Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This Ain't Yo' Mama's High School!

Orientation came this past week, and it was truly energizing to see the school filled with students again. All the wide eyes, expectations, excitement--I love being able to be part of a truly memorable high school experience for these guys! I don’t know any other school that makes new people feel at home like mine does, but I very highly recommend that other schools take the time to do it. It gets the year off to a great start, and really sets these students up to succeed. Think for a minute about what it was like when you went to high school: The first day you arrived, you might have known people, but certainly you were incredibly nervous about all the totally new faces, the unfamiliar environment, unusual routines and higher expectations. Your schedule might have been what you thought it was, but it probably wasn’t, and who did you ask for help if you couldn’t find your science class, anyway? Making new friends, being back at the bottom of the totem pole after being at the top in 8th grade, bigger books (and more of them)--all of the stress that is part of that first day, on top of all of the other stresses of just being 14.

Now, imagine this: You arrive at school for orientation, but this is not your first time here. You were here just a few months ago for “auditions”, where you met a number of other incoming students, did some cooperative activities and a sample of your performing art (not because it was used to determine your placement at the school, but to demonstrate to you that you’ll be asked to actually demonstrate your mastery of things you’ll learn). You see several of these other students here, as you’re heading to the theater for the formal opening of orientation. You say your hellos and sit together to share in this new experience. Already you have a friend, and you haven’t even started yet!

The staff are already here, and make you feel welcome straight away. They are not lined up along the wall, ushering you to seats, like you expect. They’re all over the place, introducing themselves, asking about you, encouraging you to meet other teachers who share your interests or who live near you. They’re giving hugs and chatting happily with the returning students who are acting as helpers during orientation, and there is a feeling of warmth that leaves an instant impression.

Eventually, this guy comes up onto the stage and gives you a hearty welcome, telling you all that you are special because you are the first students here at school this year and, for the next three days, the place is yours. In due course, you learn that he is the Executive Director of the school, but he comes across like someone more interested in getting to know you than in being a principal. He doesn’t list out any rules or make any threats. He simply tells you that he is excited that you’re here, and he thinks you’ll really enjoy orientation. Then he hands the mic over to a lady whom you met during auditions. She is the Director of Teaching and Learning. She speaks for just a moment to say that she’s honored to be here with you because she’s had the pleasure of watching you all during auditions, and that you are really impressive. This makes you feel good because she said that same thing to you personally when you were at auditions (not that it was your best reading of a monologue, but you were proud to have done it for the first time in front of people you didn’t know). She tells you where her office is, and that you should not hesitate to come by and visit, to tell her how things are going and to offer any comments (good or bad) that will make your time at the school enjoyable.

Then come the staff--all of them. Each one, in turn, takes the stage for just a moment and gives an introduction. It’s funny because most of them do something funny or original when it’s their turn. They make jokes, sing little ditties, juggle and even teach you a quick dance move in the 30 seconds they have the stage. You get the sense that the teachers are really engaging. Class with any of them will definitely be interesting! Even the office staff say hello, and tell you what they do and where they can be found. You don’t think you ever spoke to the office secretary at your last school. By the time you’re ready to go off into your morning groups, you’ve laughed enough to make your cheeks ache a little. It’s only 9:00!

A teacher calls your name along with a bunch of others and you go with him upstairs to what must be his classroom. There are no desks in the room, though. Instead, chairs have been placed in a circle in the center of the space. You take a seat, and the teacher sits right in the circle with you all. He once again introduces himself, welcomes you and tells you that he is very much looking forward to getting to know you over the next couple of days. He talks about all the things he’s planned to do, but says that plans are often meant to be changed and, if we all decide we want to do something for longer or shorter than planned, that’s perfectly fine.

You go right into an activity designed to help you learn everyone’s names. Everyone participates and, while you’re a little nervous because you don’t know anyone in this group, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself sharing stuff you have in common with other people in the circle. You talk about hobbies and expectations, and you document your “journey to the school” on a large map that shows an impressive web of interconnected string lines. Before you take a break to go outside to eat lunch, you learn that, tomorrow, you will bring in your “personal archeology” to share. This is a small collection of artifacts that you think tell about you. You know just what you’ll bring, and it’ll be a little nerve-wracking to share it but you don’t get the sense that you’ll be ridiculed for anything. On the contrary, everyone is so accepting of who you are already, you’re confident that they’ll applaud you just as strongly as everyone else at the end of your little presentation.

You go to a workshop in the afternoon where you learn about learning styles and how they’re used at this school. You learn that teachers here actually take time to discover how you like to learn things, so they can make classes more interesting and fun. They’ll also so they can challenge you to work outside your comfort zone from time to time, so you can become a better learner. You discover what your own, individual learning style is, and you can actually see how it makes sense. You always knew you liked listen to music while you work, and it fits that you have a strong tonal learning style.

At the end of the day, you and the rest of the students go to an outdoor activity with the head of the dance department. She teaches you about how dance is just another form of expression and conversation, and she leads you in an activity that gets everyone doing some sort of movement. You can’t dance to save your life, but it was fun to just flail around and have it be appreciated for what it was. As you wait for the bus to take you home, you cannot believe that you’ll have two more days of this. You wonder what it will be like once the rest of the students arrive and classes start.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

La Rentrée, C’est Complètement Effréné (part 1)!

This school year has certainly gotten off to a wild start! I’ll share with you more, I hope, over the next several posts, but for now let me just give you the basics:

I began the year a week ahead of my actual return date. This, in and of itself, is not unusual. I’m the school’s equivalent of an Athletic Director and I coach our co-ed varsity soccer team, so the beginning of the year is always busy with getting stuff ready for the fall season of sports. This year, there’s been more of that than usual because we’re adding cross country to our list of offerings. Lots of end-of-summer phone tag with other schools, trying to coordinate a last-minute set of meets; extra forms, letters and purchase orders to shuffle around; more than a few emails to send, so that no one can complain they didn’t know what was going on. I’m constantly amazed at how much paperwork is necessary simply to allow kids to play at school.

As it got closer to D-Day for the staff, I needed to devote time to a workshop that I run for new students during their 3 days of orientation. It’s on Multiple Learning Styles, and it is required of all incoming students at my school. This is the second year I’ve done this workshop, and there was a sizeable amount of 11th hour retooling to adapt it to a longer timeframe and a larger and more diverse audience. I also needed to train 5 other staff members in how to run their own workshops on this topic, using the materials I developed as a guide. New scripts, new visuals, a more comprehensive guide with supplies and handouts for students all needed to be finished in about 3 days. It’s a good thing I can type pretty fast!

The first day back for staff included time in the morning for sharing and fellowship—there were lots of hugs and genuinely interested inquiries about summer activities. We always take time to introduce new members of staff, work ourselves up into a lather with rah-rah speeches and inspirational activities, then get down to the business of welcoming back the students. For me, this includes 46,000 meetings with everyone from my department colleagues to the academic support staff. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to put my classroom together, but usually this has to wait until orientation (I have mornings free during those 3 days).

This year, I had all 46,000 meetings, but they took twice as long as they normally would. One big reason for this is that I have a new group of advisees this year (these are students I work with closely during the year, helping them with scheduling and, in general, negotiating the academic red tape that is part of high school). It is a smaller group than I normally have, but they are all students who have organizational or motivational issues that have impeded their success at my school. I got this advisory group because of my relative success last year with a small collection of students (only one of which was my actual advisee) in completing coursework and earning credit for classes they would likely have not passed otherwise. I’m looking forward to working with this new lot, but there is a whole lot of prep work that goes into this. In order to properly help them succeed this year, it is important to know exactly what contributed to their problems the year before. Do they have IEPs or 504 paperwork? Were the difficulties behavioral, organizational, motivational? What can they do well (write, sing, dance, draw, etc)? What do their teachers have to say (objectively--I don’t need personal opinions)? What is their home life like? Are their folks helping or hurting the cause (the best successes I had last year involved my telling parents exactly what they needed to do to support their students)? Do they have any goals or aspirations? Where are they, truly, in adolescent development? A lot of questions to ask, and for even a small number of students requires a lot of time to get answers.

I'll tell you about New Student Orientation tomorrow.