Harwood Union’s First All School Dialog

Student voice is not an end, it is the best means available toward the achievement of our values.

  • “That was awesome!”
  • “We should do this more – just not so long.”
  • “This was great, but will it result in anything being different?”
  • “Listening and talking with students and teachers I didn’t know was a positive experience; everyone was very respectful.”
  • “Mixed grades was a value-added; it was helpful to hear about the experiences of older students.”
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The Wagon Wheel protocol in action

On April 1, 2015 approximately 625 students in grades 7-12 and 85 faculty/staff simultaneously participated in a facilitated dialog that spanned almost 3 hours.

The idea for the dialog stemmed from a variety of factors that serendipitously aligned.

  • The Harwood Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together had a bank of student and teacher data that highlighted differences in perspectives related to our learning environment.
  • A variety of student groups had been raising concerns to administration related to communication and authentic student voice.
  • A course for students and teachers called “Communicating School Redesign” sparked a call to action in promoting awareness and understanding of flexible pathways and personalized learning.
  • Harwood Union became a recipient of the Personalized Learning Initiative Grant sponsored by the New England Secondary Schools Consortium and the Great School’s Partnership.
  • Eight teachers and 15 students attended the NESSC School Redesign in Action Conference both as presenters and attendees.

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So what was the purpose behind the dialog? The purpose was to provide students and teachers an opportunity to share their perspectives about relationships and relevance of teaching and learning in a safe and respectful way. It was intended to build community. Last, it was designed as a collective discovering of our strengths and challenges as a learning organization, and to think of ways to make improvements. Simply put, it was powerful.

So how did it work? In early March, Daniel Baron, Co-founder of the School Reform Initiative and nationally recognized facilitator and trainer, conducted a half day workshop to prepare student and teacher volunteers interested in leading an interactive dialog using the identified protocols.

The two protocols were Wagon Wheels and Critical Friends. The Wagon Wheel protocol was structured as a brainstorming session and allowed participants to interact 1:1 with four different partners in order to gain a common understanding of the topic and then brainstorm what it would look like in action. Whereas, the Critical Friends protocol widened the discussion to a group of four and allowed for the participants to reflect on essential questions related to the topic and then discuss implications.

Facilitators were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the structures; that is allowing for adequate think time and equity of voice. They then brought closure to the process by following two steps. The first was to systematically collect the input and then to debrief the process.

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Two students conducting skillful facilitation

The topics of focus were related to two essential questions:

  1. Why are relationships important to the teaching and learning process and what can we do at Harwood to improve relationships between youth and adults?
  2. What does it take for learning to be meaningful and relevant (to you) and what can we do at Harwood to make learning more relevant for everyone?

So now what? It is time to take action. A group of students, faculty/staff and an administrator met within a week of the dialog, and spent an afternoon collating the input for suggested action steps. The input was categorized by themes like activities, communication, and feedback, and then action step suggestions were listed by most to least mentioned. The results will soon be shared along with a process for selecting, fine-tuning and implementing some of the suggestions. This in itself requires a different call to action.

It is relatively simple to organize people and share ideas about how to change the system. However to actually build the bridge to a new way takes a conscious effort; that is participation by all members of the organization. Students, faculty/staff, and administration must be willing to commit the time and energy to meet, plan and put to use the available resources in building this bridge. Through words and actions, they must be willing to carry out the collective commitments we make. The opportunity is here.