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

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


A Public/Private Student Partnership Workshop for

Cortez Middle School & Curtis School Students


Part II: Summary & Reflections


Chris Thinnes


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

Al Adams

‘Public purpose’: To make the waves that raise all boats.

Pat Bassett

Recently I explained that “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.’” Last week, Cortez Middle School generously hosted an initial visit to set the tone for our longer-term learning partnership over time. Teachers from both schools helped to facilitate a “#StuVoice Workshop” we designed “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.” We did our best to outline a “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

As I mentioned in the first post

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 assessment of how best to improve our system.

In this post, I want to summarize my impressions of the day — both in order to share the workshop design and facilitation strategy (in case they’re of value to others as a model), and to take a few minutes to reflect on a wonderful experience with 140 sixth grade students and a great crew of teachers. I might not offer any tremendous insights in this writeup, and I’m drowning in year-end hooplah right now — but I do believe this is a valuable, replicable, and easily manageable model for such partnerships between other schools. So I’ll apologize in advance for any failure to discern any deeper or subtler truths, and get on with the business at hand:

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CCSV intros


Purpose: Students identifying similarities and differences between their learning communities

Following a brief introduction from Steven Hanson, the coordinator of the 6th grade teaching team at Cortez MS, a few student leaders from each school introduced themselves and welcomed all of the students (140 in all) to the partnership. These student leaders all did a great job of setting an upbeat, inclusive tone to get the workshop started. I made a few introductory comments as well, noting our schools’ allure to big cats for mascots (Jaguars, Cougars), the differences between our public and private school models, and — hmm… What was it? Oh, yeah: the fact that adults have been harping for some time on changing models of schools and schooling, but rarely ask children, who spend most of their waking hours in school, for their input about what’s working and what’s not. I invited them to understand this morning together as a first, brief foray for our communities of students to work together to offer contributions to that larger dialogue about the education system.

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Purpose: Use of nonverbal communication to engage, focus, promote shared goal-direction and collaboration

One of our early challenges was to find a way to cut through the awkwardness that would invariably settle among two large groups of students from different communities, brought together for the very first time under circumstances that hadn’t ben fully explained to either group. As students filed into the enormous library space, which we’d cleared of all tables and chairs to allow plenty of space for their movement, students clustered predictably into Cortez and Curtis contingents, by and large. So we asked all of the students to gather in one of 12 circles, according to the month in which they were born. Once groups of 10-15 students and teachers had gathered in each of the circles, we explained that they were to engage in a single, three minute challenge: to organize themselves – using entirely non-verbal communication; no words, no sounds, and no ‘mouthing’ of words whatsoever – into circles according to the date of their birth in that month (i.e. from 1 to 31, in a clockwise direction). No sooner did the three minute timer begin to tick, than the pantomime began in earnest: lots of raised and flashing fingers, gesticulations, giggles, and more good stuff as the students and teachers from each community all found a way to make it work within the bounds of a common, low-stakes challenge.

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Purpose: Intentional reflection on implementation questions, preferences about learning and school, etc.

Following a few minutes of open reflection on the experience of communicating ‘without language’ – and now that the students were productively stirred up – we asked them to remain in their new groups for a moment while we introduced the next session: “Awesome or Lame?” Judging from the buzz in the days that followed, this session was a highlight for many of the students. Modeled on Dan Callahan’s and Bill Selak’s “Things That Suck” sessions and countless EdCamps (and retitled in this case in the fashion that Bill Selak’s wife has used it in a high school class), the model is simple. The name of a topic is revealed to the participants. Participants gather to one side of the room if they think that thing is ‘awesome,’ to the other side of the room if they think that thing is ‘lame,’ and somewhere in the middle if they are equivocal or uncertain. Then participants are invited to provide brief (10-20 second) comments to explain their position in the room. For each topic, there’s a fixed five minute period of facilitated discussion.

As Bill Selak explains, the value of this format (versus typical workshop presentation formats) is that it “creates an environment where discussion is the session.” I made a point to invite the students to think not only of their individual experiences at Cortez Middle School or Curtis School, but to think of all the conversations they’ve had with friends and family about their school experiences as well. The point was to think not only about ‘their school,’ but about the school system. For each of the five minute sessions, I dodged about the room with a handheld microphone, and invited students to ‘push back’ against each others’ stated positions. This was intended to encourage reflection on broader questions of education, to welcome open and debate among the students, and to encourage delicate or provocative commentary provided that it was respectful. In this case we picked four topics: ‘Homework,’ ‘Group Projects,’ ‘Standardized Tests,’ and ‘Technology.’

Students were remarkably open and honest – both in those cases that they had strong feelings opposing schools’ practices, and in those cases they had unpopular opinions in the room. In a few isolated cases, some teachers winced at the depth of students’ discomfort with certain traditional school practices; more commonly, students reacted audibly with approval or resistance to other students’ positions; in many cases, students were jumping up and down, begging for the microphone. Their level of engagement boded well for the discussions that would follow.

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Purpose: Reflect on experiences that engage & empower students; determine consensus on shared perspectives

In the next session, we wanted to build consensus among the students about those school practices, policies, or experiences they valued most. What do they love about school? What makes them excited to come to school? What do they look forward to when things aren’t going so well? We thought this simple session would be valuable on two counts: first, to open discussion to shared impressions and experiences among the students from two different learning communities, and second, to set the stage for the simple model of appreciative inquiry we hoped to promote in the breakout sessions that would follow. Owing to our limited time frame, we kept the facilitation simple in this case: students called out suggestions, I offered some prompts if they seemed to be searching for language, and another facilitator recorded the suggestions on a large whiteboard. After no more than 10 minutes, students generated a great list of valued experiences, among lots of head-nods and affirmations:

Cortez Whiteboard 1

Once we had this list, all of the students were quietly to pick the three topics they’d put at the tops of their individual lists, and then we held a vote. After aggregating a couple of related categories, and performing a quick count of votes, we were left with the students’ “Top 5” list of “What’s Working in Schools”:

CCSV LIST whats working

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Purpose: Reflect on experiences that disengage or disempower students; determine consensus on shared concerns

This next session followed exactly the model of the last, but couldn’t have been more provocative or important. We openly invited students – after a brief reminder that this was intended to foster thought about their concerns about the school system, rather than complaints about their individual school per se – to provide their input on the greatest challenges to learning in their, their friends’, and their families’ experience. What are the experiences that limit their engagement in school? What are the problems to which nobody seems to have discovered an effective solution? What problems would they like to see addressed in the years to come? After a short exchange, students had provided the following themes:

Cortez Whiteboard 2

And after another vote count, consensus was established on this “Top 5” list of “What’s Broken in Schools”:

CCSV LIST whats broken

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Purpose: Practice generating driving questions for further exploration, practice appreciative inquiry to design solutions, and propose potential solutions to real concerns

Once consensus on this “Top 5” list had been reached, we asked all of the students quietly to decide which one of the issues they’d want to spend further attention, in a small group setting, examining further. On an entirely self-selected basis, then, students gathered in one of five areas  of our enormous room (each of which was devoted to one of the “Top 5” concerns) for a problem-solving ‘breakout session’ with a small group of teachers/facilitators from both schools. In each of these groups, we invited students to offer some further commentary on the nature of their concern. Then, for each of the five topics we asked students to work together to develop a ‘driving question’ (i.e. “What question would need to be answered, in order to start solving this problem?” Once a driving question had been generated, we asked students to return to the list of “What’s Working in Schools” to ask whether successful practices could be leveraged to help address experiences that are less successful. Finally, then, the students began to propose initial solutions to “What’s Broken in Schools.” While we didn’t have the time to pursue a proper, or more elaborate, design session, we were able to enjoy the opportunity for some truly constructive conversation, appreciative inquiry, and initial problem-solving activity.

As one of the breakout facilitators (for the “Too Much Homework” group), I was taken by the ease and efficiency with which students from both schools engaged into a thoughtful exchange about shared perceptions. Before long, students were asking terrific, probing questions about common assumptions in schools (“Why can’t we work together on our homework, if it helps us to learn? Why do teachers or parents think of that as cheating?”), diving more deeply into the nature of the problem (“I wish the homework that was assigned was more useful, and connected to what I’m learning;” “There are other important things with family and friends that I have to interrupt some nights, in order to stay on track”), and offering some initial solutions (“We should have more choice in our assignments, to help decide what will be helpful or needed;” “There should be more flexibility for when some assignments are due, so we can participate in other things outside of school, too.”)

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Purpose: Share the results of prior efforts and inspire each other with potential solutions to real concerns

In the final minutes of each of the five breakout sessions, facilitators invited a handful of volunteers (in each case, a few students from each school) to prepare a brief “report-back” to share with the larger group of students. Once all of us had joined back together in the shared space, each of these teams spent a few minutes summarizing the problems they’d explored, analyzing the valued practices and experiences that should be considered in further efforts to design a solution, discussing the driving questions their group considered, and representing some of the solutions that were proposed. This was a fantastic experience to share each breakout group’s learning with the larger group of students, and for the smaller teams of presenters to extend that learning further still.

The group examining “Bullying/Lack of Safety” made an articulate appeal for a community-based solution, to allies among friends and classmates, and for open communication with adults. The “Not Enough Creativity” group emphasized the urgency for schools to honor students’ voice, and to provide students choice – and offered a slate of plausible classes and student-run activities and clubs to provide forums for students to create, to express, and to make. The “School Starts Too Early” group emphasized their need for reasonable rest and sleep, their desire for more flexibility in the school schedule, and their recognition that they could use some help from their teachers (viz. homework load) and their parents (viz. making sure they can get to bed on time). The breakout group to which we’d assigned the hashtag “#TotesDramz” (students concerned about interactions with their peers, distinct from ‘bullying’) explored some pressing questions about racial and cultural difference in their school communities, how to create a more respectful student culture, and how to resist or interrupt unsupportive relationships with classmates. Beyond those items I’ve already mentioned, members of the “Too Much Homework” group also came up with some credible suggestions for schools to leverage technology more effectively — in order to individualize more effective practice, and to facilitate students’ collaboration on appropriately shared tasks.

Here’s the thing: all these ideas, and many more, emerged from breakout discussions that took somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 minutes to introduce, facilitate, and wrap up. Imagine if we’d had more time to explore these matters further?

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Despite the limited time we had together, I’m absolutely confident that we satisfied each of the goals for the workshop, and served the stated purpose of each session within it. Students and teachers from each school have been buzzing about it ever since (in surveys, conversation, and blog pages we’ve set up for the students to continue to exchange ideas). And it couldn’t be clearer that we’ve set the best possible stage for our communities to work together next year, and beyond, on longer, deeper, and more concrete problem-solving work on questions of educational opportunity, access, and attainment.

Beyond the scope of my own satisfaction with the success of the day, and my own vicarious thrill for the students who were empowered by the opportunity to find and/or to exercise their voice on issues that affect their lives, I leave this experience with two broader take-aways that are perhaps more compelling still.

First, it is absolutely possible — we have now made a series of forays into this territory — to construct meaningful and reciprocal partnerships between public and private school communities that challenge a prevailing model of ‘service learning’ opportunities for private school stakeholders. There is no question but that both of our schools’ stakeholders experienced meaningful learning as a result of our shared contributions to the workshop. Precisely because of our collective gaze on a subject of concern to us both, we were able to develop a sense of shared responsibility, and shared opportunity, to solve problems that affect us all. And through this kind of joint effort between public and private school stakeholders, I am certain we will help to examine and to challenge some of the misconceptions we continue to harbor about each other.

Second, it is clearer to me than ever that the real answers to systemic educational questions will only be found by including the voices of teachers and students — far more prominently than politicians, pundits, and wonks — in the generative strategic conversations, and systemic solutions, of the coming years. To the extent that national policy, and popular media, have maligned teachers, misrepresented learning, and pitted school against school in an ever-narrowing circle around the drain of public discourse, I find great inspiration, and derive deep faith, from the excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism exhibited by 140 twelve year olds — from as broad a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds as one might imagine — who were willing and eager to identify the actual problems they all experience, and viable solutions to matters that affect each of their lives.


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes