September 2009 • Volume 41 • Number 1 • Pages 20-27
Creating a Culture of Connectedness through Middle School Advisory Programs
|*This We Believe Characteristics|
*Denotes the corresponding characteristics from NMSA's position paper, This We Believe, for this article.
- An adult advocate for every student
- Organizational structures that support meaningful relationships and learning
- Multifaceted guidance and support services
Sarah Brody Shulkind, and Jack Foote
In the middle of an ordinary day in an ordinary Los Angeles school, four middle school students shared fascinating insights in response to the question, "Does advisory help you feel connected to school?"
Without advisory school would be more distant. It would not be as cheerful. We would not be as connected to everybody.
–seventh grade girl
Everyone in the school shares that bond that everyone has an advisor. So, from 6th sixth grade to 12th grade, everyone shares that connection with one teacher, and I think that everyone throughout the day has opened up to someone. It gets you into the state of mind that school is not only about work, but that it is a place where teachers really know you and understand you. So, I think, as a school, having advisory connects everyone.
–eighth grade boy
I totally agree with that. It is, like, at least you go to school and know that at least there is one person who you are comfortable to talk to. Normally, for me there is more than one teacher, but, um, at least there is always one so you are not nervous about going to school.
–eighth grade girl
I think in 6th grade, around that period we can all, um, agree that is when you have violence problems or drug problems or even academic problems or personal problems. You get more independent. It is, like, you go to school, and you do not care that much about academic work, but, um, with your advisors and the things that the advisories provide do make you feel more close. … It is, um, a place where you can get stuff off your chest. And once you do, you rethink what you are doing and think, like, um, is this right? So that helps with your school work.
–seventh grade boy
These four middle school students recognize the connection between having meaningful relationships with an adult and a group of peers and thriving academically. An advisory program facilitates these kinds of relationships and provides the structure that creates "connectedness" in a middle school. Connectedness is a characteristic of school cultures in which students have meaningful relationships with adults within the school, are engaged in the school, and feel a sense of belonging to the school. School connectedness is linked to higher grades, higher test scores, and lower dropout rates, regardless of students' socioeconomic status (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Jackson & Davis, 2000; Klem & Connell, 2004; Mac Iver & Epstein, 1991; McNeely & Falci, 2004; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006). Moreover, schools intentionally organized to promote personalization and the development of communities of learners better prepare adolescents for later success as adults (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989). It is particularly urgent for middle school educators to improve school connectedness, because the roots of alienation take hold during early adolescence.
Middle school reformers have widely promoted advisory programs as a way to strengthen connectedness at the middle level. Broadly defined, advisory programs are configurations in which an adult advisor meets regularly during the school day with a group of students to provide academic and social-emotional mentorship and support, to create personalization within the school, and to facilitate a small peer community of learners (Cushman, 1990; Galassi et al., 2004; Galassi et al., 1997; Juvonen et al., 2004; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006; Stevenson, 1998).
While advisory programs have been promoted in the literature, and middle grades practitioners have intuitively recognize their value, up to this point there has been limited empirical evidence to support advisory programs. Additionally, there has been no accepted basis for identifying best practices in advisory programs (Galassi et al., 2004; Galassi et al., 1997). Thus, when schools have developed advisory programs and trained faculty and staff to serve as advisors, they have relied upon intuition and anecdotal evidence rather than empirical data. This article addresses the need for reliable information about successful advisory programs.
This article defines the qualities of advisory programs and advisors that foster connectedness based on research at three diverse middle schools with successful advisory programs that can serve as models for other schools. We gave every advisor and student in each school a questionnaire designed to establish which advisories fostered high levels of student connectedness. The questionnaire helped us determine which students felt most connected, which advisories reported high levels of connectedness, and which advisors perceived the same levels of connectedness as their advisees. We selected the three advisories at each site with the highest levels of connectedness, and we interviewed the advisors, observed their advisories, and conducted focus groups with their student advisees. We discovered seven salient characteristics about advisors and advisory programs that fostered connectedness at all three sites (see
Figure 1). These characteristics are discussed in detail through the remainder of this article.
Characteristics of effective advisors and advisory programs
Strong advisory programs address issues of community
Advisories with high levels of connectedness actively worked on creating a healthy community by addressing the way students related to one another. Advisors consciously helped students in their advisories work out issues among themselves, and they talked openly about the importance of treating each other with respect. An advisor remarked:
I like to stress that we are a family. So, we do not laugh at each other and nobody makes comments. They still do it, but we always come back to ‘we are a family.' I am trying to break them of snickering and stuff like that.
Another advisor noted her frequent conversations with her advisory about friendship and ostracism. A third advisor mentioned a specific instance of conflict resolution when she pulled students aside and told them, "This is like our little family away from home, and you can't just leave it and [what happened between you] didn't feel right." At one school, a conversation protocol in the advisory helped students give one another positive feedback and asked them to "address issues that are caused by the behavior of someone in advisory." Another advisor talked about a student in her advisory who was always getting lost and having a hard time emotionally, so she asked her advisees to be the "big brother or sister" to her in other classes.
Figure 1 Advisor/Advisory characteristics that foster connectedness
- Strong advisory programs address issues of community.
- Strong advisories promote open communication.
- Strong advisors know and care about their advisees.
- Strong advisors closely supervise their advisees’ academic progress.
- Strong advisors are problem solvers and advice givers.
- Students and advisors perceive that advisory directly improves academic performance.
- Students and advisors perceive that advisory functions as a community of learners.
The theme of "community" was also evident in the student data. Students from all three schools referred to the trust games they used to help build a sense of community, and students in all of the focus groups shared two recurring comments: (1) advisory is a family; and (2) advisory helps student bond together. Students said they developed new friendships through their advisory programs. One student explained, "You become great friends with people you normally would not hang out with, which I think is great because you expand the way you know people." During the observations, students were not self-segregated ethnically, and students refrained from teasing and put-downs.
Both students and advisors reported that advisories addressed the issues that arise between grade levels within the school. At one middle school, advisors addressed problems the sixth graders were having with older students. At another middle school, advisors assigned seventh graders to an eighth grade buddy. A student described this buddy system as a way "to get to know someone new and help them with their problems, like your advisor did for you. It is kind of like a pay it forward thing." Students noted that one of the benefits to having a multiage advisory is that you form bonds with older and younger students. One advisor talked about how advisory created a nurturing culture at school, and another mentioned that she saw evidence of the brotherly and sisterly relationships between students continuing even after they moved on from her advisory.
Strong advisories promote open communication
Advisors at all three schools discussed their efforts to help students know each other and communicate openly by creating activities that helped them "bond" and "talk to each other." For example, advisors at each school talked about structuring activities in which students could get to know each other. Each described a different version of an activity in which one student was in the spotlight while other students asked questions to get to know him or her better. Advisors also talked about arranging trust walks and team-building games. At one school, Monday mornings started with a circle where students shared anything that was on their minds. One of the advisors articulated the connection between these activities and communication in the following way.
When I start out, I tell them, "We are going to get to know each other really well. We need to be able to trust each other." So, I do a couple of exercises at the beginning. I set up an obstacle course, and I blindfold them. I say, "Okay, some of you are going to be the leaders of this group. The rest of you are going to have to listen and trust the person that is verbalizing to you. That is the only way you are going to get through this, carefully." … It is the level of trust and then you start building from that to issues at home or school. Where it is all involved, we can all discuss things, and it stays here. And that is what you want to [do]. You want them to get to know each other and build up friendship.
Students described communication as characterized by trust and intimacy. In the focus groups, students repeatedly talked about feeling "really close with" and "trusting" their advisors and peers as a rationale for sharing personal and academic pieces of themselves. One student used the word intense to describe the communication in advisory, and another mused that "people are really vulnerable, and we all share our feelings." One student even talked about "feel[ing] a connection" with his advisor. In more than half of the advisories observed, students shared emotions publicly. For instance, in one advisory there was a whole conversation about crying after an advisor offered his own feelings about a sensitive topic the group was discussing. When a student probed, "Are you crying?" the advisees all looked at the advisor intently, without giggling or other nervous responses that might be typical of middle school students in such a situation.
Students said they regularly initiated conversations with their advisors for academic and personal reasons—
a student's parents fighting, a disagreement with a friend, a problem with a teacher, or academic difficulties.
Students routinely made comments such as, "Like, when you need help, you just ask him and he will always help you" or "I tell my advisor, and she will help me." Students talked about feeling welcome to approach their advisors outside of the advisory, citing lunch and after school as "other good times to talk." Students said their advisors were easy to talk to and comforting. A student said advisees could "get things off their chest," and they "do not hesitate to share." Every advisor we interviewed confirmed this observation.
Strong advisors know and care about their advisees
In the focus groups, students talked about feeling known and cared about. Students at all three sites said their advisors knew them and asked them individualized questions about their personal lives, citing such topics and events as a basketball game, an event over the weekend, or a family doughnut shop. Interestingly, students at all three schools used the words notice and care in their descriptions of their advisors. When asked what makes a really good advisor, one student explained, "Having someone notice you—notice you are having a bad day." Students also relayed that their advisors were quick to notice when they were having a hard time. As one student commented, "She can really sense sometimes if you are upset, and she will initiate talking to you or ask you if everything is okay." Advisors, according to their advisees, know and appreciate their personalities. Students at each school site mentioned that they believed they had been "intentionally matched" with or "chose[n]" by their advisors.
The advisors claimed that noticing and caring about students was one of their primary aspirations. More than half of the advisors we talked to mentioned that one of the central goals of the advisory program was to know students well. "Get to know your kids," one advisor counseled, "then you can be perceptive enough to find ways to reach them." Advisors echoed this desire to "really know kids" and often talked about "connecting" with, "caring" about, "watching over," and "checking" on students. Advisors talked about approaching their students when "something doesn't look right," which paralleled students' feeling that their advisors noticed when they were not acting like themselves.
Another common characteristic of strong advisors was that they listened to their advisees and were interested in their ideas. When we asked the students what makes a strong advisor, students from every school site answered that being a good listener is one of the most important attributes. Again and again, students talked about how their advisors "really listen" and "hear" the students in the advisory. Students said their advisors were interested in their intellectual thoughts, and one student said his advisor asked probing questions, instead of just insisting she was right because she was the teacher. Students believed the advisors were excited about their advisees' opinions. In our observations, advisors listened attentively to students in the advisory group or in one-on-one conversations. Also, advisors took the ideas of their students seriously. In several advisories observed, the advisor gave minimal directions and spent the rest of the advisory period sitting next to and listening to various groupings of individual students.
Strong advisors closely supervise their advisees' academic progress
Students reported that their advisors were aware of how they were doing in their classes. In the focus groups, students commented that their advisors "know everything" about their academic standing. As one student put it, "Even if she does not know right away, she will find out." Another added, "Yeah. They find out everything." Contrary to what one might expect, students admitted it was helpful to have someone know their academic standing.
In the interviews, the advisors insisted that it was part of their role to know how students were doing academically. Advisors at each site reported that they talked with other teachers to find out how their advisees were doing. They sometimes sought out teachers in reaction to seeing poor work and low grades; however, they also initiated contact if they had not heard anything about a particular advisee in a while. Almost every advisor mentioned that one way they kept track of their students academically was through official progress reports at the end of the quarter and semester. An advisor added:
I, um, talk to their teachers and stuff. I have this one boy, he is amazing in one class and failing another. [I asked him,]"You get an A in math and science, and you are failing social studies. How is that possible?" So, it came out that he does all of his homework for his other classes and saves his social studies and does not get to it.
This type of awareness, inquiry, and follow-up on academic work was typical of the advisors we interviewed.
Advisors also reviewed their advisees' work and academic progress with them. Advisory period provided a structure for this regular academic review, since students at all three sites had time to do work during advisory on a weekly basis. In many advisories, the advisor posted a checklist of information and tasks on the board during this work time, some of which were directed at the whole group and some of which were directed at specific students. When students in one advisory were asked whether their advisor knew if they struggled academically, one student eagerly responded, "Immediately, they are all on it."
Strong advisors are problem solvers and advice givers
Students felt that an important attribute of strong advisors was their ability to offer assistance and give reliable advice. In the focus groups, students at all three sites talked extensively about going to their advisors to solve their problems. Students recounted approaching their advisors about bullying issues, friendship strife, homework dilemmas, and other "drama" of middle school. Students unanimously agreed that they would go to their advisors for advice when they experienced problems. One student explained,
Let's say you have a typical problem in a typical subject in school; she will give you some strategies to work it out. And, uh, if you, like, have a problem with your life, she will also help you. She will give you advice.
The advisors indicated during interviews that they, too, viewed problem solving as an essential part of their role. They structured opportunities for giving advice within the context of the advisory, and many advisors talked about problem-solving sessions as "organic" and "responsive to the needs of my kids." Advisors reported addressing many types of problems including racial tension, weak grades, misunderstandings with teachers, school policy, bullying and exclusion, and stress at home. Advisors talked about empowering students by problem solving with them rather than for them. For example, during observations we often heard students begin questions with phrases such as "What should I do about…?" "Can you help me with…?" and "How do you think…?" Advisors responded with questions such as "How would you solve that problem?" or "What do you think are your next steps?"
Students and advisors perceive that advisory directly improves academic performance
In all the three schools, survey data suggested both students and advisors perceived that advisory improved academic performance. Interestingly, students in advisories with high levels of connectedness were more likely to perceive links between academic performance and advisory than students in advisories with lower levels of connectedness.
In the student focus groups, 98%of students responded affirmatively when asked, "Do you think advisory helps you academically?" Students noted that their advisories helped them focus on their studies, receive critical academic support, strategize about classes and teachers, set academic goals, and belong to a group of peers striving for success.
The data from the survey we administered to advisors confirmed the qualitative findings and revealed that advisors, like their advisees, assign the advisory program a significant role in the academic success of students. Advisors often attributed the academic growth they witnessed in their advisees to the advisory program; however, they disagreed about the immediacy of the impact advisory had upon academic performance. Some claimed the evidence of the advisory program's academic influence was "right away," while others believed the evidence came "in the long run."
Advisors from each site said that the advisory program impacts students' academic performance because it sets an environment conducive to academic success. One advisor explained, "As you know, create a good climate, and you are going to have kids who perform at a good academic level." Another advisor commented,
It absolutely helps academically. I do not think middle school kids know how to talk with teachers and advocate for themselves, and they need good modeling. [Advisory] is an academic support.
Students and advisors perceive that advisory functions as a community of learners
Students talked about how fellow advisees were a useful academic resource, because they knew what they were learning and could help them with schoolwork. One student said that in his advisory, "There is a lot of time for people to help you. It is supposed to be for the teacher to help you, but there is a lot of unseen potential when you can have students help one another."
Advisors talked about how students gravitated toward one another during guided work time in the advisory. Advisors used language like peer tutoring or study groups to describe what happened when their advisees worked together. Advisors suggested that forming these study groups in the advisory propelled their advisees academically. Unprompted, one teacher noted a connection between this community of learners and the concept of connectedness. She said,
And that is what they do during advisory. They pull out homework and help each other. Which is nice, ‘cause at least they get to have a study group. … They feel connected to school and connected to their teacher and curriculum.
We saw and heard evidence of a community of learners during all of the advisory observations. In advisories at one school, student desks were clustered in groups of four, and students had their notebooks in hand or were quizzing each other. Another group sat on the floor with their advisor reviewing for a test.
At another school, students also sat in small circles studying together. One exasperated boy exclaimed, "I do not get this!" A girl walked up to him and began to explain mathematical functions. Two students stood at the board drawing out a problem, pointing to it, and talking about it. When a student asked her advisor if a problem was wrong, her advisor turned the question to the advisory group, "Are negative numbers real numbers? Who can help Damion with this question?" A conversation then ensued among five students, debating the nature of numbers.
Advisors at each of the sites explained that the students who struggled in a particular area intentionally sought students who were stronger in that area to get help and advice on their work. One advisor revealed how stronger students helped shape the academic culture of the advisory:
I have amazing kids, and what has happened is that the kids [who] are a little bit lower, even though they are not that low, the group seems to be pulling them along; it is like this slip streaming effect. And they can see that they can rely on each other for help.
In addition to helping one another, advisors proudly commented that students were enthusiastic about each other's accomplishments.
As students get closer to adulthood, schools often become more isolating and impersonal. Advisory programs offer the structure to meet students' developmental needs, because it is the one place in school where students are intimately known as a "whole child." Advisory programs have the potential to ensure that every child has a meaningful relationship with an adult and belongs to a community of peers. These elements of connectedness have the potential to improve academic achievement and the overall school experience for middle grades students. As the eighth grade boy from the beginning of the article stated, "Advisory gets you into the state of mind that school is not only about work, but that it is a place where teachers really know you and understand you."
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Sarah Brody Shulkind is the middle school principal at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, CA.
Jack Foote is the principal of Joseph Le Conte Middle School in Los Angeles, CA.
Copyright © 2009 by National Middle School Association