Getting Students to the Table

One of my primary goals for the future of education has always been to include more students, as well as other not as represented stakeholder groups, in the school decision making process. And I’ve found that a lot of educators share this sentament, and furthermore, there are a lot of educators who actively try to engage students in these conversations. And yet, we still don’t notice all that much student voice in education, and if it is present, it’s often the same few voices. Why is that?

Well this isn’t the full answer to this question, but something I’ve observed is that most students don’t respond to mass open invitations. Doesn’t matter if you blast it in a school email or try to “be with the times” and use social media platforms students frequent on, if it’s a general invitation, most students don’t respond. This isn’t something I can explicitly point at research to support (maybe it exists but I’ve not looked for it or seen it accidentally), but it’s something I’ve noticed from experience when trying to create opportunities for student voice.

I’ve experienced this when trying to get writers for Trailblazers, when hosting events, and when just trying to get people together for a causal but focused discussion. Every time I try a mass marketing method to try and get students involved with education initiatives, I end up with little to no responses. And yet, as a student myself, when I’m just going through life I will frequently hear other students say, “Oh ya, I have a lot to say about XYZ.”

So how do we capture those thoughts? How do we get students to show up to the table? Because it’s not a question of if they have opinions to share, it’s a question of how we hear them.

I didn’t realize that this was a unique insight until working on this project with OpenIDEO where I was involved in a conversation around trying to brainstorm social media marketing geared towards getting students to contribute to the design challenge. The brainstorming was discussing things like word choice, length, what slogans are cool now, what platforms to use, what if we could get students to respond on the platform then challenge their friends to do it and like all of those other challenges happening in quarantine, etc.

But I realized the conversation was likely pointless… I told them how I don’t consider myself to be gifted with social media or marketing but in my experience most students don’t respond to those kinds of campaigns for education stuff. And the other student on the team (who I had no relation to before joining this project), confirmed my opinions with a bit more socially minded perspective suggesting that kids use social media mostly for fun and entertainment and those challenges that get passed along are because they’re easy and goofy; an education challenge would require actual thought work and time, so student’s probably won’t engage with it.

I actually don’t know what kind of marketing they ended up going with because I didn’t really look out for it. Though considering I find myself more frequently viewing education social media than the normal student and I didn’t see it, I’m guessing not many other students did either if there was a specific marketing campaign geared towards students.

Yet, for some silly reason, even after this conversation, I still choose the same strategy for trying to get people to join my discussion/brainstorm session held earlier today about learning during COVID-19…

I posted on every social media platform I have including some group chats with students who have previously demonstrated interest in education transformation focused events, and even got some likes and retweets, yet, as I expected only 1 person actually showed up to the Zoom call today. And that was my best friend who I explicitly asked before setting up anything, “Hey does this time work for you, because then at least worst case scenario, no one else shows up and I can at least pivot the discussion to an interview with you.” My little sister did also show up about half way through, and the three of us did have a good conversation from a variety of perspectives about the challenges and opportunities with online learning. So I don’t think the event was a total bust, though it was pretty much exactly as I had cautioned the rest of the IDEO team.

So what to do about this?

Well, what I have noticed is that students are very likely to respond if they’re specifically reached out to. For example with Trailblazers, which I consider a long term individual comittment since the writing/editing process takes place over a number of weeks mostly independently, this means we try to contact teachers we know from different schools and get them to identify specific students we can ask to write. While in school, it looks like seeing students in person and 1:1 asking them to join a meeting then following up with the calendar invite. Even when trying to get teacher participation to join a student-teacher card game tournament, we were much more successful when we individually delievered each teacher a typed and stamped invite in person. And for short term projects, such as this design challenge it means I try texting individually all the other students I have info for.

Now I knew this information before sending out my mass media open invitation, so you may wonder, why did I still choose the mass media route anyway? Well, it’s a lot easier to send mass invitations, esspcially in regards to time which is something I have not had much of this past week with midterms being upon me. So trust me, I know it doesn’t seem like the most efficient method to individually send out requests/invites for students to share their thoughts/opinions/stories, but in my experience it has always proven to have a greater response rate.

It was the exact same message I shared on social media, yet when texted individually I got 12 responses with-in 30 minutes even when sent at 10:30pm/later at night and had at least 3 others specifically say they’d get back to me tomorrow. Versus my media posts had been out for a week and I had 0 people respond to my questions in the comments and 0 people show up due to those posts. (My best friend and sister only showed up to the Zoom because I specifically asked/bugged them about it and they confirmed as much.) That’s an over 1200% better response rate with the same message… And for some responses I was given paragraph long answers per question. That means students had a lot to say and were willing to take the time to say it, they just had to be prompted to thinking their opinions in particular mattered.

There’s a lot that can be claimed about what this says about my generation that we don’t respond to mass messages but will give lengthy responses to personalized messages. (Really not even personalized, just individually sent because I sent pretty much identical messages to everyone, just sometimes slightly changing the initial greeting sentence if I was texting a parent to get their child’s response vs a peer.) And again, perhaps I’m making this sound too generalized, but I feel like I’ve had this happen on a lot of occasions at this point (I can think of at least 5 examples off the top of my head). However, I don’t share this information to make claims about my generation, I’m just sharing an observation/theory that has proven to be true on numerous occasions:

If you want a greater variety of student voices involved in the conversation, try asking indidviduals directly rather than just, “Hey anyone who’s interested I would love your response to…”

Range Finder

For the last 10 minutes of our Wish For WASH meeting today, I encouraged our entire team to do a mini design thinking activity with one of the tools we used called “The Range Finder.” The purpose was for each of us to think about the timeline of different goals on our subteams; goals right in front of us, beyond the trees, and over the mountain. I thought with so much uncertainty and restructuring happening right now with the shift to virtual teaming, this tool would be a good way for us to check-in that everyone is on the same page with how we view our short term and long term goals.

The tool was so successful that I thought it would be good for me to do a personal Range Finder as well to consider what my goals are for while we’re on break from school (the three weeks still), once classes start again, and once we finish the semester.

Right in Front of Me:

  • Finish sorting through all previously uncategorized blog posts of mine.
  • Make final edits on our Wish For WASH design thinking in the sanitation sector research paper.
  • Edit 5 new gymnastics songs.
  • Have working drafts of the 3 assignments I’m able to get started on already.
  • Choreograph a new dance every week until our gymnast can get back into the gym.

Beyond the Trees:

  • Publish Issue 7 of Trailblazers.
  • Video edit Jump Start Gym’s first-ever virtual gymnastics group routine.
  • Host the virtual Design Jam Wish For WASH has tentatively started to plan.
  • Obviously, complete my school work…

Over the Mountains:

  • Explore whatever more of New Zealand I’m able to – Hobbit Town and the glow worm caves are specifically two things I’ve not gotten to do yet I really want to see.
  • Reconsider Trailblazers business model in order to be more sustainable as an organization.
  • Do more in-depth research into options for post-graduation (ie grad school or work first – and where)

Reflecting on 2.5 Years of Trailblazers

I’ve been slow to posting, but last week was a special one because we published our 5th issue of Trailblazers!!!

I’m still a little in shock to be quite honest. When we founded Trailblazers my senior year of high school, I’m not sure I fully believed we would still be running two and a half years later. Yet somehow we keep managing to pull through – even if we end up publishing a bit after our goal publish date…

It definitely hasn’t been easy though. Trying to manage any group that you only get to meet with a max of four times a year is hard enough, let alone considering the fact that the team you are working with are high schoolers who have to manage all sorts of other conflicts. I’d say a quarter of the year there was always at least one member who didn’t have access to technology, either from losing something, being grounded, or being in an area without service/in a different time zone. Imagine being on an online team where you didn’t have the ability to communicate online… It’s a bit challenging.

Not to mention, when working with high schoolers that means eventually students graduate, so there is a limited amount of time members stay on the team which puts us in a constant state of recruitment and onboarding. Each year we have new members we have to bring up to speed on our mission, values, and their specific roles and responsibilities which often includes a lot of training because these are roles most high schoolers haven’t taken on before.

The onboarding and training part of this journey has been particularly interesting to me as each year I try to get better at letting the high schoolers take more and more control the magazine. This semester I think got better with the team learning to schedule their own group meetings and make decisions without always needing me to direct the way through everything. I was always very pleasantly surprised when I would ask a question in our group chat to find out that the task had already been completed. There were still moments where I had to step in a bit – like in the final stretch weeks when senioritis and summer start to cloud work ethic – but we still got it done and that’s the key.

Recruitment has also been something Trailblazers continues to struggle with. I just finished my second year of college, which means at this point, there are fewer and fewer learners I consider myself to know well at the high school. Therefore, it no longer makes much sense for me to just go in and talk about joining the team or for me to reach out to individuals I think would be a good fit. So this has now become a new task for the high school team to take on and we’ve not yet found the best way to get new learners interested in joining our team.

I’m very aware of the struggles faced with Trailblazers, but that’s not to say I’m not extremely proud of where we are at. This year we published our 5th issue, created official branding, attended our first national education event as a team, got a production team application from a non-Innovation Diploma student, reached over 50 followers on social media, and had our first non-founding members graduate. It’s been a big year for Trailblazers, and I hope we continue to have big years and continue to learn from each semester about ways to improve as an organization and continue to be amazed by the stories and work of young learners.

SparkHouse Preflection

SparkHouse 3 is finally here and I’m so excited!!!

When I think back to my first time at SparkHouse it’s amazing how much has changed. SparkHouse was where the first idea for Trailblazers came about. Now here I am two years and three e-magazine issues later as a Community Builder and a chaperone for 3 of high school members of the current Trailblazers production team!

Since SparkHouse I’ve also become so much more involved with Education Reimagined and the Education Transformation Movement at large. I’ve attended and mentored at several conferences around the country, participated in numerous calls/video/social media chats,  and even been able to teach a short-term high school course of my own. (Which was obviously un-traditional in nature.) Honestly, it wasn’t until talking to my roommate, who is a first-time learner at SparkHouse, that I realized the full extent of how many opportunities I’ve had since joining this community.

And now that I have become more involved, I’ve realized the importance of “preflecting” – reflecting before things being about my expectations, hopes, and goals for this experience – in order to have a greater take away after the gathering. So here it goes:

Expectations:

  • Great conversations around learner-centered education
  • A deeper connection to the language we use to describe the kind of work we do
  • Be inspired by the amazing work young learners are already doing and the new ideas they bring to the table

Hopes:

  • Members of Trailblazers will branch out and expand their networks
  • We’ll develop new ideas about ways that Trailblazers could contribute to the Education Transformation Movement
  • More young learners will step up and continue to grow their leadership capacities in this movement even beyond SparkHouse

Goals:

  • Have at least five new people sign up/express interest in contributing to Trailblazers
  • Reach 50 followers on Trailblazers social media
  • Find a new tool/activity/mindset that I can implement into my own leadership practices
  • Inspire other learners to become more involved in the community/movement to transform the education system

Working with High Schoolers

I’m very excited right now because the Trailblazers team has gotten all of our info in for SparkHouse 2018!

Three years ago I attended the first SparkHouse held in Washington D.C. hosted by Education Reimagined. This gathering brought together learners from around the country for two and a half days of talking about learner-centered education. It was phenomenal and also the birthplace of the original idea for Trailblazers itself!

After a bit of work convincing parents and working out logistics, we have our flights booked and surveys sent in, and our team is ready for a new adventure!

I’m particularly excited about this because part of my dream for Trailblazers is for it to be more than just a magazine; it’s a platform for learners to grow their networks and develop business and design skills. I hope that the Trailblazers production team travels more often to expand the learner network and share learner voices to wide varieties of audiences.

It’s been challenging to lead a team of high schoolers and try to get them to take more ownership of their learning. We often struggle with communication and timeliness and what to do when things don’t go as planned. However, it’s been worthwhile as well when I get to see how proud they are with each new production we somehow manage to put together, or even the little accomplishments like getting our first draft of a production. I couldn’t be more excited to spend three days as their chaperone for our first conference appearance as a team!

Forwarding the Movement as an Outsider

I was asked to write this article/blog post over the summer for a fellow learner-centered practitioner, though I’ll admit I’m not really sure what happened with it; however, I was thinking about it today and figured I could at least post it on my own blog!

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I graduated in 2017 from a recently turned learner-centered environment where I was fortunate to be highly involved in the process of transforming the school, but unfortunately higher ed is not so learner-centered. That was one of the biggest shell shock moments for me about entering college: going from a normal day involving working with clients from the CDC, City of Sandy Springs, and Chick-Fil-A to name a few, to a normal day now becoming sitting in long lectures and taking multiple-choice tests that make up 80% of your grade. As a learner now out of the k-12 system and in a non-learner-centered environment, I sometimes find myself feeling like an outsider in the Education Transformation Movement; however, as time passes I have come to realize that there are ample ways to forward the movement even as an “outsider.”

Despite moving into a less learner-centered environment, I always knew that I wanted to stay involved with this movement to transform education. I didn’t want to go into education as a major though because I believe part of the problem with our current education system is that we’re still teaching new teachers how to teach in a traditional way. Therefore, I’m studying Business Administration with a concentration in Leading and Managing Human Capital. I believe that if we think of schools as an innovative business it will help with the paradigm shift. I hope to learn more about change theory, risk management, social entrepreneurship, 21st-century leadership, and more to then apply that knowledge to help consult with schools trying to transform to a more learner-centered model.

Apart from my studies, I believe any educator wanting to transform the education system has a responsibility to stay connected with the larger national conversations happening on this topic – myself included. Being in college, it is harder to find opportunities to create change in my personal learning environment, but through social media, conferences, and writing articles I can still help effect change in other learning environments around the country.

I continue to stay involved with the national community primarily through Twitter and Slack conversations, attending conferences, blogging almost daily, and being Editor-in-Chief of Trailblazers, a student-driven magazine about the Education Transformation Movement. I believe as a young learner who graduated from a learner-centered environment, I, in particular, have a unique perspective that needs to be shared. A few years ago I stated in a blog post, “When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, ‘Where’s the evidence of this working?’ but when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. It is working.” – The Life of Pinya This quote has kind of served as my north star for the past few years. People want to know about the evidence, so I need to share my stories to prove just how much learner-centered education is bettering the lives of all kinds of students.

Since going to college, I have realized just how much more prepared I am for the world due to my k-12 experiences in a learner-centered environment. I have a deeper sense of self and can articulate my passions and goals in a comprehensive way. I have gotten feedback from professors about how impressed they were with my ability to send professional emails even as just a freshman. I have had the initiative to set up dozens of interviews with advisors to help me figure out my major. I sincerely believe I wouldn’t have had any of these important life skills if it wasn’t for my learner-centered high school; in my experience, traditional schools don’t spend a ton, if any, time on educating students about things like self-awareness, goal setting, professional communication, and taking initiative.

My life has been bettered immensely due to my participation in a learner-centered school and I hope one day that all students get the opportunity to learn under a more innovative model of education. I stay involved in the world of education for the future of those students – the ones who may not even know there are other options of schooling available. I’d love to see higher ed change their ways too, but for now I choose to focus my efforts on k-12 where I have the most background knowledge, even if I’m not in a k-12 environment. I hope other learners, of all ages, can come to realize that your environment doesn’t determine the level of participation you can have in the Education Transformation Movement. It’s always possible to effect change; start by sharing your story.

The Editor

I’ve recently been giving a lot of feedback on senior’s college application essays. It’s been an interesting process helping with the editing of all of these essays.

First, I’ve realized just how lucky I was to have gone to a school with such an amazing college counseling program. So many of the kids I’ve talked with barely know their college counselor and don’t really get much time for feedback from them.

Second, I’ve realized that I’ve gotten so much better at giving feedback and mostly because of the amount I’ve learned to ask for feedback. It’s a pretty straightforward concept really: the more you get feedback, the better you become at giving feedback to others. I just had never thought about it before, but while talking with these seniors I even find myself quoting feedback that I’ve been given by other friends and mentors of mine.

Then again, I know some of my feedback is still probably much too wordy, though none-the-less I think the content of my feedback has been on point. I didn’t realize how much my skills as an editor have grown between giving feedback to people on their essays as well as my role in Trailblazers with helping with the editing of those stories.

In school we spend a lot of time trying to become good writers, but there’s a lot to be said of having a good editor. I cherish the people I ask to help edit my writing. They know me, my style, and help with the grammar skills I lack and organization skills I’m still developing.

Plus I think the more you practice editing someone else’s work, the better your writing can become. For example, I’ve gotten much better at noticing when people aren’t really answering the prompt directly in their work which has made me more cognitive of trying to stay focused during my own writing.

Yet I’ve realized, being a good editor is not a natural skill. It’s hard to figure out how to word feedback in ways that will inspire new ideas from a writer; giving constructive criticism while also proposing potential new approaches/suggestions for the work. Part of my role in Trailblazers has been helping with not only the editing process, but also giving feedback to the high schoolers about how to be an effective editor. These conversations involve discussing how to help with prompt creation, key things to look for in an article, and how to keep a writer motivated long enough to get a good end product. It hadn’t occurred to me before the past year that people don’t naturally have a sense about how to give feedback in this way; I only knew the role of an editor because I had worked with one a few times when I myself wrote for an e-magazine.

I wish in school we spent more time focusing on how to be a good editor not just a good writer, I think it could benefit everyone.

Invite Curious Community

Today has been long and tiring. Starting at 4:50am after about three hours of sleep, my day consisted of first travelling to Vermont and then have the whole second half of the day engrossed in day 1 of the Amplifying Student Voice and Partnership International Seminar hosted by Up for Learning at the University of Vermont.

IMG_0910Like most first days, we started our conference getting to know our community which is always fun! I love networking with new people and reconnecting with those whose paths have crossed with mine before. We started the day with a poem activity where we were given a powerful piece by Margaret Wheatley (featured image) and then asked to pick out a sentence, phrase, and single word that stood out to us in regards to our conference. We then shared with our table and then did a “wave shareout” with our one word to the entire room. I found that if you took the most commonly chosen single words we got an interesting sentence to describe what this gathering is all about:

“We invite a curious community to trust in brave conversations.”

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Personally, I had some good “ah-ha” moments today that are going to frame the next two days for me:

  • Most students don’t just decide one day to researchabout innovative schools, and therefore, they remain unknowing that there is anything besides the traditional system even as a possibility for their education. Yet we know the movement will be strongest if learners are driving the change since, after all, learners are the largest population in a school community. So how might we engage students from traditional school systems who aren’t being supported in thinking about alternative education paths? How do we help these students know what their options are because from my experience when presented with the option of a traditional school versus a learner-centered school, learners almost always choose the later.IMG_0919-1.JPG
  • There is an interesting distinction between student voice, student agency, and student-adult partnership which I haven’t considered before. Students/learners can feel like they have a voice, but that doesn’t mean it’s being heard; students can have agency in their work, but not take ownership of the work. How might we achieve various levels of all of these distinctions of student worth in our everyday learning communities?
  • In education, we often are debating the semantics of what it is that we do in our learning environments. However, perhaps we need to spend more time focusing on why we do it then thinking about how we do it before we start to dive into what exactly it is. With this in mind, I believe I need to spend time with our production team taking a deeper dive into why we do what we do with Trailblazers in order to start exploring what the future may hold in terms of possibilities for growth.

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Rainbows at the Pool Side

History’s done, Trailblazer’s is published and now I’m getting to chill out some this weekend at my sibling’s dance retreat! We’re pretty much literally in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of farmland around us at a cute little place with several cabins and a pool and volleyball court.

It really feels like summer when you can just curl up with a good book by the pool and not deal with technology (rather than me blogging…) or deadlines or work. I wish more groups/teams I’m on would understand the great value of going out on a retreat every now and then.

Living the life with a bunch of other kids and their mom’s who only today learned how I’m related to this dance troupe!

Trailblazers: Issue 3!

It’s finally here! Issue 3 of Trailblazers, our student-driven e-magazine about the Education Transformation Movement, is available for viewing now! Hope you enjoy these remarkable articles written by spotlight learners from around the country including one global perspective. Congrats to all involved with the process of creating this latest issue!!!

View Issue 3 

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Spotlight Learners:

Sophie Haugen – SMforSM: An Educational Partnership 

Bridges by Empathy and Friendship

Lucy Conover – Insπiration

Hannah Bertram – What Learner-Centered Education Did For Me

Innovation Diploma Update – SPARK: A Playground for Creative Thinkers