Passion and purpose took center stage at each New York City school and community-based organization we visited during the Institute for Democratic Education in America’s tour this past week. Three YATST youth-adult teams (Blue Mountain Union, Cabot, and Twinfield schools) took advantage of IDEA’s commitment to promote school innovation by providing vivid examples of what this abstract concept looks like in action.
The first stop was the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx - situated in the poorest community in the country (100% student free and reduced lunch eligibility). Colorful student art graces the hallways. Standardized tests have been replaced by portfolios. Community-based service opportunities and internships are interspersed with classroom time. Wrap around services, offered through the Children’s Aid Society, provide a wide array of after-school program options and family support . The 470 students are grouped into smaller learning communities, resulting in close relationships between students and faculty. The legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist, lives on in the school’s deep commitment to provide a quality education to all students in this community.
We then travelled to THE POINT, a youth organization “based on the principles of asset-based community development…and the belief that the residents of the South Bronx, especially the young people, have the inherent vision and ability to transform their neighborhoods.” As we walked down to the waterfront in this industrial area, THE POINT Director and Program Director shared stories of both environmental and civil rights abuse, helping us understand the integral role this organization plays in the neighborhood to address these issues. Social justice issues fuel programming and services, enabling young people in the community to “embrace success and take charge of their lives and their future.”
On Friday morning we wound our way up Manhattan to the Calhoun School, a “private school with a public purpose.” This progressive school places a high value on experiential learning, segmenting the year into six week “mods”. This allows for deep study in a limited number of subjects at any one time. The school’s commitment to social justice was evident in their “Deconstructing Racism” project, creating a film and curriculum to surface issues of white privilege and institutional racism.
The tour culminated at El Puente, a Brooklyn based largely Hispanic organization, which grew out of a community initiative 30 years ago, during a time of great poverty and strife. We were greeted by a delicious meal and founder Frances Lucerna’s inspiring story of the organization’s evolution. She recounted the quest for peace and social change through youth leadership and civic engagement activities, arts-focused projects, and community health and environmental wellness initiatives. We then visited the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, established 20 years ago, as the first US school ever dedicated to human rights and social justice. Testimonies of a group of students involved in a “Girls’ Group” and a group of boys committed to a mentoring program repeatedly described the school as “family".
Our hosts’ sense of passion and purpose were constants at each of these diverse sites. This was coupled with an unwavering belief in the wisdom and capacity of young people to be agents of change, through a rich array of social activism opportunities. The challenges confronting these communities - glaring social inequity and injustice and environmental hazards - were overwhelming at times. Hope and a pervasive sense of empowerment provided balance to these stark realities.
How does this experience translate to our rural Vermont schools? What form does passion and purpose take here? Despite dramatically different backdrops, how are we alike and what can we learn from these similarities? How can the progressive practices we saw inform and inspire our YATST work? The trip left us with both a wealth of new ideas and information, and many questions to deepen our work over time.
At the invitation of principal Emilie Knisley, the Blue Mountain Union YATST Team made a presentation to the school board and community to lead off a public budget information meeting on February 26. Lana, Hannah, Eli, and Nicole showed a PowerPoint to explain YATST, the 4 Rs, and some highlights from their own Blue Mountain survey and data analysis. The presentation was well received, with both board and community members asking questions. The students reflected afterward that the “best part was it was really encouraging to see the board and community both supporting us.”
BMU is in its first year as a YATST school, with a unique structure to support the work of building youth-adult partnership. All BMU students do Senior Exit projects, and four of them—Lana, Hannah, Eli, and Nicole—have chosen to ground their projects in the YATST action research model. Working as a team with teacher Tracy Puffer, they spent first semester surveying teachers and students in grades 9-12, then analyzing data and defining topics for individual projects.
Lana is pursuing master schedule improvements (including a slot for a YATST course), while Hannah has explored personal learning plans and parent-teacher conferences. Nicole is working on student-teacher feedback systems, while Eli investigates the effects of varied teaching techniques, drawing on new brain research, with Ms. Puffer’s cooperation as a research subject.
Linking YATST work to senior projects is a new and promising venture. Blue Mountain Union may point the way for other schools with this kind of program to follow suit.
YATST has received a grant from the Vermont Agency of Education to take the "Great Expectations" training model on the road, sharing it with youth-adult teams throughout the state. High expectations are one of the strongest predictors of a student’s academic success and one factor we CAN influence in our schools (J. Hattie 2009). Young people are particularly effective messengers of information about expectations and how the brain learns. As peers, they can engage classmates through stories and activities which come from shared experience. We have witnessed this first hand at Hazen Union school, where YATST team members have been leading hour long sessions to introduce the power of expectations and one's mindset to all 10th graders. Here is some feedback from the participants:
Things that I learned today:
- that stereotypes are very wrong sometimes
- how I should approach my learning
- I can achieve better grades
- that there are different mindsets and what you want to change about your mindset
- work hard, do your best, ask questions, be positive
How did the session today get you thinking about how you approach learning?
- lately I realized I have settled and really stopped caring
- saying that you’re not smart is just an excuse
- take risks & leave my comfort zone
- I want a growth mindset and have better intelligence
- it opened up my eyes to learning more
The YATST adult advisor, who is also the Director of Guidance, noted, "I have students who participated in the Great Expectations and Mindset activities come see me to discuss their mindset and how they approach their learning".
This interactive day-long workshop will immerse youth-adult teams in activities and instruction about brain research and expectations so that they can return home and share this knowledge with their school communities. In keeping with a training of trainers format, materials and tools will be modeled and experienced first hand. Participants will then reflecting on their use from a facilitation perspective. We will conclude with team time to plan how to bring this training back home to students, teachers and community members.
The benefits to the student facilitators themselves is worthy of note. One 10th grade teacher who has observed all the student-led sessions shared, "One of the student presenters who seldom volunteered in class discussion at the beginning of the year has increasingly taken a leadership role in the YATST mindset presentations, growing in confidence 'before my eyes' and positively increasing his class participation".
These regional workshops will be designed and co-facilitated by “Youth & Adults Transforming Schools Together” members and are co-sponsored by the Vermont Agency of Education. Dates and locations are as follows:
- March 8: White River Junction: Fairfield Inn & Suites
- March 14: Rutland: College of St. Joseph
- March 29: Burlington - UVM
See attached flyer for more information.
YATST could not have had a better end-of-year present than Dr. Dana Mitra's 2011-12 evaluation. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in youth-adult partnership research and advocacy (see Dr. Mitra's brief biography below *). Dr. Mitra identified YATST as a rich “learning laboratory” and largely subsidized the cost of this research, which included 23 interviews with teachers and principals, a review of over 150 documents and attending the summer three day YATST orientation. The University also donated a research assistant, Catharine Biddle, to help her in these efforts. Dana and Catharine capture both the context and the spirit of YATST through a detailed overview and critique of the model, accompanied by quotes from participants. Her conclusions affirm that YATST is on the right track to achieve our desired outcomes.
Dr. Mitra’s findings regarding YATST's vision and methods:
“Few models of youth-adult partnership exist in the United states and of these, YATST has one of the most sophisticated visions of this work….The forms of technical assistance provided by YATST staff are highly sophisticated and a model nationally and beyond for how to provide support to a youth-adult partnership process". (p.1)
The vision of YATST is unique for youth-adult partnership models because of its depth and rigor. The deep focus of the work is a notable difference of the YATST model from other models as often, youth-adult partnerships tend to focus more on surface issues such as school beautification projects, lunchroom issues, and similar tasks. While these projects are valuable, they differ from the YATST philosophy in that YATST schools seek to move more to the heart of schools with classroom and system reform and change. (p. 6)
Dr. Mitra’s conclusion regarding the overall impact of the work:
Each component of the YATST vision and process is based on best practices from research and other successful reform efforts. The careful crafting of this program based on evidence-based practice provides a solid foundation on which schools grow". (p.6)
“ As YATST continues to grow, the organization has positioned itself for broad, deep school reforms within the state of Vermont….First, YATST continues to expand to new schools each year. Second, the expansion of support for teachers, incorporating more and more adults into the formal trainings as well as reaching many more through partnering with school districts to provide content for in-services…Lastly, YATST continually engages in sharing outwards by presenting the work at both professional and academic conferences. The depth of YATST reforms are evident in their partnership with like-minded schools and organizations, their increased flexibility around the implementation of the program at individual school sites and a marked effort to document outcomes of the work of YATST teams and outcomes for individual students”. (p. 5)
The full report is attached. It begins with an Executive Summary, if time is limited. Enjoy!
* Dr. Dana Mitra is Associate Professor of Education in the Educational Theory and Policy program and Director of the Willower Center for Ethics and Leadership at Penn State. She is also a Senior Associate Editor for the American Journal of Education. She served as a Fulbright-Nehru scholar to Bangalore India in 2012. Originally from Pittsburgh, she received her Ph.D. in Policy Analysis from Stanford University's School of Education. Prior to attending graduate school, she worked as an elementary school teacher in the Washington, DC area. For more information, go to http://www.ed.psu.edu/educ/eps/edthp/faculty-and-staff-directory-folder/dana-mitra.
“I liked talking with adults as peers and them responding to me as a valued person”.
“It’s neat to hear about how Eagle Rock incorporates a lot of student voice and decision making. I gained a lot of new perspectives”.
“ I liked best the opportunity to learn others’ ideas and opinions… what’s worked, what hasn’t, why what we do is important to ourselves, our schools, our state, our world”.
“ Today’s conference was inspirational. It gives me hope for change! " (Principal).
Fourteen Vermont high schools converged at Vermont College of Fine Arts on a cold November morning to explore "Expanding Partnerships: Teachers as Learners, Students as Teachers". Dialogue, punctuated by inspiring music and improvisation theater (and of course an ample supply of pipe cleaners), led us to a deeper understanding of youth-adult partnership in learning - the key to YATST change efforts.
The day was co-hosted by the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center of Estes Park, Colorado (a corporate Social Responsibility initiative of the American Honda Education Corporation). Eagle Rock serves young people whose educational needs have not been met by their local high schools. It provides engaging learning opportunities, leading to high school graduation. Eagle Rock students and teachers incorporated YATST into a fall course offering. This allowed them to travel east for a two day YATST facilitator training in October in preparation for their role in the conference. They went back to Colorado and created videos to push our thinking about the nature of authentic youth-adult partnerships. They also provided Eagle Rock examples of what these partnerships look like in action, stretching our understanding of the realm of possibility. The Eagle Rock team set the context of the day with these pieces.
Michael Soguero, Director of Eagle Rock Professional Development Center, assisted by Dan Condon, helped participants unpack challenges to partnership and brainstorm solutions. Small group discussions were co-led by 20 youth and 12 adult trained facilitators from YATST and Eagle Rock. Teams had time to translate the collective wisdom of the group into a definitive action plan to expand learning partnerships back at home. The day drew to a close by singing “Imagine” to celebrate the spirit of our work, and the new YATST newsletter entitled, “ReImagine Learning”. This conference was made possible through the generosity of the Vermont Department of Education.
Click here to enjoy a videotaped interview with Michael Soguero, Director of the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center, and Taber Lathrop, Eagle Rock student and musician: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC0BDOa2lgE&feature=youtu.be
Click here to witness (or join in) Taber Lathrop's closing song, "Imagine" by John Lennon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-Q8HbshX0E&feature=youtu.be
Partnership fosters ownership;
ownership sparks motivation;
motivation drives learning.