Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Advisory as Evidence

When the latest mound of paperwork was foisted upon me as being useful and relevant, I spoke up. I questioned why we had to complete stacks of complicated forms (in triplicate, of course), how they would be used, and what they thought they would accomplish, especially since I've never filled these out before and they'd be going into student files. After receiving a simplistic answer ("the district wants us to..."), I then asked when the principal was going to come and cover my class so that I could complete this paperwork. The response: "Do it during Advisory."

Yes, our school has jumped on the Advisory bandwagon, but we're one of the few places I've seen that actually run a semi-effective program.

Let's go back a few years into my past, before I jumped on Route 66 and found the Promised Land.

Early in the morning, students would arrive in my classroom for Advisory. Some of these students were vaguely known to me, while others weren't enrolled in any of my other classes. After a short stint of intercom-listening for announcements and the pledge, I would be left with 12 minutes. Twelve very empty minutes. The plan was that I'd help the students keep track of their homework, teach study skills, and take them through a character-development curriculum.

In 12 minutes.

After I made it clear that this process wasn't working for me, the school counselors helpfully photocopied an entire ream of...additional character-development curriculm. I'm still not sure why they thought killing more trees would help me use this 12 minutes effectively. Ensuing conversations uncovered the reality that these 12 minutes were really a catch-basin time, giving those chronically-tardy kids a chance to get to class on time.

12 wasted minutes a day. 60 minutes a week. 36 hours throughout the year. All this, for kids who wouldn't get up early enough to come to school. How long do you think it took them to realize that they could sleep in an extra 12 minutes?

Meanwhile, the few students who did arrive on time had established long before my arrival that "Advisory" was a synonym for "Social Hour/Naptime." It was lots of fun trying to convince them to do homework, breaking up fights, and pretending to teach about character. I eventually learned that it was just as effective to sit and grade while the kids fooled around, as long as I kept an ear open for conflict.

36 wasted hours, over the two years I was there. Yes, that's 72 hours - 3 full days - of headache-inducing, teeth-grinding frustration.

Now let's flash forward to the present.

We have an Advisory program that actually works both because of the time we invest and the culture of the school. We spend an entire hour every day, and two on rainy days when we don't have P.E., with our home cohorts. Instead of a hodge-podge of kids I may or may not know, I have a group of students who are mine for 2 other classes, and who have been in my Language Arts class for a year and a half. These are "my" kids. I'm the first contact for their parents, I'm the one who facilitates their Learner-Led conferences, and I'm the one who collects and monitors their homework for all of their classes. In this 5 hours per week (180 hours a year, for those of you who are keeping track), I teach real study skills, check every bit of their homework, and lead them through Social Justice projects.

Because of this Advisory class, our kids are able to fulfill our high expectations. They're mastering the standards and applying them to their lives. They're learning how to organize themselves, how to ask for help (which is an art!), and how to change the world.

Which is why I both laughed and cried when the principal said, "Just do it during Advisory." She truly thinks that Advisory is just another study hall? She really believes that I'm sitting around doing paperwork while the kids work silently? She honestly wants me to divide my attention between my students and these all-too-complicated NCR forms?

This is just more evidence that she doesn't understand the vision and mission of our school. We've been struggling with this all year. The first week back, I asked her, "why did you want to work in a small school? What about the model appealed to you?" Her answer? "Well, the size!" As if her job would be easier because the number of students is smaller. As if the only difference between our revolutionary model and the traditional school was the size of the building.

Our school isn't perfect, but we are one of the best opportunities in the area for our students. Our teachers and staff work hard, and our students accomplish more than many people could imagine. But how are we going to continue to innovate and research and collaborate and improve? We've already had so much busy work thrust upon us that we can barely breathe, and sometimes we're surprised when we go back and look at the founding documents of our own school. We're travelling a vastly different road, and it's not the best path.

How are we going to go anywhere if our "leader" doesn't even know who we are? How is it possible that now, just over halfway through the year, she has such a mistaken impression of one of our core programs? Is there any hope?

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