by Julia Steiny
“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.” Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions. A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it. Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet. There are kids out there. Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”
Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops. Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment. Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.
After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop. At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem. They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness. Natural consequences are great teachers. Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.
This is huge. And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility. Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost. But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.” Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.” They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit. They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.
But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.” Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education. That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building. Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities. So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse. Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.
Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.
Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text. At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team. The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to. These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail. Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job. But math and literacy are also woven throughout. One goal states: “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”
The over-arching questions of Crew are:
* Who am I?
* How am I doing?
* Who do I want to be?
The habits are graded according to two big categories. Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced. If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.
So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math. Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life. If you can’t do math, you can’t do much. So I had to have tutoring over the summer. But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing. I can’t do this YET. You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’ So I work with being in the moment with the work. I’m growing a positive mindset.”
Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications. They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.
Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world. We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics. Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning. We all have to be responsible to our community.”
Including those wanton chickens.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.