Reflections on Student Council as a Community Builder

This year I took on the duties of Student Council Advisor. Before I started, I knew that this would be a huge undertaking. My school’s Student Council has many responsibilities including the fall Pep Rally, fall and spring government elections, and various fundraisers.  In order to see if this group would be a worthwhile time investment, I did my background research.

First, I learned that an advantage of Student Council over other clubs is that it takes selected leaders from each class at the school.  While the seniors run the club, all members are respected leaders of their class.  However, just because these students get the nod of approval from their peers does not guarantee that they will truly embody the qualities of leadership nor engender the requisite “buy-in” from their peers in the club. I had to dig deeper. Last summer I made several phone calls to various people in our school community. At the very least, I was assured that my senior officers were top notch and folks who really wanted to make a difference in their community.  OK, I was in.

The first meeting with my officers happened last summer, via Skype. I was enjoying one of the last nice days of the summer on the South Shore of Boston and three of my officers got together at one of their homes on the North Shore. BAM! 45 minutes later I knew we had a rockin’ crew. The gist of the meeting was that the students had to take control. It was their club.  They had the experience. I’d do whatever I could to provide extra guidance.  We discussed the potential power that lies in the diverse group of leaders such as Student Council.  I encouraged them to think outside the box. The meeting concluded and we were on to day one of the 2010-2011 school year.

Over the next several months, my officers proved to be reliable, confident, friendly and organized. Fall events such as government elections and the Pep Rally went off without a hitch. As the students began to see the effect that they could have on the community, they started thinking about bigger projects.  It was January when they approached me with the idea for the project that would prove to be the defining school activity for 2011.

“Hey Mr. Springer, what do you think about this?” My officers then played a series of music videos for me (school-wide  music videos to be precise).  If you have been paying attention to high school viral videos on YouTube, then perhaps you’ve come across these. If you haven’t, it’s worth a quick search on YouTube (search: high school lip dub). The project was recommended to my officers by one of our history teachers. The faculty has spent the last few years debating the best way for students to show “school pride”. In past years, seniors marched through the halls as part of the annual end-of-the-year parade.  They threw confetti everywhere, yelled at teachers and underclassmen as they passed rooms, etc.  Many felt that instead of leaving on a high note, the march felt more like a big middle finger to everyone in the community as the seniors walked out the door.  The project that this year’s seniors were promoting would be a way for them to bring together everyone in the school for one last celebration of community before the they graduated.  I told the officers that if they could sell it to the administration then I was in.

The officers then got together with the club and brainstormed their proposal to the administration. As written by the students in the club, here was their mission statement:

“This event will show how much of a community Reading Memorial High School is and the spirit we have for our school. It will promote all of our school groups, clubs, teams, and academics by gathering support from each. It will promote a positive, friendly school environment in which the students appreciate and value their facilities and the bonds they have with each other and faculty members. It will be a great way to show others how great of a school we have at Reading. This video could be showed to future freshmen or to other teachers at the Blue Ribbon Conferences. It could be a great tradition to start at RMHS and truly would bring everyone together.”

The students then gave several mini suggestions as to how the event could affect the following areas:

  • Promote school spirit; create unity, “we are all in this together”
  • Relieve stress
  • Student creativity
  • Student-Teacher-Administration bonding
  • Promoting friendly school environment, anti-bullying
  • Get incoming Freshman excited about RMHS
  • Orientation, show some of the school
  • Promote different clubs
  • Fitness by moving around
  • Show different values of the school (recycling, etc.)
  • Show off facilities
  • Promotion for April sharing conference hosted at our school
  • Recognize leaders as well as those who are not
  • EVERYONE
  • Respect the building

On the morning of March 23rd, the officers showed up to school at 6:50am ready for their big proposal meeting with the administration. They were dressed professionally. Each had a copy of their proposal in hand with extras ready for each administrator.  They rehearsed how they would give their pitch. At 7:00am they walked into the main office and by 7:30am they walked back to my room excited that their idea had been approved.  

May 11th was our day to film. We would have an early release that day, which meant that we would have about an hour and a half from when school ended until sports practices started to film.  The planning evolved in a series of phases:

Phase 1: Research

  • We watched as many YouTube videos as possible and took notes.
  • We contacted other schools who have done similar projects and asked for advice (our principal called one school and one of our officers contacted another school’s student leader through Facebook).

Phase 2: Networking

  • We assembled a tech team consisting of several of the most talented student tech gurus at our school. These folks would be an essential piece to our success as we moved forward with logisitics.
  • We recruited teacher consultants to help advise our planning. Being a relatively new teacher to the district, the advice and support from the more experienced staff members helped us forsee several of the issues and complications that were to arise when trying to plan an event of this magnitude at the school.
  • We also recruited and sold our idea to club and team leaders.  If we could get the upperclassmen interested and committed, then the underclassmen would join too.

Phase 3: Logistics

  • We drew a detailed map of school with all details of walking route (ie. what rooms/halls we pass, what doors need to be accounted for, what thresholds to doors needed to be accounted for, etc).
  • We created a master script for the filming.
        – Where do soloists enter and exit?
        – When do soloists enter and exit?
        – Who will sing which lyrics?
        – At what second of the song does door 3 need to be opened?
        – At what second do the track girls get cued to begin their hurdle run in order to coordinate their hurdling with the camera coming out of the main office?
  • We assigned zones for each Student Council member to monitor on the day of filming with specific duties for each person in each zone. (ie. Zack will be in charge of zone 6 where he needs to ensure that teachers are in the right place.  He will also hand off a guitar to Jared as Jared slides down railing).
  • Our tech team built a lighting rig that would ensure that we could see people’s faces in the film.

*This is just the tip of the iceberg… in order to ensure success and efficiency, we tried to think through every little thing that we possible could before the day of recording.

Phase 4: Rehearsal

  • We had a two hour dress rehearsal and a three hour dress rehearsal.  This time was used to show everyone involved exactly what needed to happen on the day of recording.
  • The rehearsals were essential to both work out kinks in our logistical planning and communicate to everyone in the project that their participation was crucial to the success of the event.
  • These meetings consisted of Student Council members, soloists, club/team leaders, the tech team and a few faculty consultants. We figured that if the leaders of each group at school knew what to do, they could rally their peers to take care of business.
  • We also recorded one of our run-throughs, uploaded it to YouTube, and used this video to promote the activity to other students.

Phase 5: Day of Recording

  • When school ended at 1:11pm we sent our upperclassmen leaders to the halls to recruit participants and send them to the field house. Meanwhile, underclassmen worked to make sure the walking route was set up appropriately (ie. unlocking doors and turning on lights).
  • We filmed the last scene first with all the students in the bleachers.  While in the bleachers, we explained the time crunch and procedure for the filming.
  • We dismissed clubs one by one and they were escorted by student council members to their positions.
  • Once everyone was settled and understood their role, we did three takes. Each take was one shot.  We were done by 2:20pm and dismissed everyone to their respective extracurricular activities ten minutes ahead of schedule.

Phase 6: Post-Production Work

  • Our tech team dedicated the next couple weeks to editing the final versions of our video.
  • After bouncing around various ideas with the editing and getting approval from the administration, we posted the final product to YouTube.
  • The video was shown for the first time publicly at our school’s Class Day Ceremony.

Phase 7: Reflection

After each of our events this year, we spent time as a club reflecting on the process.  The final product was never perfect and we constantly looked for ways to improve for the potential “next time.”  That said, here I’ll focus on the positives.

My students thought outside the box.  They rallied their community in the name of celebration of one another.  So many different skills came out that highlighted the great diversity that our school has to offer. Students learned leadership, organization, communication, and technical skills.  Those who participated made friendships with people through our project that they might not have made otherwise.  Faculty members had the opportunity to laugh with other teachers that they might not have had a conversations with prior to this event.  

To summarize, this project was about community building.  The final product, however it came out, was not the quintessence of this project, but rather the representation of the hard work and good people that went into pulling it together. I’m proud to have been a part of Student Council this year. I’m proud of the learning that came from taking on all of our projects this year.  I’m proud of the relationships that were built along the way.  We hope you enjoy our video.

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RMHS Lip Dub Project 2011

Last summer I became the Student Council adviser. Throughout the year the students have taken on many challenges looking to bring our community together.  The adventures that we went on throughout all of these endeavors provided some of the most rewarding experiences for me this year.

Over the past several months, students worked to organize the filming of a school-wide music video. The final result is posted below. 400-500 students and about 50 faculty members participated. I will have to reflect on all the learning that went on during this project later, but for now, here’s the video…

Does the tradition of having a study in one’s house reflect the importance of learning in Chinese Culture?

While visiting a piece of the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s permanent exhibit about China, I found another clue towards the deeply seeded importance of art, scripture and learning in Chinese traditions.  One of the rooms in the permanent exhibit is a reconstructed Chinese home from the 16th-17th century using furniture collected from the time period.  The study constituted one of the most important rooms of the home.  The museum’s commentary explains, “In the quiet of the study (shu fang – literally ‘book room’), the men of the household would practice the classical arts expected of a proper gentleman: calligraphy, painting, poetry, chess, playing the zither (qin), and studying the classics.  Even less erudite members of society had studies in their homes as the presence of such a room added dignified status to a household.”

Basically, a learning room represented a status symbol and an integral part to a gentleman’s daily life. Does this tradition exist in western societies? What does this say about the historical importance of art, scripture and learning for Chinese society? Does this continue today? What impact does the traditional reverence for learning have on today’s China?

Calligraphy as an important metaphor for Chinese learners?

A few days ago, I published a post on the relationship between Chinese artists and the importance of engaging friends in reflecting on one’s work.  Specifically, I looked at how the Chinese artists at the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Fresh Ink exhibit included writing on their works from friends who provided constructive criticism of the work.  As I continued to read through Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time In China, I noticed that calligraphy itself holds a special importance to the Chinese people in a way that westerners might not grasp.  Two excerpts in Oracle Bones particularly struck me as interesting:

1. Liang Sicheng states,  “My experience was that local people were not interested in architecture.  When I told them I was interested in antiquities they would guide me to their stone stelae inscribed in earlier times.  They were interested in calligraphy…, impressed by the written word, not the carpenter’s handiwork (p185).”

2. “In Fuling, my students had recognized some beauty in the written word that wasn’t apparent to a Westerner like me.  And in Beijing,  I sensed that I saw something in the old city that wasn’t obvious to most locals.  Ever since childhood, like any Westerner, I had learned that the past was embodied in ancient buildings – pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals. Ionic, Doric, Gothic, Baroque – words I could recall from junior-high lessons.  To me, that was antiquity, but the Chinese seemed to find their past elsewhere (p185).”

If calligraphy, the written word, does truly represent beauty and the past in Chinese society, what effect does a history of appreciation for writing, instead of architecture, have on the intellectual development of a society? What effect does the historic respect for the written word have on the modern Chinese education system? Do students just tend to write neater or is there a deeper connection to the importance of art, diligence towards detail, and a respect for practice and repetition to improve skills?

A Look at the Relationship Between Art and Learning in Chinese Culture

Last week I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s special exhibit “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes On Chinese Tradition” in an effort to further immerse myself in all things China in preparation for my trip to China in April.  As described by the exhibit’s website, “In this groundbreaking exhibition, contemporary Chinese ink painters engage in dialogue with classical artworks from China’s past.” Modern painters came to the MFA in Boston, selected an ancient work of a Chinese master, and reinterpreted the work.  Inside the exhibit, visitors see the ancient work and the new interpretation side by side. Listening to the audio guide, one hears both the exhibit curator and the modern artists analyze the connections between the works of the past and the present.  Of all the things that I learned while passing through the show rooms, I think the questions I left with will spur the most interesting conversations.  The first question that I’ll look to reflect on is “What is the relationship between art and learning in Chinese culture?”

The first observation that I had while passing through the exhibit was that many of the works displayed in Fresh Ink were created on long scrolls. Each scroll of art includes a section at the edges of the work where several Chinese characters left a message to viewers about the work.  The audio guide suggests that many of these texts express reflections on the work of art itself.  The guide suggests that when an artist finishes his work, he invites friends over to write criticisms and reflections of the work on the scroll.  What does this say about the culture? What does this say about the culture’s ability to engage in constructive-criticism? What does this say about the culture’s appreciation for critical reflection?

As educators, we often talk about the importance of reflection and constructive-criticism.  How often do you have your students submit their work with criticism from classmates included in the margins?

(This painting is part of one of the modern works presented in the exhibition. The piece shows women holding one of the ancient scrolls. If you click on the picture and look closely, you can see the writing at the end of the scrolls. This image was found on http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/fresh-ink and should only be used for educational purposes as described by the MFA’s Terms of Use Page.)

Students From China Visit Our School

Between February 5th and the 11th our school will host a group of Chinese students. These students have traveled to the United States in order to learn about our culture and our education system. Once I heard that this group was coming, I talked to my administrators and jumped on the planning committee. Hopefully this exchange will provide a medium for great discussions with our visitors from China about their culture and education system.

Earlier this week I met with my principal, one of my assistant principals and my department head. My principal called the meeting to establish an agenda for the Chinese students’ visit. So far, the agenda for the week will go as follows (this is still subject to modification):

Monday: Meet and greet at our school. The Chinese students will then spend the day shadowing their host students in class throughout the day. The students have the evening free with their host families.

Tuesday: A group of foreign language teachers will take a break from their regular curriculum to guide discussions between the Chinese visitors and the Reading students throughout the day. In the evening, students will be encouraged to attend the school’s basketball games.

Wednesday: Chinese students will shadow their host families during the day. Students will also have the evening free with their host families.

Thursday: Chinese students will shadow their host students during the day. During the evening, a community potluck will be organized for all the host families.

Friday: Chinese students will shadow their host students during the day. In the evening, students will be encouraged to attend the school play that will open that night.

All of these events will provide wonderful opportunities for interactions between the students of the two cultures. As both of our societies become more intertwined in the coming decades, building relationships and a mutual understanding through friendly exchanges like ours will be essential to the development and progress of our two nations.

Of all the activities that our students will partake in, I am most excited for the discussions on Tuesday. The discussions and exchanges of ideas on education, culture, and teen-life in the two countries represents the most important kind of authentic learning experience that my students can have.

When isolated from other cultures, lack of understanding can lead to discrimination, fear or even hatred.  Through dialogues and exchanges such as this trip, we, as educators, can remind our students that although people may live differently from us, there are several universal traits that bind us together as humans.  I’m hoping that our discussions will shed some light on some of those characteristics.

We have been fortunate to have students from Spain, France and Puerto Rico come talk to our students this year.  Our interactions with these groups of people have helped our characters grow as our understanding of others in the world develops.  The Chinese prospective brings yet another opportunity for my students to expand their understanding of the world and the people that live in it.

30 years from now, the people that will talk in my class on February 6th could be leading our two nations. We have the opportunity to begin their dialogue. How should we start? I think I’m going to start with…

Spanish Public Speaking Unit

Spanish 5 begins with a conversation. On day one, we sit down and discuss the skills that we look to improve upon throughout the year.  I explain to the students that I have a few goals for our class this year. My goals are the following:

1) Push yourself to develop your skills and interests… just try it in Spanish.

2) Push yourself to not need your teacher… work towards being a self-learner of a foreign language.

3) Push yourself to ask how each unit we study can improve your character.

This year, of the many ideas that my students came up with, the first skill they wished to improve upon was public speaking. We built the following unit to improve their public speaking.

Phase 1:

The first phase of the unit was to study what makes a good public speaker. We watched several famous public addresses. After watching the addresses, we reflected on what we noticed as effective ways to communicate ideas.  In addition to watching speeches, we also read articles with tips for how to give effective speeches.  We then discussed the techniques that we wished to focus on to improve our own speech delivery.  The areas that we decided to address were the following:

1) Eye contact
2) Tone/Energy
3) Posture
4) Projection
5) Articulation/Pronunciation

Phase 2:

After establishing what we viewed as areas that we could practice, I then met with our school’s drama teacher to discuss ways to practice these skills.  After bouncing ideas of of him, I then adapted many tongue twisters to Spanish to practice articulation. I adapted several improvisation games to get the students comfortable speaking in front of people.  I also adapted self-evaluation forms that our theater teacher uses in order to get my students to start reflecting on their skills.

Phase 3:

Next we had to begin practicing speeches. We decided to select three types of speeches to practice our essential skills.

1) Presenting a pre-written speech (3 minutes)
2) Presenting a speech for which you only have an outline on a note card (2-3 minutes)
3) Improvising a Speech from themes selected at random from a hat (1minute)

Through speech writing and practice of the various speeches, we were able to review various grammar topics and learn new vocabulary while also practicing our public speaking skills.  When presentation days came about, students would evaluate their peers work. We also video taped the speeches so that students could watch themselves perform.  After reading their classmates critiques and viewing their own speeches, students wrote reflection essays. What did you do well? What did you improve from your previous speech? What can you do better next time?  These reflection pieces posed another opportunity to practice written Spanish skills, while also allowing the students time to reflect on their public speaking skills.

Overall, I think the unit opened my students eyes to a very important skill that they will use throughout their life.  They developed their abilities in public speaking while also practicing their own fluency in Spanish, their Spanish grammar and their Spanish written skills.  Next time, I would like to focus more specifically on one grammar topic. We reviewed the present tense, as well as the preterit versus the imperfect, but I think it would have been more effective to just highlight one topic. I also think this unit would have moved along more quickly.  The unit took about a month.  After running through the unit once, I think that I could probably do the unit in 3 weeks. I felt like it dragged on a bit towards the end.  That said, we ran into many holidays and days that our class cycled out of the school schedule and this also extended the length of the unit.

Do you teach a public speaking unit? Do you have suggestions for how to improve my unit? For those of you who don’t have a specific unit for public speaking, do you give students feedback on their presentation skills when they give a presentation? If so, how?