“My favorite day of school was when it was my birthday because everybody said hello to me, and I wish that happened every day.”
— a Seattle-area student, when asked to reflect on their best school experiences
For years, CEL has had frameworks around practice, knowledge, leadership and mindsets for adults. But we’ve never had a student-facing framework. When we revamped the Four Dimensions of School LeadershipTM to center student experiences in school, we knew we needed to bring students more directly into our work.
Jenn McDermott, director of innovative initiatives at CEL, spearheaded the effort to do just that. Jenn and CEL colleagues invited K-12 students from three Seattle-area school districts — then later on, students from across the country — to collaborate.
And the team learned that the adults at school really need to listen hard — because what adults focus on to make a better school experience? It’s not the same as what students say they want and need.
Watch a video of this conversation (6 minutes)
(The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.)
For Jenn, the Student Experience Story Guide was a chance to take a back seat and to let students drive.
I started my career as a teacher, and I’ve been a facilitator of adult learning for most of the rest of my career, so I’m used to organizing and directing. This effort felt very different to me. I had to really let go of some of the learned behaviors I have around leading students toward an outcome, so I could create space for students to be able to authentically share their stories.
And I had to really think about my reactions to those stories — not as stories that met an outcome for a lesson but stories that really represented who the students were and what they wanted.
Whatever concept I thought I was looking for, I had to really wipe the blackboard clean of that idea and just listen to what kids were sharing.
Part of what we’re learning — and it’s based on my experience too — is how much we as adults in systems with kids are looking for students to say certain things. It’s sort of this program we’ve been trained on.
Whatever they say, it’s not for me to judge their experience. Whatever concept I thought I was looking for, I had to really wipe the blackboard clean of that idea and just listen to what kids were sharing.
Creating the Student Experience Story Guide was a student-driven process.
We started very simply, with one prompt: tell me about your best experience in school. Their answers were so clear. They knew exactly what moments to share and why. One boy said, “My favorite day of school was when it was my birthday because everybody said hello to me, and I wish that happened every day.”
From there, we asked the students to take their best experiences and organize them around themes. Very quickly, the words “happy” and “proud” emerged. We asked schools to bring a diverse group of students to the table — including students who didn’t have great experiences in school, from the adult perspective, and those who did. We wanted to be sure students who don’t usually get the chance were sharing their experiences. And “happy” and “proud” kept on showing up.
Overwhelmingly, the students — especially the younger kids — told us that the “thing” we were trying to create needed images. They didn’t want a lot of words. They didn’t want it to look like an adult document, essentially. They talked about the shapes and images and colors they imagined.
Part of what we’re learning is how much we as adults in systems with kids are looking for students to say certain things.
Even so, the transition from from naming “happy” and “proud” to producing a framework prototype was challenging.
The older students struggled the most. They’d ask, “what’s the right answer? What are you trying to get me to say?” when what we really wanted was their unfiltered imagination. I think that speaks a lot to how acclimated they were to school, and how school goes for them.
Our team wasn’t sure what to do — until we landed on the familiar concept of heroes and villains.
Who helped you? Who didn’t? We said that heroes and villains weren’t people, necessarily, but what helped them or have or got in the way of positive school experiences.
The idea worked. The students moved past trying to fit their ideas into adult expectations. Heroes and villains — it seems like such a simple idea, but it didn’t feel simple at the time.
We couldn’t predetermine outcomes or metrics. Here’s why.
An adult we’ve worked with said that “students are experts of their own experience.” It’s a great way to think about our approach to understanding student experience.
We had no traditional project metrics for that very reason. I had to really watch myself with follow-up questions and ask myself, what am I trying to find out here? Am I allowing the students to really express themselves? Because to do otherwise would undermine the whole reason I was there. The students were the metric.
I just kept saying, “The kids are going to create something. They’re going to give us something and it’s going to work.” Even though I never knew what that something was going to be.
I just kept saying, “The kids are going to create something. They’re going to give us something that’s going to work.”
Over time, the students’ many drawings evolved. A student with graphic design talent was the first to come up with the triangle-in-a-circle-with-a-superhero image. And the students made sure that those who aren’t yet readers and second-language students could use this “something” to tell their “happy” and “proud” story, too.
I couldn’t be happier with what we ended up with.
As it turns out, what they developed reflects well what we know — and are learning from research about — how kids best develop socially, emotionally and academically.
And also, because the point of the project was for students to be the experts of their own experience, we decided to not call what they created a “framework” after all.
As the story guide has been introduced to educators, they’ve been forced to reflect on how well they are centering the student experience.
We’re considering this a year of learning through use. So we’re working with interested partners to incorporate the story guide in their professional learning.
So far the response has been great. I don’t think adults are surprised by what’s on there, but there’s almost a humbled response: oh, we’re not asking kids about their day. We’re not asking them if they’re happy and proud.
What does it mean to put students at the center?
What’s the connection between student experience and school outcomes?
What does student experience say about equity?
If we’re not asking students about their experiences and giving them a greater role in shaping their experiences, how will we know if the work we do is making a meaningful difference?
The guide prompts a lot of reflection like this.
A colleague told me, “this is not an assignment for kids. This is an assignment for adults to hear kids’ stories,” and I love that.
Are you interested in the Student Experience Story Guide? We’re looking for additional opportunities to incorporate it into the professional learning we offer. Please reach out to us for a conversation.
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