Sunday, May 21, 2017

School Year Orientation

I have been considering the idea of bettering our school year orientation in order to help every child and family start the learning year with strength. The more I consider this topic, read about it, and discuss it with stakeholders, the more I recognize that bettering our school year orientations is a good idea.

This idea arose in me a few years ago as I attended my son's college orientation--the orientation was awesome and really helped both parents and students start college with strength and awareness. Now that my son is about to graduate, I must say that his college experience has been top-notch, and this is partly to do with the fact that we could help him navigate all the opportunities that existed thanks to the early days of freshman year when we received such a great orientation.

On Friday my team will discuss our ideas to better the orientation process for fifth graders entering our classrooms in September. I expect we'll discuss the following aspects of a new orientation process:

Orientation Day
A day before the start of school to help all students who are distanced from the school's geographic environment and academic program to have a small-group orientation that's enjoyable and helpful with regard to the expectations and potential the school year holds. I imagine that this day will include the following:
  • Lead time for parents and students to make arrangements to take part in the day's events.
  • Transportation for those who need it.
  • Places to host the event including the school classrooms, local places of interest, and a place to have dinner together and get to know each other.
  • A combination of serious preparation exercises and enjoyable relationship-building activities.
  • A serious teacher-student-family member(s) intake process where a large number of questions are discussed to get to know as much as possible about who a student is and what he/she needs for success in the year ahead.
In-Take Interview
I believe old-time introductory activities such as many parent nights and early year get-to-know-you activities don't provide enough good information to teach children well. I believe, like hospitals, schools need better family member/child in-take processes that include the following types of questions:
  • What are your/your child's strengths, talents, and interests?
  • Describe a time when your child was most enthusiastic and successful with regard to learning? What elements made that situation so successful?
  • Describe a time when learning and school was unsuccessful for you or your child?  What elements led to the lack of success?
  • Does your child have all the supplies needed for a successful school year including technology and WIFI? (Have the supplies the child/family can't provide available for them at the orientation)
  • What will be your child's transportation to and from school each day? Do you have any needs or questions in that regard?
  • What is the best time and way to contact family members?
  • Can family members help out in any way during the school year such as chaperone field trips, volunteer in the class, or help out during any one of the many special events that will occur? (Have a list of all special events and dates as many families need lots of lead time to take a day off work or arrange child care/transportation so they can help out.)
  • Will your child be able to participate in the following activities: after school homework club, after school math club, the after school activities program, student council, or special programming? Will you need a scholarship for these events? (Have scholarship forms ready to fill out with family members?)
  • (Ask if appropriate) Does your family work with the local social worker? If so, how? Is there a need for the school and social worker to work together on behalf of your child?
  • Since a lot of children develop confidence and social relationships with students during extracurricular activities, I'm wondering if your child participates in any of the many extracurricular activities available at school or in the community? This is a good way to help your child connect with others.
  • How will your child access lunch and snacks daily? Does your child have what he/she needs to bring in a healthy snack and water every day? (If appropriate to ask) Does your child need a free and reduced lunch? (Have forms available to fill out right at the meeting)
  • Do you and/or your child speak another language at home? Has your child been involved with ELL services in the past?
  • Does your child have or have had in the past an IEP? Has she/he had special education services of any kind in the past?
  • Does your child have any physical or medical issues that the school needs to be aware of?
  • What else do I need to know about your child in order to teach him/her well?
The in-take interview should be a welcoming event where the educators are trying to figure out how to best build a strong learning/teaching relationship with the child. It would be good to have refreshments available and a comfortable setting for this event.

Start-of-Year Get-to-Know Each Other Project
Last year the students made a great Three-Words video which helped to build a strong, respectful class culture. I can't share our video because students used their last names, but I can share this post which describes the project. 

Showcase Portfolios
Our team has been developing our use of showcase portfolios as one way to collect, share, and reflect on student learning. The initial showcase portfolio efforts begin with the Happiness Survey where students reflect on what makes them happy. This provides a very positive start. Other important start-of-the-year elements of this portfolio include the parent-student survey and the "What I wish you knew about me" student letters. The showcase portfolio in a sense becomes a storybook about the child's learning during the fifth grade year. It also serves as a point of discussion throughout the year as students, families, and teachers make decisions about learning.

Curriculum Night
Traditionally this has been a night for parents to learn about the school program. As a team, the fifth grade teachers present what's important about the year ahead. I imagine we'll revisit this aspect of orientation too to see how we can make it better, but I must say I think this is a strong piece of the overall orientation at this point. 

Old time school parent nights have a "factory" like quality similar to old time school structures of children sitting in rows all day listening and responding to teachers. It's time to rethink how we orient children and their families to the school year, and it's important that these orientations are empowering, enjoyable, and engaging events that help every child, family, and teacher know what's important with regard to getting the school year off to a positive start.