educator out there, but I can say that I have always had a strong advisory/class culture, and that is the result of making this extraordinary bond a priority.
Check out some of the activities that I have done with my advisory and other learning groups to improve advisory culture.
How to Build a Strong Advisory Community
Create advisory goals as a group. Examples:
Create advisory rules and/or expectations together. It may seem counterproductive to have students weigh in when it comes to class rules. Their rule would be “the rules are there are no rules!”, right? Surprisingly, this is not how students respond when you tell them they will participate in creating and implementing their own group rules. The class rules or “expectations” if you prefer, will in part reflect their advisory goals. For example, if one of the advisory goals is to cultivate a safe and productive learning environment, one rule might be to respect everyone’s space and physical boundaries at all times. Allowing students the opportunity to set the rules gives them voice and accountability. Doing this at the beginning of the year then sets the precedent that their voices are heard and respected by you. If it is mid-year, come back to these goals. Use them as a reminder or modify them as a group.
Advisory Group Challenge:
A favorite thing to do with my students at the beginning of each year (and periodically after that when we need a little pick-me-up) is to take them out of the building to do something together, preferably something challenging. I usually take my students to climb a fire tower, hike to a breathtaking view or lookout, or hit up a city skyscraper, taking the stairs to the top. Each of these activities are both physically and mentally challenging, especially if those participating have a fear of heights. Therefore, it is a great accomplishment for students to achieve together.
I have found that these experiences foster group mentality. Each individual makes it their personal goal to get everyone to the top. They support each other, and the results, whether that be the accomplishment or the view, are well worth it. Of course there are some logistical obstacles to consider, and this isn't an option for everyone. If this type of experience isn't possible for your group, use the basic concept to create a similar bonding experience - 1) non-competitive, 2) challenging but not impossible, 3) there is a common/group goal in mind.
Advisory Theme Project:
Ask students during the first week of school to complete mini-projects (independently or in pairs) under a specific theme, and have them present to the other advisories at the end of the week.
Theme ideas: make a short documentary, upcycling projects, family traditions, cooking, create a game, hobbies, try something new. The options are endless. This activity gets students on the same page, working toward the same goal. They feel united by a common objective.
Check out all my project-based learning resources in my TpT store. Students choose their own project sub-topic under a specific theme.
Brand Your Advisory:
I usually have my advisory come up with an advisory name at the beginning of the school year. I have a small group, so we usually sit in a circle on the first day, or within the first few days of school and talk one out. Ideas are thrown out, we vote, a name is established. A name is fun, but useless in the long-run if it is never used. If you're feeling a lull later in the year, propose the following add-ons:
There is no better way to build a strong group culture than giving. There are a variety of ways you could do this. I have found these experiences to be most successful when I give the students voice, when they are passionate about the issue or purpose, and when the experience involves the entire group. All it takes is a little class discussion to spark some service-learning ideas. Many of our group service learning projects have been inspired by current events. We watch Vice News episodes together and go from there. Check out my Vice News episode worksheets and extension activities to get students inspired. You can also head to my Community Action Projects, which provides all of the guiding materials and templates for student-directed service learning experiences.
Plan and Host School Events:
Hosting school events and activities really bring students together. It is something that they can take pride in executing as a team. My students have planned some of the following school-wide activities.
Student-Led Advisory Fundraisers:
Every year my students choose to plan several fundraisers with the intention of raising money to add to the class budget. The money we raise almost always goes towards field trips. They could also donate the money to a charity. The process of planning and executing an event is such a great way to build a strong community within your advisory.
Large Group Project:
Unlike the theme project that is done independently or in small groups, this is a project done as entire advisory group. It takes quite a bit of coordination on your part but is worth the time and energy spent. Each student of the advisory plays a role in the bigger picture. My students have done all of the examples below. There are so many more options! Talk with your group.
Advisory Book Club:
Discuss book interests, take a vote, and settle on STUDENT-CHOSEN books to read for an advisory book club. Read together in class or have them read on their own time and meet back as a group for book discussion.
A “family” meal is when the advisory cooks and shares a meal together. It’s a very informal way of sitting down, enjoying food together and having some casual conversation. It breaks away from the academic rigors of the day and gives us time to just enjoy each other’s company. It also teaches some pretty basic life skills that some students haven’t yet mastered, such as contributing to the clean-up process or setting the table.
Sparks and Community Experts:
Invite community members into your class periodically to speak. It can be on anything. It could be related to a current event you’re discussing in class. It could be related to one of the life skills seminars you are giving. It might just be an interesting speaker that you think your students might like. It could be ANYONE. Examples:
Phew! That was a lot. The experiential school where I have been my entire teaching career highly values and encourages relationship building. My learning space was to be safe, trusting, inspiring, exciting, supportive, encouraging and so on and so on. If you are sensing apathy, discouragement, behavioral issues, conflicts between students, etc., start to remedy the situation by building that classroom community back up. Hopefully there is something here in this post that you can start with! Good luck!
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I love the quote below, for one, because Amy Poehler said it. I also like to use it as the goal for my advisory: to create a space for my students where they are "challenged and inspired".
In 2008 I signed on to to work as a project-based educator at a small charter high school in St. Paul. I knew that I would be taking on far more than the role of "teacher", as most educators do, but I had no idea when I started this job that I would end up being the events coordinator, which included the high school graduation ceremony. I went on to plan a commencement ceremony for 20ish students every year for 9 years.
As some of you can relate, as a newbie, I rarely said "no" to a request. So when my director asked that I take on the graduation planning, I enthusiastically agreed because I wanted to prove myself. As nervous and ill-prepared as I was to take on the responsibility of organizing one of the most important events in a person's life, I did it, figured it out, and am grateful that I did. I got to be a part of something incredible.
Many of my students were first generation high school graduates. Others were told for much of their lives that they would never graduate or amount to anything. I got to be a part of proving their doubters wrong, proving my students wrong about themselves, making them feel special, valued, and worthy, for at least one day. A small graduation ceremony, one with few graduates such as a charter school, alternative program, homeschool co-op, etc., should be intimate, special, and personalized to EACH student. Over the course of 10 years I think I've figured it out, and I'm here to share some of what we did to honor each student and celebrate their unique achievements that brought them to this profound and unforgettable moment in their lives.
Before getting into ceremony ideas for a small and intimate high school graduation, I should note that I was the graduation ceremony coordinator. I did plan it or run it by myself. I organized a student graduation committee that helped plan and execute the ceremony. Students have awesome ideas. I highly recommend putting together a committee.
How to Plan a Small Group Graduation Ceremony
1. Student-Selected Personal Speaker: Each student invites one special person in their lives - a parent, mentor, friend, teacher, sibling, etc. - to speak about that student and introduce the student to the stage to receive their diploma.
2. Senior Theme: At the beginning of the year start making observations about your seniors, and take note. By the end of the year pull seniors together to settle on a theme that represents the group. It could be an adjective that describes the group as a whole, a word that describes an experience that they all shared, or a theme that represents their graduation year. Every ceremony idea that follows below could follow the theme determined by graduates.
3. Personalized Gift Bags: Put together gift bags for each graduate with a few items that represent each unique individual. For example, if a graduate loves to bake you might add a customized spatula, some spices, a cookbook, etc. All of the items do not have to follow a theme, but should reflect the interests, passions, personalities, goals, etc. of each graduate.
4. Personalized Videos: The students in my graduation committee produce a customized video for EACH graduate with photos and videos of students learning, as well as interviews with friends, family, teachers, and more. Those videos are played at the graduation ceremony and are shared with students to keep as momentos.
5. Relevant and Personal Keynote Speaker: Small learning environments organically foster relationship-building, camaraderie, mentorships, and more, because students go through significant life and learning experiences with each other. With that said, an important figure or community collaborator that has been present in the lives of the graduates and have been supportive in their high school journey, make the best keynote speakers. Choose someone that has personal significance to graduates rather than someone random spouting off their idea of "success".
6. Graduate Performance: This is a tricky one to coordinate, but if you have a really small group of graduates, have them create and organize a performance. They can write and perform a song, a skit, a dance, poetry, and so on and so on. This is a group effort that includes all graduates. If this is a logistical nightmare, try to get a graduate or two to perform on their own instead of the entire graduating class. If you can pull off a full-group performance, however, do it. It makes students feel included and important.
7. Student Bios: Write student bios into the ceremony script. At the beginning of our graduation ceremony, the MC's introduce each graduate one-by-one by reading a written bio. The introduction includes graduates' hobbies, interests, shining achievements, and where they're headed or goals for the future.
8. Senior Shirts: Every year our underclassmen design and make senior t-shirts for graduates. Again, this could follow the theme that seniors decide on earlier in the year. Other students in the school, staff members, family, friends, community members, etc. sign the back of the t-shirts, sort of like a yearbook, and those shirts are added to graduates' gift bags.
9. Personalized Graduation Day Frames: In the past, the graduation committee has ordered basic frames and customizes them for each student. Every year one of our staff members organizes a senior photo shoot offsite. We add the photos from that shoot to each frame and give them to graduates at the ceremony.
10. Playlist: Create an album, like a "mixed tape", for each student and share it with them. Each playlist could be customized for each student or the playlist could consist of popular or significant songs from the graduation year.
11. Senior Field Trip: In the past our seniors have organized and hosted fundraisers to raise money for an offsite experience just for graduates . This is not technically a ceremony idea, but could be a field trip that they go on right from the ceremony. My students usually choose to go to our local amusement park.
12. Senior Dinner: Underclassmen plan a dinner for graduates and their parents. Graduates often have family plans post-ceremony, so this dinner doesn't need to take place on the night of the ceremony. It's just another way for graduates to feel special and soon-to-be seniors pumped up for the coming year.
13. Graduate Philosophy Statements: The director of my school started this tradition before I began teaching there, but it was a special experience for everyone involved, so we kept the tradition going for a while. Each senior writes a philosophy statement; a statement that highlights who they are, their dreams, their goals, what life is about for them, and how their high school experience helped shape that philosophy.
14. Photos Exhibit: The graduation committee spends the year collecting photos of seniors in action; on field trips, giving presentations, working on projects, working within the community, etc. The committee organizes these photos onto boards and puts them on display at the graduation ceremony. Friends and family can view the exhibit before and after the ceremony.
15. Graduating Class Slideshow: One ceremony idea already mentioned was making personalized videos of each graduate to play at the ceremony. This is labor intensive, especially if you do not have a graduation committee to take on some of the load. If it's too much, consider putting together a slideshow with videos and photos of the entire graduating class. Play the slideshow during the ceremony or have it displayed while guests take their seats.
There are so many neat ways to make graduates in a small graduating class feel special on their big day. The ones mentioned above are a few that have lasted the test of time. We have tried many other little touches, and have kept some going and have ditched others. Trial and error, right?! I would love to hear any graduation ceremony traditions that you have seen or experienced.
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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.