Designing an orientation for, not about, incoming students.
Every fall, right before the start of school, students from preschool through college attend some sort of school orientation. Orientations provide an overview of what to expect in a new school, including all the classes, programs, and services available, and offer students an opportunity to meet the staff, faculty, and fellow classmates. It’s the school’s way of extending a warm welcome and highlighting the best of what they have to offer.
For the most part, the orientations are based on the point of view of those designing the presentations—we tell the students what we want them to know and what we think they need to know in order to thrive in our school.
But while we are planning for the students, how much of them do we really include? What do they want to know? What are their concerns? How can we design an orientation that is relevant for our students in both content and delivery?
This Is Not Working
I first became involved with the planning side of an orientation when my youngest son was in middle school. We were new to the district when he entered seventh grade; when he was in eighth grade, he was elected student council president. He and I were asked to speak to the parents of the incoming seventh graders—to share our experience of coming to the middle school.
Our fellow speakers were the PTA president and her daughter, Samantha. When Samantha got up to speak, she recounted every student’s worst nightmares about entering a new school: not being able to open either of her lockers, not finding her classrooms, teachers yelling at her because she was late, and not having anyone to sit with in the cafeteria.
Neither my son’s nor Samantha’s experiences were typical for middle school students, and I imagine that the parents in the audience did not leave the presentation reassured about their children’s transition to middle school.
Fast Forward a Few Years
As a sixth grade assistant principal, I found myself in charge of the middle school orientation presentation, which meant dusting off the previous year’s PowerPoint presentation, changing the date on the first slide to reflect the current year, and making any personnel changes within the slides.
Yet, as presentation formats evolved, so did our presentation. We switched out the stick figure clip art for gifs or non-copyrighted images from the Internet and added photos of kids working in classes and participating in cocurriculars.
We created a slideshow to play as the students entered the cafetorium: pictures of smiling students across campus with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story reinforcing our positive message. Based on the most frequently asked questions from our past orientation participants, we spent more time talking about lockers, lunch, and recess.
Then, seventh and eighth grade student council members gave the incoming students a tour of the building—pretty standard as far as middle school orientations go.
Despite our ongoing improvements to the presentation over the years, I began to notice that as I went through the slide presentation, slide by slide, the students seemed to lose interest, their eyes glazing over when I spoke about the curriculum of the four core subjects. And one could say only so much about lockers and lunch.
We needed to appeal to the tech-savvy sensibility of today’s students. We were ready for an upgrade.
Catalyst for Change
The timely arrival of Race to the Top brought with it a new teacher evaluation model—one whose evaluation rubrics gave top marks to projects that were student-generated. This student-centric focus aligns with the Association for Middle Level Education’s description of a successful middle school as one that empowers students to take an active role in the creative process, working collaboratively with their teachers in “hands-joined” activities that they develop together.
The year before, I had used iMovie to create a video version of a current sixth grade student’s “Dear New Student” letter, with a voice-over of the student reading his letter. Parents and students had enjoyed seeing sixth grade through the eyes of an actual sixth grader.
We thought we could take this idea a step further by collaborating with students to make an iMovie in which we would interview our current sixth graders about their transition to the middle school.
I also was inspired by an “unconference” I had attended that summer: a padcamp. The padcamp. a variation of an edcamp where attendees set the agenda for learning, focused on educational uses for an iPad.
At the padcamp, I learned how simple it was to create a professional-quality movie trailer using the iMovie app on an iPad. As part of our orientation upgrade, we could create an iMovie trailer that the fifth graders could watch prior to their visit to us.
We knew for certain that we wanted students to lead the charge for the changes in our presentation, that we wanted to incorporate more technology, and that we wanted to reach out to the fifth grade students before they came to see us at orientation.
Feedback from our newest sixth graders told us that a big part of the transition is fear about things that can go wrong, so we wanted our movie to ease their worries and address the social-emotional side of the transition as well as the academic side.
We recruited students for the project from the school’s site-based management team (SBMT), a group of school stakeholders that meets monthly to develop projects that support the school’s initiatives. The students on the SBMT eagerly volunteered to be the “crew”: the photographers, videographers, interviewers, and producers for our project.
I began to meet with the crew whenever their schedules and mine allowed—after school, before school, during their lunch and homeroom periods. We brainstormed ideas for the trailer, topics to include in the actual orientation presentation, and interview questions for our current sixth graders.
The feedback we got from our sixth graders was that prior to coming to middle school, they had been nervous about specific things but excited in general. The crew decided on the following questions:
- How did you feel about middle school before coming here?
- How do you feel about middle school now?
- What do you like the best about the middle school?
- What advice would you give to the new sixth graders coming into the middle school?
Finally, the students selected the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams as the soundtrack for the interview movie.
Next, we needed a group of sixth graders who could give us feedback about the current orientation process and suggestions for improvement. In our school, we have homeroom representatives who meet with the administrators once a month to get school updates to share with their classes and to give us feedback about what is on the minds of students. We recruited several sixth grade students from this group, set a date for the interviews, and obtained two iPads and a laptop on which to record the interviews.
Lights, Action, Camera!
The iMovie trailer app is easy to work with because each theme is pre-loaded with theme music and a template for text, pictures, and videos. Once we chose our template—The Quest—we set up our trailer like a story, including elements that we knew students had questions about. The students chose the following subtitles:
- William T. Rogers Middle School
- A Place to Learn
- A Place to Have Fun
- A Place to Make Friends
- A Place to Get Involved
- Home and Careers
- Coming this Fall
- What Is Waiting for You?
Once we had our basic outline, we needed pictures and videos to support our subtitles. For example, for Coming this Fall, the students suggested using a video of the buses arriving. For a A Place to Learn, they wanted to highlight students in the classroom.
We developed a schedule for the crew to get the videos and pictures that we needed during lunch, homeroom, and before and after school. Once we had all our photos and videos, we met on the same catch-as-catch-can schedule to put together the video. I found the tech support I needed at my local Apple store with knowledgeable (and patient) Apple geniuses.
Of course there were obstacles, as there are with any project: Working with personal iPads and laptops (before BYOD was in vogue) that do not sync with the school’s network, making the trailer accessible from one school to the other, considering privacy issues associated with uploading movies to YouTube.
However, in true constructivist fashion, we persisted because the project was meaningful to us. Working with the intermediate school principal Rudy Massimo and our tech support team, we uploaded the video to a private YouTube account and gave fifth grade teachers access to the account, which allowed them to show the trailer to their students with no problems.
At the orientation, it was rewarding for the crew to observe the audience giving the interview video their rapt attention. Some audience members were excited to see students they knew in the video, and they were bouncing in their seats to the song “Happy.” Our video seemed to be a success!
The year after we introduced our new orientation presentation, I met with a few of our new sixth graders who had seen the movie and the trailer as fifth graders, and asked them for their feedback. They all had enjoyed the trailer—it was “cool and weird,” “it made it (middle school) look really fun”—but admitted that the exciting theme music that was part of The Quest iMovie template had been a little scary. Sophia commented that “it sounded like the Jaws anthem” and suggested that we “make it a little more fun-sounding.”
When I asked the students how the video of the student interviews affected their feelings about coming to the middle school, their responses were positive. For example:
Amanda: It took a lot of stress off me because I was really worried about my locker and getting lost in a much bigger school. It showed me what the classrooms would be like. It reassured me. The part with the clubs helped us know that there’s a lot more to do here and everything’s fun and more students can participate.
Emma: It helped me not worry about my locker combination because I was pretty sure I was gonna forget it.
They said they would have liked to see more of the special area classes represented in the photos. We also agreed that the backdrop for our interviews (racks of hanging chairs in our utility room) could stand some improvement, so this year we look forward to experimenting with a green screen, which will allow us to superimpose any background the students choose. On the plus side, the sixth graders really liked the song “Happy” and suggested that we continue to use it in our video.
Giving Students Voice
AMLE suggests that successful middle grades practices purposefully empower young adolescents to assume a role of self-advocacy. In addition, as Ron Berger notes in An Ethic of Excellence, the energy and enthusiasm of the students have the power to enhance any project, and their pride in producing quality work that is admired and valued by their peers bolsters their self-image.
This project gave students the opportunity to, as AMLE’s This We Believe describes, “express their needs and preferences,” and the result was an authentic presentation that reflected the students’ perspective.
Did we achieve our goal of helping students feel less anxious about coming to the middle school? Amanda offered this thought: “I knew I (would be) okay because everybody else (in the movie) seemed to be okay.”