Chase sat in the back of the room every day, silent and sullen, hiding behind his long bangs. I was supposed to be teaching him about ancient Mesopotamia, and everything about his body language said, "Leave me alone."
Then one evening I opened my e-mail to find a message from Chase. He had found an article online related to what we had discussed in class, and he wanted me to see it. Who knew he'd even been listening? I replied via e-mail, asking his opinion about the article, and he responded with a surprisingly clever and funny remark.
As Chase's class arrived for social studies the next day, I had high hopes for him, but outwardly, nothing had changed. Even so, our e-mail exchanges continued, and before long my thinking about Chase—and his about my class and me—had changed completely, even though you never would have known it by watching him in class. He was actually "plugged in" to the class all along, although I'd never have known it without our e-mail exchanges.
For me, this experience was an early glimpse of how technology, used thoughtfully, can foster and improve connections between people in a school environment. Today, the many options available can not only strengthen connections between teacher and student, but also between teacher and parents, and among the various school professionals who are part of each student's support team.
Connecting with Kids
In recent years there also has been an explosion of materials available online to support social-emotional learning. As a result, technology has become an essential tool in the middle school advisor's toolkit.
Before the school year even begins, a group e-mail or a shared online space can help you build community and begin to get to know and connect with your advisees. Send an e-mail to your students introducing yourself and sharing some highlights of the year to come. Ask them to "reply all" and share a bit about themselves—maybe even a picture of what they've been up to over the summer. Don't forget to include some basic expectations you have for the year regarding good digital citizenship.
Start a digital bulletin board to solicit ideas for a class mascot or homeroom nickname. Padlet is an easy and free option http://padlet.com. Online surveys are also a great way to start getting to know your students before they even set foot in the building. Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) allows you to build free online surveys of up to 10 questions.
All of this, of course, presumes that you have access to student e-mail addresses before school begins. If not, you may have to start the "old-fashioned" way—with a pen and paper note or postcard to welcome them and provide them with your e-mail address for a reply.
Connecting with Colleagues
At the start of the year, set up a sharable digital notebook or document for each of your advisees. This is a great place to record contact information for parents and keep notes of conversations and copies of important e-mail communications. This file might also include a student's learning profile: strengths, accommodations, and areas in need of support.
This notebook or document can be shared with anyone who has an interest in the student (adhering to confidentiality policies, of course), such as a co-advisor, classroom teachers, coaches, and guidance counselor. They can check it for useful insights about your advisee and how she learns, to get updates on parent communications, or to add relevant information. Some schools create databases where classroom teachers can provide advisors with regular updates on classroom work habits and performance.
Connecting with Parents
Many advisors begin the year with getting-acquainted and team-building activities. If you can, snap a few photos—or ask a student to help with this—and send a picture or two to your advisees' parents to introduce yourself and let them know what you are doing to welcome their children and help them feel at ease at the start of the school year.
Throughout the year, regular e-mail updates about advisory topics and activities can keep parents informed and better able to follow up with conversations at home. Some advisors maintain a class web page. If you do this, be sure to send an e-mail to let parents know when it has been updated; most parents won't think to check it regularly.
In Support of Advisory
One way to keep your advisees organized and focused on the goals of your advisory program is to have each one maintain a digital notebook or file they can share with you. This is a great place for them to record their goals for the year. We use the S.M.A.R.T. goals system to help our advisees set thoughtful and attainable goals (http://topachievement.com/smart.html). Once these goals are recorded in the shared notebook, you can review them and give feedback directly in the document. Ask your advisees to revisit their goals periodically throughout the year to post updates and make adjustments as necessary.
Once advisees have identified their goals, they can use many free online resources to help them achieve them. Study Guides and Strategies (www.studygs.net) is an extensive and helpfully organized collection that students can explore on their own, or that teachers can make part of a focused advisory lesson. Consider sorting advisees into groups with similar goals or challenges and having them search through the site to find a few new approaches they might try.
Middle school students are often especially challenged in the area of time management, and helping them find tools and strategies to support them in this area is often a component of an advisory curriculum. Here, there also are a number of free digital resources available. iProcrastinate (http://craigotis.com/blog/iprocrastinate) is an application designed to help students manage assignments and schedules and is especially beneficial for those with impaired or lagging executive function.
RescueTime (www.rescuetime.com) allows users to track how much time they spend on self-identified "productive" and "distracting" websites and applications. SelfControl (http://selfcontrolapp.com) takes a more aggressive approach, allowing users to actually block themselves from distracting websites for a designated period of time. This tool is popular with both easily distracted students and their equally distracted teachers.
In addition to supporting academic growth and success, most advisory programs include objectives in the realm of social and emotional learning. Today there are a multitude of resources to help students and teachers meet these objectives, from video vignettes for class discussion to games and simulations.
A great w—–ay to find them is Graphite, the free teacher resource from Common Sense Media (www.graphite.org). The site features expert and teacher reviews of hundreds of apps, games, and websites that have educational applications. Searches can be filtered by grade level as well as by a host of SEL skills like friendship building, handling stress, and resolving conflict.
Anti-bullying education is often a key feature of advisory curricula. The resources search at stopbullying.gov (www.stopbullying.gov/resources/all) is a government-sponsored gateway to hundreds of free lessons, toolkits, and activities available online.
Putting It All Together
At the heart of an effective advisor program is the ability to know your students and communicate your care and support for them. Often the best ways to do this involve no technology at all: a long chat at lunch, an extra check-in after the big science test, warm congratulations for that soccer goal in overtime.
These things will always be at the core of building relationships with students, and cannot be replaced. But the addition of communication tools and online resources can enrich and support an advisory program in ways far beyond those e-mail exchanges I had with Chase— but even that's not a bad place to start.
Lynn Salehi is the middle school dean of student life at the Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey. email@example.com
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2015.