Two years ago we had the opportunity to conduct a school visit at Riverside Junior High School in Prague, Czech Republic during which we modified our engagement protocols and developed a different strategy to understand students’ school experiences.
The following describes the protocol we used, the students’ experiences designing our time together, their school and community experiences, their recommendations for enhancing the school experience and implications for students, teachers and school leaders.
The new protocol actually required students to leave their school campus and engage in a set of experiences within the greater community. The belief was that ultimately students will find their education relevant outside of the school environment and engaging them now in community experiences begins to narrow the divide between what they learn and how the knowledge, skills and dispositions are applied in a community setting.
In some ways this is similar to joining students on a school field trip, however there are critical differences. These differences include engaging four students and one teacher during the day, ensuring the students actually designed and implemented the day’s schedule, we began the day with an orientation at the school and concluded the day back at the school for a formal reflection activity,
In short the Riverside Junior High School students functioned a tour guides, designing and implementing a series of opportunities for us to explore, through their eyes, things that were important to them in the Prague community. This required them, as a team, to identify community places and interactions they find relevant to their lives and demonstrate connections to their school experiences.
While the students designed the community-based experiences we developed a set of questions to engage them in conversations and analyses of their school experiences.
Students’ Experiences and Insights
In terms of learning from the students about their school experiences we were able to initially learn their about their ability to (1) work effectively as a team, (2) share leadership and (3) create a trusting environment for us all to share and learn together.
School Structure: According to the students the most important aspects of the school’s quality and character are respect and relationships. They made it very clear that respect among all students, all staff, all parents and school partners is essential for students to feel a sense of belonging and be successful. In addition, they reported quality positive relationships between students and staff, between all students, between all staff and with parents and community partners. The students stated that these relationships impact their positive sense of the school and effectively lead to their development.
Student Leadership: leadership and teamwork are expected attributes of each student and Riverside Junior High School provides a variety of formal and informal opportunities to acquire and enhance leadership knowledge and skills:
- Student Council
- Student Clubs
- House Leadership
Student Engagement: students are offered many opportunities to be engaged in classroom and extra-curricular activities, they offered the following examples of quality student engagement:
- Students are treated respectfully by teachers encouraging them to express themselves and offer suggestions
- Students are encouraged to enhance their school experiences through classroom, art and sports activities
- Students believe the school provides room for debate on issues students value
- Students reported the opportunity to interact directly with the principal
- Students are able to evaluate teachers
Parent Engagement: students reported that their parents are very encouraging and supportive of their school experiences:
- Parent-teacher conferences include students
- The school PTA engages parents
- Parents organize food sales and other fund-raising activities
Volunteer Experiences: opportunities for students to give back to the community by working with social agencies; in response to what they learn from their volunteer experiences, they replied:
- We have it good
- Other people have needs that we can address
- Giving is important
- We see that too much food is wasted that could go to the soup kitchen
- Parents are very supportive of our volunteer experiences
All four students shared leadership and supported each other to ensure the information they provided was correct and that we understood Prague’s history and their pride in their city. They welcomed our questions about their school and community experiences and made sure we understood how those experiences impacted their school, family and community life.
We learned that they and their fellow students have multiple opportunities to gain academic knowledge and skills along with developing skills for life through engagement and leadership opportunities. The point students made throughout the day was that positive relationships among their fellow students and with the school staff are the foundation to their progress and success both at school and in the community.
What do these experiences mean? And, what implications do they offer for students, teachers and school leaders?
Anytime we can engage students in conversations about their school experiences we gain valuable information. One of the implications employing the protocol is to ensure student responses are informative by (1) ensuring we provide a safe space for interactions, (2) using prompts that are meaningful to students, (3) providing opportunities for students to ask questions and (4) ensuring an adequate amount of time and appropriate strategies to reflect on the experiences and their meanings for us individually and collectively.
The following implications for students, teachers and school leaders build on our experiences and the protocol we used. While we use the concept of implications they also can be used as recommendations to authentically engage students. We recognize that many schools implement some of these strategies and offer them as a recipe to connect the responsibilities of students, teachers and school leaders.
Implications for Students
- Seek opportunities to share your experiences with others, and not wait for teachers and school administrators to engage you.
- Identify your talents and consistently find ways of demonstrating them to other students, teachers, staff, school leaders and community members.
- Seek leadership opportunities through school (e.g., student council, class leadership positions, clubs, sports, etc.) and community (e.g., volunteering, social organizations, the arts, etc.) options.
- Create opportunities to reflect and explore the meaning of your experiences now and in the future.
- Advocate for all students to be engaged in school and community-based activities to build skills as well as examine how classroom learning applies to the world outside.
- Examine the school’s mission and priorities and demonstrate how you acquire and enhance the corresponding knowledge, skills and dispositions.
- Develop activities for other students and adults to see your school and community through your eyes (e.g., guiding them through your school, sharing your community experiences, etc.).
Implications for Teachers
- Provide quality leadership opportunities for students to gain and enhance skills to organize, implement and evaluate team-building activities.
- Identify the talents of each student and assist them to understand how they align with curriculum, content and preparation for life.
- Ensure each student truly feels that the classroom and school are safe places to take risks and learn from them.
- Create activities that connect the school and the community (e.g., walkabouts and similar experiential activities).
- Seek out opportunities in which students serve as guides in school and community-based activities that engage staff, parents and community partners.
- Provide opportunities for students to understand how their classes combine for a comprehensive education rather than as independent venues for learning specific core content.
- Promote the connection of arts, sports and extracurricular activities to course content.
- Implement reflection activities for student to examine the relevancy of their experiences to course content.
- Design and implement ways students can contribute to a safe, equitable and engaging classroom and school climate.
- Support student curiosity and provide quality opportunities for them to connect this sense of “wonder” to course content.
- Ensure students plan field trips and that preparation and reflection are built into courses.
Implications for School Leaders
Create opportunities to see the school through the eyes of students, by engaging them in classrooms, hallways and community-based activities).
Sustain an open-door environment so that students feel comfortable interacting with you and other school leaders.
Create opportunities for students to guide individuals and groups through the school (e.g., guiding prospective students, school board members and community partners).
Ask students what they most appreciate about their school experiences and the impact those experiences have on them?
Create opportunities for students to actively participate in advisory boards, seeking their insights and opinions for enhancing their education experiences.
Provide professional development for teachers and staff to authentically engage students in classes, clubs and extracurricular activities.
Include student’s experiences in school news, web sites and communications to demonstrate the pride students have in their school and the knowledge and skills they acquire.
Honor the talents of every student and ensure a safe, equitable and engaging school climate for all students to be successful in school and life.
The opportunity we experienced with student leaders in Prague (1) taught us how to design and implement an engaging mutual learning protocol; (2) surfaced a set of findings about students’ school experiences and their application to education and life beyond school; and (3) encouraged us to identify implications for students, teachers and school administrators.