6th Grade #StuVoice on the Education System (Part 1 of 2)

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This is part one of a two-part post on this #StuVoice workshop for
6th grade students from Cortez Middle School & Curtis School.
You can find part two here.


A Public/Private Student Partnership Workshop for

Cortez Middle School & Curtis School Students


Part I: Background & Facilitation Plan


Chris Thinnes


The more collaboration, the more synergy; the more synergy,
the more powerful and expansive the outcomes

Al Adams, 2000


Earlier this year I wrote about a transformative experience at Parthenia Street Elementary School that confirmed for me some of the principles that should govern partnerships between public and private schools. “What couldn’t be clearer,” I had suggested at the time, “is that ‘partnership’ — like any learning experience — involves vulnerability, humility, and reciprocity. Partnership, like learning, depends on the development of relationships in which, and because of which, we grow.” More pointedly, perhaps, I noted:

I have, for a long time, been squeamish about the unintended impact of school partnerships designed primarily around a ‘charitable’ model of donation, community service, and other ‘service learning’ opportunities for private school students on public school grounds: for all the good they may do, “the assumptions that often govern such partnerships between students, teachers, parents, and leaders in the public and private sectors…in many cases, strengthen misconceptions each of us have about ‘the other.’” As a result of these misconceptions, our collaboration has in many cases been limited — as the result of unexamined privilege in private schools, and unexamined resentment in our public schools.

On that day at Parthenia Elementary School, I witnessed an improvisational “town hall on education policy — in which such topics as English language learning, support services, and family engagement were open to questioning, exploration, and learning” among a group of fourth grade students. On that day, I also witnessed a powerful opportunity for stakeholders from each learning community – in this case, both students and teachers — to begin to examine those assumptions we have about each other.

It was in that spirit of reciprocity and transparency that Jamie Haukeness, Principal of Cortez Middle School in Colorado, and I began conversations several months ago about an opportunity for our 6th grade students, under the banner of NAIS’s “Challenge 20/20” project, to work together to research and to design solutions to one of 20 global problems. The idea originated when we discovered that children from the Ute Mountain Ute community of Towaoc, Colorado (with whom we had connected during an annual field trip to the southwestern states), were bussed from Towaoc to the central middle school in Cortez. Jamie and I agreed that, for reasons that some might take to be ironic — 65% of his school’s population qualifying for free/reduced lunch; a larger percentage of our school’s population paying a nearly $25,000 annual tuition — there was no more fitting goal for a joint learning partnership than an exploration of systemic inequities in educational access and opportunity. As I wrote in the introduction to our facilitators’ guide for this visit:

Cortez Middle School & Curtis School are developing a long-term partnership to promote 6th grade students’ exploration of pressing questions about educational opportunity, access, and attainment; the varied cultural and socioeconomic perspectives of their schools’ constituents; the experiences and insights they can offer as members of public and private school communities; and their capacity to solve problems that affect their and their friends’ lives in the ‘real world.’ In future iterations, this partnership will provide an opportunity for students at each school to explore these matters at greater depth, to collaborate between schools in further inquiry and examination of related issues, and to report back to each other (and participate in shared learning experiences) during visits. The concrete goal of future partnership experiences will be to develop, to propose and, if possible, to implement viable solutions to address local, regional, national, and/or international inequities in education.

Our schools will dive deeply into this experience over a months-long period next year. Even on this first, relatively short visit, however, we wanted to honor the purpose of our planned, longer-term partnership by beginning to unite our communities of students and teachers; by welcoming honest and open dialogue about our shared experiences of schooling; and to provide a purpose-driven learning experience that could set the tone for further interactions and deeper learning among our 6th grade students. To that end, after conversation with members of our staffs, we proposed a facilitation plan that could invite students to examine the nature of their shared experience of schooling:

To maximize the opportunity and impact of this first short visit, this plan tries to honor the spirit of the long-term purpose of this partnership, within a practical and manageable framework with the following goals for students:

• To reflect on and share about the culture(s) of their learning communities
• To identify the school experiences and opportunities they value most
• To examine questions, conflicts, or issues about education that concern them most
• To generate ‘driving questions’ that can guide further inquiry about their shared concerns
• To practice appreciative inquiry to leverage their valued experiences to address their shared concerns
• To propose potential solutions to their shared concerns about education & schools

An unstated premise of this plan is that the Cortez and Curtis students will be the most authentically engaged, comfortable with new relationships, and respectful of each others’ differences as a result of identifying shared experiences, focusing on common goals, and collectively addressing questions they design together.

We find it ironic – and we think the students do, as well – that for all the focus “the education system” receives in the national media, input from students is rarely ever sought. We wanted not merely to give ‘permission’ to students to talk about their shared experience, but to invite them openly to offer their input of how best to improve our schools and our system. Below you’ll find a copy of the facilitation guide we used as a framework for our workshop. In an upcoming post, I’ll share some reflections on each of the sessions and their impact.


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Cortez-Curtis Facilitation Plan by ChrisThinnes



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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes