Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Kids Are Alright. In Fact, They Are Pretty Awesome.

As I write this entry, we are in the midst of some significant input processes, one of which is a potential configuration change. As I look through the comments in the e-survey I'm struck with a tinge of sadness over some parent's perception of older kids. Now, I'm not knocking anyone's instinct to protect. It is a normal, healthy, and appropriate response to want to look out for one's child. It is also normal to be uncomfortable with the unknown, and if you haven't spent a lot of time with older students, I can understand some of the unease that comes with a lack of familiarity. The media really likes that "B" word too, and is often quick to publish an alarmist story about our youth, which doesn't help matters. However, if you spend significant time with older kids, that trepidation soon goes away. I am constantly amazed by teenagers, and by their focus, their hard work, and their leadership. I honestly think teenagers are more aware, more connected, more accepting, and more likely to do the right thing than ever before. They are, in fact, pretty awesome.

The fear of teenagers is not new to me as an educational leader. Prior to coming to Sea to Sky I spent four years as principal of a grade six to twelve school in Lake Cowichan. When it was reconfigured to include grade six and seven students several years prior to my arrival, the process was done late in the school year with little warning and little consultation. After the decision was made, there was a fear-driven parent backlash that led to a series of district promises that would consume time and resources in ways that had nothing to do with learning. I spent far too much time in my first year there in anxious conversations that started with, "We were told ..." Despite this, we were able to gradually undo the separate campus model. We began meeting and doing our adult learning as a single staff which had huge benefits to our instructional practice. We went to a single dismissal time and a single bus pick up, saving the district $20,000 a year, and our staff thirty minutes a day of supervision time. We went to single newsletters and single assemblies. We became more of a team and more of a learning community, and it helped us become a better school. The best part of this process was that the community gradually began to recognize the older students for the asset they really are.

The older students actually helped supervise the younger ones in the halls and probably pushed themselves and each other to behave better when the young ones were around. Our leadership kids embraced the opportunity to coach after-school sports teams, run lunchtime activities like soc hops, and organized seasonal activities like egg hunts and costume contests. We grew our peer tutoring program and started a buddy reading program. We celebrated academic success as an entire school and our top senior students became role models. We also allowed our strongest middle school students to take secondary courses along side the older students as an enrichment opportunity if they were ready, and gave them the opportunity to increase the number of grad program courses they could complete while in school. (One year our top student in grade 10 English was actually in grade 8 at the time, which was amazing.) Instead of separating our older and younger students, we gave them opportunities to come together and benefit from each other, and I feel that their experiences vastly improved as a result. We did have our moments, such as when a group of middle schoolers who were enjoying themselves a little too loudly drifted a little too close to the grad table when the queen bees were holding court, but generally it was a huge success and it certainly changed the way I look at school. It also changed the way many of the adults in our community viewed the older students.

As part of a current input collection process, we are running focus groups with our grade six classes. Some of these grade sixes expressed that they are a little nervous about older kids, which would be grade nines in this case, but for many this is not an issue. My favourite comment so far is from a student who said, "We learn better with older kids around." This one stuck with me because I like it when kids make observations about their learning. It also stuck with me because I believe it to be true. It jibes with the research I've read on how multi-age learning improves social learning and actually mitigates against bullying (the "B" word) and other peer conflict, and it certainly jibes with my own observations of the benefits of a broader configuration that was once seen as problematic. It begins with learning that older students can be something other than a "bad influence" and how critical their leadership is to developing a positive school culture. It begins with getting to know them and seeing what they are capable of when encouraged. Kids these days are more than alright. Turns out, they are pretty awesome.

**Note that four days after publishing this, I had a surprise Halloween encounter with some teenagers on my front step. They were collecting for a food drive.

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