Saturday, 10 December 2011

Smooth Transitions and Safe Schools

This is a revised version (December 2012) of an earlier post.

Each September, we welcome 200 or so 12 and 13-year old children into our school community.  As I do each December, I recently visited Grade 8 classrooms to listen to our youngest students talk about their high school experiences so far.

Of all the transitions we make in our lives, I believe the move from elementary school to high school is one of the most significant and daunting changes we face.   Consider the context of 12-year old kids who are used to having one teacher in a smaller, familiar setting that they have belonged to for up to eight years.  It is a safe, comfortable place where they know everyone and, as Grade 7s, they are looked upon as the leaders of the school.  Grade 8 presents a move to a strange and unfamiliar school that is many times larger and typically filled with a thousand or more teenagers as old as 18 or 19.  They are suddenly the youngest  students again and the others seem monstrous in comparison. Some adults in their lives may have forecast pending doom by suggesting that "next year, it will be different..."  Grade 7 students hear that high school is difficult and that teenagers are mean and rude.  Rumours persist that secondary school teachers are overwhelmed ogres who have so much to teach to so many students that individual students are nothing more than a number.  Throw in all the other complex social, emotional and physical changes that go along with emerging adolescence, and stepping into high school is easily as significant as any other transition we make in our lives.

While the movies in my head may be in black and white, I can still recall being very anxious about going to high school and my concerns about being beaten up by older kids (shoved into a locker) and not coping with the pace of the school work were very real to me at the time.  These are similar to the concerns kids have now.  The greatest difference is that secondary schools today do a much better job of actively planning for the successful transition of our newest students.

We meet with Grade 7 teachers beginning in January and have conversations about each student coming to our school to determine what support kids might need to be successful.  We visit our family of elementary schools and meet with the Grade 7 classes to describe life at high school.  We always include former students from each elementary school to share their personal experiences.  We have a Grade 7 parent night in February and invite parents and students to see and hear more about the school and meet some staff.  We host a Grade 7 Fun Day in May, where all the incoming students tour the school, when it is “alive”, to experience actual classes and students in the hallways. Fun Day also includes team building games with all the other Grade 7s they do not know and a free pizza lunch.  Many students will also play in our annual Grade 7 basketball tournament or attend a play or music concert at our school.  On their very first day in September, they are met by some senior students and we welcome the new Grade 8s separately so they can find their homeroom, locker location and navigate the hallways without the distraction of the big people.  Grade 8 teachers are very skilled at welcoming our newest students.  They begin with “getting to know you” activities and curriculum review sessions to establish what students already know so they can pace their lessons appropriately for early success.   At the end of their second week of school, we take all the Grade 8s to a 3-day “Grade 8 Camp”.   The Camp is led by 30 senior students who organize more team building activities, host a keynote speaker and several breakout sessions on a variety of important topics designed to help our Grade 8s be successful in high school. We introduce our youngest students to our important school wide themes of “care” and “respect” – for ourselves, for each other and for our school and community.  Of course, Camp 8 also includes a lot of fun and games to show them what “school spirit” really is and where they discover that older students are actually kind, cool, welcoming and friendly. 

In early December of each year, members or our admin team go around to all the Grade 8 classes to check in with them on “how it has been going so far in high school?”   We identify the things students were anxious about before coming to school and how they feel now.  We talk again about the importance of care and respect.   We acknowledge that we want them to grow into independent and resilient young people, but that it also okay to ask for help whenever you are feeling overwhelmed by school or by anything going on in your life.  We conclude by asking Grade 8s to complete a survey on their transition to high school that includes an open-ended section for any other comments they want to make.     Completed anonymously, students can chose (a) strongly agree (b) agree (c) no opinion (d) disagree and (e) strongly disagree to these 20 statements:

1.              I have made a successful transition from Grade 7 to high school*
2.              I care what my teachers think of me as a person.
3.       Teachers and other adults at school care about me.
4.              It is easy to make friends at high school*
5.              I feel safe when I am at high school*
6.              Boys and girls are treated equally at high school.*
7.              Learning and doing my best are important to me.
8.              The things I learn and do in school are interesting and engaging.
9.              My reading skills and strategies are improving at school.
10.           My writing skills are improving at school.
11.           My math skills are improving at school.
12.          There are a lots of extracurricular opportunities at high school.
13.           I am treated with care & respect by other students at high school.*
14.           I treat all others with care & respect.
15.           I would feel comfortable going to my teachers for extra help.
16.           I would feel comfortable talking with a counsellor at high school.*
17.           I would feel comfortable talking with the principal or vice principals at high school.*
18.           My teachers’ classroom expectations are clear, respectful and fair.
19.           There are clear expectations for behaviour at high school.*
20.           This is a good school. *

*On the survey, our actual school name is used in place of the more generic “high school”.

I have completed a variation of this survey in each of the past dozen years and the results are very similar.  Overwhelming, Grade 8 students report that they have made a successful transition, feel safe and they are enjoying high school. In 2012, 98% students ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ that they have made a successful transition to high school.  97% report that it is easy to make friends; 92% believe boys and girls are treated equally; and 99% report that they feel safe at high school.  Also, 100% strongly agreed or agreed that learning and doing my best are important to me; 95% that what they are learning is interesting and engaging and 89% or higher believe their reading, writing and math skills are improving (note: these results exclude kids who said they had "no opinion").  The vast majority of anecdotal comments are equally positive:

“I honestly thought that going to high school was going to be the most difficult transition ever, but I was definitely wrong.  Everyone is kind and respectful to me and I like how a lot of the older students are friendly and say hi to me in the hallways..."

"I like how each class we move around the school and get to learn with different students and teachers."

"...I really like how everyone is proud of our school and it feels like we belong to the same community....also, I am doing better than I expected in my classes...."

“…I joined a club and I was surprised at how welcoming everyone was to me….it did not seem to matter to anyone that I was only in Grade 8 and the teacher was very nice too…”

As educators, we need to sustain the remarkable 100% of Grade 8 students who believe that "learning and doing my best is important to me" for their entire journey through secondary school (and beyond) because we rub this enthusiasm, optimism and curiousity off of some kids.  Skilled teachers are motivators and encouragers and use a variety of heuristics to help all students believe, learn and succeed.  Similarly, there are always some comments every year that are provocative and powerful food for thought as we reflect on our practises, as teachers and as a school:

“…it is amazing how quickly some people can change and classmates who you thought were your friends are not really your friends at all....and they live to share secrets or rumours...."

"....I have really enjoyed high school, but sometimes worry about how fast my courses are going..."

“I am not sure how I would go talk to a counsellor when I need to.”

“I have met lots of people and I am doing well, but it some days it has been harder for me to fit in and make friends….”

Later in the spring, our student Camp Leaders, along with some peer helpers, will meet again with all of the Grade 8s.  Working in small groups, the student leaders will chat informally with the Grade 8s about how life in high school is going and then facilitate structured discussions.  They will examine a variety of case studies dealing with hypothetical but very real teen issues.  Scenarios include what to do when faced with ethical dilemmas involving theft, cheating and plagiarism, bullying or exclusion, racism, homophobia, substance use, swearing, graffiti, vandalism and litter.   Students listen to the scenarios and attempt to identify what is going on and then what choices people have.  We conclude the small group sessions by having each Grade 8 student complete a self-evaluation of their own level of Social Responsibility (using a scale we adapted from the Ministry’s Performance Standards).   Our goal is to develop capable young people who can think critically, who are interested in and care about the greater community and, when faced with difficult choices in life, want to do the right thing.

It takes time and careful planning to create a school culture that embraces an ethos of care and respect.   It is more than slogans and posters in the hall, but reflected in the hundreds of daily interactions people have with one another in the school.  It is important that this is modelled by the senior students (and all the staff) and introduced to the youngest students as soon as they arrive at the school.  We believe that the most powerful way to do this is through peer to peer interactions.  Adolescence is a time of great emotional, physical and intellectual change. In Schooling for Change: Reinventing Education for Early Adolescents, Andy Hargreaves, Lorna Earl and Jim Ryan note that these years are “…a time of rapid change, immense uncertainty and acute self-reflection.  The exhilaration and pain of growing up for many early adolescents resides in their having much less confidence in what they are moving towards than in what they have left behind.”

We continue to actively help our youngest students build a solid foundation so that they can safely and confidently explore “what they are moving towards” over the next five years.  We still have work to do in reducing the curriculum by identifying fewer, essential learning outcomes, using more thoughtful assessment as and for learning strategies and connecting core skills and competencies across the curriculum.   However, we have made great strides in easing the transition from elementary school and the evidence indicates that our youngest students are not only surviving, but thriving in secondary school.  Despite sensational stories and tragic incidents that occur from time to time, it is important to know that thoughtful people are working very hard to ensure that our public schools are safe, inclusive, welcoming and caring communities.

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