Creating Connections in Our School: It was BIGGER than We Thought!

Making connections with advisory is so much fun

By: Ellen D'Amore, Erin Tobul


When we first began creating our advisory program, its purpose was to replace a 30-minute homeroom embedded in our day. One of the problems with advisory at the time was that teachers were struggling to create worthwhile activities. We needed a better plan and an advisory program was hypothesized.

What if we could structure homeroom to include middle school-appropriate activities? How could our teachers and students benefit? How could this simple change affect our school community? What if our teachers didn't believe in the changes? The answer was to create a program that fosters connections.

Five years later, we still believe relationships are among the most important elements of student success. Looking back, we realize the positive outcomes of the Advisory Pride Program were built on the already existing positive climate and supportive culture of our building. Lately, we have been thinking about the components of our school climate and culture that supported our social-emotional based program. By unpacking the components of the day to day temperament and underlying presumptions, we have discovered some essential elements.

You Can Do It!

We have a few suggestions to create positive change. The existing components that supported positive change within our building were experimentation, collegiality, caring, celebrations, and humor. Our principal supported our ambitious action research project for the Advisory Pride Program. He embraced the excitement and helped us create and test the program.

Our colleagues involved in the pilot were equally supportive. They were willing to work together on the initiative out of trust for us. As the authors of the pilot program, we offered our support through frequent communication in relaxed settings. No one teaches "on their own island" in our school because we consistently share ideas. The genuine friendships that develop are a basis of collegiality. We promote these relationships and nurture a positive climate through team building activities and making connections. Teacher commitment comes with positive climate, trust, professional development, and a shared vision.

Why is promoting a positive climate necessary? Marzano (2011) states "positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction" (p. 82). The goal is to foster pride in our students, staff, leaders, and parents. Educators need to build pride from feelings of safety, trust, empathy, and belonging with supports of a positive self-image, respect, and connections. Positive climate starts with leadership regardless of whether you are a building leader or a teacher leader.

Leading positive change

Leaders need to get to know their staff, just as teachers need to get to know their students. This can be accomplished with an interest survey to gain information. Ask questions about food allergies, family information, favorite foods, sports, restaurants, hobbies, books, vacations … it's customizable. Let them tell you what they want you to know.

Next, get to know the culture of your building. Culture is an intangible force with great impact. A school's culture is passed from teacher to teacher, year after year as norms that are accepted. Teachers work within these mostly unspoken boundaries. Getting to know the culture is like getting to know a person. Ask teachers what they do and how and why they do it. Find out what is valued and what drives them. These conversations shape an understanding of the school's underlying, pervasive values. However, culture is not immoveable. For instance, culture can be enhanced through visioning.

A vision is a guide to focus all stakeholders on a common destination. This will promote positive change. Groups exist in organizational structure such as department teams or grade level teams. It is important to put staff members into multiple teams. Committees are a great place to promote new connections. A committee could include a member of each department, guidance counselor, a parent, and community members. Create opportunities for stakeholders to work on an initiative to move towards the collective vision of the organization. Organizational beliefs come from change with positive results.

Enthusiasm is contagious and part of stewarding the vision. Leaders, you know that you are never not communicating. Your presence is communication. If you're in the room, then you are part of the conversation and it's important to stay positive. Assess the needs of the school and its students and collaboratively build your vision. You will be leading motivated, enthusiastic educators! Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, positivity attracts positivity, and a well-constructed and accepted vision can be achieved.

Happy Staff, Happy Students

Once you have a bonded staff, then positive connections can be made with students. The Advisory Pride Program Purpose is to create an atmosphere that promotes a positive relationship between the advisor and advisee, students and other classmates, students and their school, and finally the students and their community. The activities and artifacts from the program offer a topic of conversation for students throughout the school adding to the sense of belonging and connectedness. In addition, the advisor acts as the liaison between the school and the parent creating that sometimes elusive connection to all parents. The curriculum of the program enhances group communication, collaboration, and teamwork. This fulfills a need of soft skills at the perfect age to begin preparing students for high school, college, and the job market as well as common core curriculum and new, more challenging assessments.

Our program is based on a successful sequence of themes with activities scaffolded to create a sense of belonging within the school and community. We reach out to parents and ask them to share important information about their child that we may not know until it's too late to be proactive. We, then, spend time becoming better acquainted by finding connections through similarities and interest through differences. Activities are designed to learn about our own uniqueness, positive qualities, communication skills, group dynamics, team building, community service, and school pride. Formative assessments are embedded to measure the impact of the theme.

Although the five themes have remained the same, the activities have been tweaked over the years to promote new standards, perseverance, and visioning. Programs are a door through which change can happen. Staff will assimilate the activities to their teaching style. The experiences of the program will promote systematic changes in educating the whole child. It is important to not overemphasize the robotic use of the program. Each advisor will find comfort in the autonomy to interpret the activities. The Advisory Pride Program is ever evolving and we love to hear about its iterations.

Build a Better Advisory

Advisory is a staple of middle school education. The Association for Middle Level Educators' position paper, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (2010), includes advisory as one of sixteen characteristics associated with successful middle schools. This research-based idea is best appreciated in practice. Being an advocate for the betterment of young adolescents is fun and fulfilling.

The purpose of advisory is to support the needs of our students outside the curriculum and standards. A program for this purpose is quite different from the curriculum associated with the learning standards. The Advisory Pride Program offers a framework to make connections effectively. The activities tend to take on a life of their own in different classrooms. They stimulate conversations that may never happen. Advisors and students experience moments of discovery and connection.

The professional development suggested is for staff to participate in example activities as a way to understand how students feel as they go through a series of themes designed to help them connect to their school. Our program is just one component of our advisory time. It takes about 20 hours of time total leaving plenty of time to attend to housekeeping or academic tasks.

Ready to build?

  • Carve time in the master schedule. A once daily advisory is preferable, but any time is better than none.
  • Employ every available staff member to be an advisor. Note: administrators can share an advisory so that someone is always able to tend to issues that may arise in the building.
  • Keep the advisor to student ratio as low as possible. An adequate ratio is 18:1.
  • Make advisory part of the vision. Connecting advocacy to school goals emphasizes its importance.
  • Maintain the sanctity of advisory. Avoid interruptions.

References

Marzano, R. J. (2011). Art and science of teaching / Relating to students: It's what you do that counts. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 82-83. Retrieved April 23, 2017.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.


Ellen D'Amore is a seventh grade science and math teacher at Henry F. LaMuth Middle School in Painesville, Ohio.

Erin Tobul is a fifth grade teacher at Kenston Intermediate School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Together, they are the owners of Positive Climate Consultants and can be reached by email at ellenanderin@positiveclimateconsultants.com

Their new book, Creating Connections: Middle School Advisory that Works, is being released at AMLE2017 in Philadelphia, November 6-8, 2017.

Published September 2017.

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