One of the best parts of my job as a high school director is watching how one small change leads to another and then another, until it finally coalesces into a major impact on student learning and empowerment. At the end of this last trimester, I got to watch the culmination of three years of shifts in our teaching come together as students shared their self-written life skill comments with their parents during progress report conferences. It was the most powerful change we’ve ever made and it left me wondering why we hadn’t done it years before.
Over the past three years we began making changes in the way we teach life skills. We would experiment in a couple of classes before using a technique throughout secondary. Then we would try another strategy, until this year it all came together. Below is an overview of what we did:
1. Introducing life and career skills.
We first introduced life and career skills to our all of our secondary students in September by teaching them what the skills are and by giving them 5 different learning targets for each one. You can read about how one of our teachers introduces life skills here.
2. Actively teaching.
Eventually we realized that we couldn’t just refer to these skills once in a while. In order to help students grow in these areas, we had to actively teach them throughout the year. Teachers began embedding life skill learning targets into their lessons, so students were not only focused on content skills but also focused on time management, leadership skills, communication skills, and more.
3. Student goal setting.
Last year, in some classes, we had students set life skill goals for themselves. Every four weeks, they reflected on those goals and slowly began to make important changes. This had such a strong impact on our learners that this year we decided to do goal setting with the entire secondary school.
4. Students write comments.
The next logical step for us was to have students write their own progress report comments. During the second trimester, they wrote them in writing workshop, going through all the stages of looking at strong models, brainstorming, writing, getting feedback, and revising. It was amazing to read what they wrote — most of them were incredibly honest. Since many of them were hard on themselves, when teachers met with them in conferences, conversations would often go like this:
Teacher: “Felipe, can you look through your comments and find all the positive things you say about yourself?”
Student: “Hmmmm…. I say that my locker is organized and that I get along with my friends.”
Teacher: “And what are the areas that you mention you need to grow in?”
Student: “Well… I procrastinate a lot. I’m social but I talk a lot in class and don’t get my work done. I’m not very good in math. I hand my work in late and I don’t do very well in group work because I let others do all the work.”
Teacher: “What do you notice about your glows and grows?”
Student: “I have a lot more grows than glows…”
Teacher: “Do you think you have any other strengths?”
At this point, many students had difficulty. They were far better at pointing out weaknesses than strengths. During these conferences, teachers asked guiding questions to help students notice their strong points.
Then teachers would help students see how they could build on their strengths to improve in some of their areas of weakness. Throughout the process of writing their comments and discussing them with teachers, students grew in self-confidence. They also began to realize that looking at their strengths was not boasting — it’s actually the only way to grow. By focusing on strengths, they were able to feel proud of their accomplishments, which gave them the motivation they needed to set new goals.
5. Progress report conferences.
Finally, students met with their parents in conferences to go over their progress reports. Before the meeting, we sent out a letter to parents with tips for having positive interactions with their children. Parents met with their children and the students’ homeroom teachers to discuss the comments and the student’s growth over the trimester. Teachers were simply there to guide the conversation when necessary or to clarify something going on in class. But overall, the meeting was a dialogue between students and parents.
We weren’t sure exactly how this would all shake out – in fact we were very nervous – but it went even better than we hoped! Below are some of the comments we heard after the meetings, from parents, teachers, and students.
- “I loved seeing how empowered my child was as she spoke about her achievements, goals, and challenges. I was surprised by how well she knew herself.”
- “This was a small step for the school, and a huge leap for our children!”
- “Usually our conferences are very short and mostly ‘everything is great, he is great.’ This time it was a true conversation about strengths, areas of improvement, and how to develop a plan to move forward. The experience also forced my son to focus on life skills rather than grades and academics, a shift that I am sure will make him a more well-rounded person. Congratulations, one more thing that makes TCFL great!”
- “Wow. Just wow! The kids were so honest and they took complete responsibility for their grades. Hearing a student say, ‘Yup, this is what I deserve. I really didn’t take science seriously this trimester,’ was incredible. I heard them really wanting to make changes.”
- “Powerful. Hearing a student say ‘I…’ and describe their strengths and weaknesses gave me goose bumps.”
- “These conferences created a strong student-teacher-parent bond. Students got to hear us mention their strengths to parents and they felt supported by us. I think parents felt like we are all in this together.”
- “I was really anxious about the conference. I was afraid my mom was going to get mad at me for my grades. But I actually got to explain things from my perspective and she was more understanding than I expected.”
- “When I was writing my comment, I focused on all the things I need to change. In a writing conference, my teacher helped me realize that highlighting my strengths isn’t egotistical, it helps me feel good about myself and now I feel more confident.”
- “I liked it. I always feel anxious because I’m not good enough, but I got to see that I’m not so bad and I can improve. I actually feel proud of myself.”
Overall it was an incredible day. I honestly have never received so much positive feedback on a new initiative, and we will absolutely be doing this again. Have you ever tried anything similar in your classes or with your students? Have questions about the process? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!