January Blog Post: Voice & Choice
Initially I sat down to write a more traditional letter that might mark the end of a ranking period. What I realized quickly is that I had not yet engaged you (our extended school community) in the discussion of our district’s vision or our school’s work to increase student engagement and accountability for learning. Let me now take this opportunity to carry forward our school focus of voice and choice into your homes and into the community. Hearing the phrase “voice and choice” in conjunction with your home (and your teenager…) may elicit a somewhat hesitant or jolted reaction from you – fear not! Fortunately, when done with high support and with a clear purpose, voice and choice is a way to empower young people to take ownership and responsibility for their lives.
Why voice and choice? RSU 18 is moving toward a Customized Model of education that focuses on a performance-based structure (standards-based curriculum) of learning. What this means, in short, is that our district will set transparent expectations of what students must know and be able to do, and hold those students accountable for meeting those learning targets. As your principal (and as a former US History teacher at MHS) I can tell you first hand that our school has very high academic expectations for our students. What this model does is create a K-12 scaffolded curriculum structure that focuses in on the learning targets that students must know and be able to do.
For students (and for all of us that have graduated from an education system that didn’t hold us accountable to learning everything, instead relying on an average to achieve graduation) this can be a far cry from the educational experience they are used to. This approach takes the “80” on the test and pulls out the standards that were and were not met. The conversation between teacher and student may look something like:
Student: “What? I got an 80 but you are saying I’ve got to do more work?”
Teacher: “But… you got every question related to the Bill of Rights wrong on the (American Revolution & Constitution) test. You clearly need some more time with this material and then we can reassess to be sure you’ve got it.”
Student: “This isn’t fair, this is against my rights!”
Teacher: “Now if you’d passed the Bill of Rights section of the test, I might be more inclined to listen to your argument…”
For most of us, holding to standards makes perfect sense. Imagine, if you would, the selection of a doctor to do a minimally invasive surgery. Because she got an “A” on that test, should you choose her? What if that A represented a 96 (on a 100 pt scale) and the 4% was the part about washing her hands? Wouldn’t it make more sense to know she’d mastered all standards involved in that procedure? Better yet, that she had demonstrated mastery of those standards through multiple measures? Of course.
So where does voice and choice fit in? For deep understanding to occur, the student must be engaged in the learning process. Students become engaged when given voice in the classroom and choices around how they demonstrate mastery of the skills we are asking them to learn. When they give us feedback and we tailor our instruction to match both their needs and their interests, the potential for learning goes off the chart. I am reminded here of the childhood fishing trips I took with my grandfather. I remember a whole lot more about the aquatic environment of the pond he and I used to fish from our conversations of the season, hatch rates, water levels, and species of fish and bait, than I do from my biology class readings on the subject. When the process is connected for students, between what they need and want to know, they are much more likely to succeed in school (and retain their learning).
So… what does this mean for us? What I would ask parents and guardians of our students to do is to engage them and provide them experiences with voice and choice in their everyday lives. At home this would involve taking more time to ask them their opinions and listen to their ideas. Again, with increased voice and choice comes increased responsibility. The answer to the question, “I’d like to take driver’s ed” is not yes or no, it is more like… “Okay, what do you think you need to do to make that happen?” or “How can you demonstrate you are ready for a responsibility like this?”. From here a conversation might include discussions about why they are mature enough to take this step, what they will do to raise money for the class, how they will research and register themselves in a class, or other steps necessary to attain their goal. Endeavor to include your young people in the everyday decisions that go on in your household… creating a grocery list, planning your dinner menu, helping to decide which cell phone plan is the most economical, coming up with a family charitable project, or assisting in a wise choice for a new family car.
In the classroom, like in your home, engagement is the key to a student grasping and retaining new knowledge. The 21st century and the challenges we face in today’s ever changing world, require us to ensure that our students are leaving school with more than just exposure to a broad curriculum. We must engage (voice & choice) our young people, tailor our instruction to challenge all students where they are at, and hold them accountable for their learning. You have given us the very best young men and women that you have; together we can shape their growth and prepare them for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Principal Messalonskee High School