School Name: Houston Secondary School
School District: SD#54 Bulkley Valley
Inquiry Team Members: Dwayne Anderson – firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeneanne Kallstrom – email@example.com
Gillian Hestad – firstname.lastname@example.org
Kaitlyn Clark – email@example.com
Rochelle Huppe – firstname.lastname@example.org
Kari Niven – email@example.com
Ted Moes – firstname.lastname@example.org
Inquiry Team Contact Email: email@example.com
Type of Inquiry: NOIIE
Grade Levels: Secondary (8-12)
Curricular Area(s): Arts Education, Language Arts – Oral Language, Language Arts – Writing, Social Studies
Focus Addressed: Indigenous understandings (for example, Traditional Knowledge, oral history, reconciliation), Community-based learning, Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving), First Peoples Principles of Learning, Formative assessment, Growth mindset, Inclusion and inclusive instructional strategies, Indigenous pedagogy, Self-regulation, Social and emotional learning
In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? Our focus this year was on student engagement. All teachers, admin and EA’s noticed early in the year that student engagement in learning was lacking and undermined other initiatives staff had adopted. Staff agreed that ‘engagement’ is a complex problem that could be addressed only with a multifaceted team effort.
Scanning: Although our small and highly collaborative staff did agree student engagement was the school’s primary concern, views on causes (and therefore possible solutions) were diverse. We decided to prioritize three initiatives the school or district was already engaged in, and reflect on their efficacy through the ‘student engagement’ lens:
• Core/Curricular Competencies – Reassess/revisit curricula, shifting to a focus on skills and habits of mind, rather than content and a ‘prescribed learning outcome’ mindset.
• Mental Health Literacy – Destigmatize the vocabulary of mental health issues and allow students the tools to better understand and articulate their stressors, particularly during the pandemic.
• Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Identity and Ownership – Much of the student population (based on anecdote and surveys) feel marginalized by a non-inclusive school culture. These students have consciously disengaged because they do not, on some level, feel safe.
Focus: See “scanning” above.
Hunch: Staff universally agreed that lack of student engagement was an acute issue. Discussions on what might be contributing to this situation, and therefore what to do about it, settled on three reasonable, overlapping and actionable hunches:
• Core/Curricular Competencies – The Middle School staff (Gr 8/9) was entirely new and did not have an established relationship with the students. Established staff also noted that it had been a long while since the school had taken a “deep dive” into the core competencies with the students. Doing explicit core competency-based activities with the students, one team member noted, would “go a long way to establishing a learning culture in the classroom.” During discussions, many staff reflected that they had perhaps taken the competencies for granted and had drifted towards focused content in their planning.
• Mental Health Literacy – The Covid pandemic seemed to have a powerful negative impact on much of our large vulnerable student population. Counselling referrals increased steadily, and many students were feeling anxiety or chronic stress from inside and outside the school environment. Further, many students were attending irregularly or not at all. All teachers had engaged in some mental health related discussions with students. A robust implementation of the Mental Health Literacy curriculum seemed a reasonable way both of proactively providing students with coping tools and of expanding the capacity of all staff to engage with students in discussions about mental health.
• Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Identity and Ownership – We noticed that many students had consciously chosen to disengage is school culture. This was particularly true of our LGBTQ community (who tended to stick together in the art room) and our Indigenous learners (who often avoided coming to school altogether). When asked, common themes in responses were a feeling of not feeling safe to express pride in one’s identity, or to be perceived as having a different perspective on social issues. Senior humanities teachers thought this was an opportunity to rethink curricula through the lens of inclusion, equity and Indigenous principles of learning.
New Professional Learning: Staff were aggressive in their pursuit of new professional learning. What is remarkable is that, while many staff chose to specialize in one of the three ‘hunch areas’ described above, we were outstanding at sharing our learning with each other and of keeping ‘student engagement’ the success metric of our professional learning focus.
• Core/Curricular Competencies – Established teachers at our school had much experience implementing core/curricular competencies. In effect, established teachers mentored new teachers in competency-based instruction. Other teachers – Kari Niven in particular – very effectively recast the senior science and math curriculum on the basis of competencies, allowing students much control over content selection. Most staff participated in (and found cathartic) Leyton Schnellert’s seminars on core/curricular competencies.
• Mental Health Literacy – Middle school teachers and counsellors planned, developed and implemented mental health literacy activities and resources. Staff became comfortable in their mental health knowledge base, the overall (destigmatizing) goals of the curriculum, and confident when engaging students in mental health discussions.
• Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Identity and Ownership – Humanities teachers and Indigenous educators used Elena Aguillar’s Coaching for Equity, as the starting point for our path to creating a curriculum honouring the words in the bullet heading. We realized early on that this will be a multi-year project. Senior humanities and arts teachers implemented placed-based learning, identity, and visual literacy as entry points. A renowned local artist modeled the power of visual literacy in reproducible art (i.e., stamps, t-shirts, buttons) as a medium for giving voice to ideas.
Taking Action: Space is too short to comprehensively list all tried strategies, so highlights are listed below. Two points are worth noting: 1) We collaborated on most strategies – One teacher’s successful idea was often quickly adapted by others in their own classes. 2) We did have some staff turnover mid-year in our humanities team, which affected our inclusion strategies.
• Core/Curricular Competencies – Teachers took time away from content instruction to explicitly teach core competencies. Often this meant unpacking the language and basic ideas of Responsibility, Communication and Thinking, and memorializing student ideas in the form of posters that could be easily referred to during instruction. Core competencies became the “ownership” portion of student leaning as they became familiar with their strengths and stretches. Teachers were conscious to nurture a ‘common language’ approach so students could be confident core competencies were portable between classes and subjects. Teachers emphasized curricular competencies over content per se, as skills developed; for example, problem solving is applied in many curricular areas.
• Mental Health Literacy – Teachers were faithful to the underlying intent behind the mental health literacy curriculum, which is to destigmatize discussing mental health and mental disorders, develop the vocabulary around mental health ideas, and to give students some tools they can use to deal with stressors. Stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination and stigma were thoroughly explored. Safety rules and protocols were developed collaboratively with students and strictly adhered to, resulting in an atmosphere of trust. Safe spaces and people were made available to students who may have been triggered by a particular discussion or topic.
• Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Identity and Ownership – In literature studies, students explored their identity as it related to place. For example, they engaged in an Inquiry project – which they were very familiar with – but with an emphasis on communicating (core competencies again) their ideas during and at the end of the project. In Social Studies classes, students created a board game based on an historical controversy or protest, then spent a week playing each other’s games in jigsaw fashion. In visual literacy sessions, students learned the power of “subversion” – they were encouraged to create easily reproducible symbols or art that either reflected their values and identity, or challenged a prejudice or stereotype.
Checking: Our efforts at improving student engagement were generally, but not universally, successful. We conducted and recorded many interviews with students, where we invited them to give feedback on our efforts in each of the three initiatives. Counselling data also suggests the efficacy of our efforts.
• Core/Curricular Competencies – The turnaround in student engagement after the core competency activities was almost immediate, disappearing within two weeks for some teachers. Students (grades 8 to 12) explained that an understanding of core competencies provided them with a clear purpose for learning. For example, a “big idea” was interpreted as what was being explored, with the explicit understanding that not everything could be mastered; “learning intentions” reflected as an entry level of skills which nevertheless served as a learning floor rather than a ceiling, and could be revisited in the future; and where core competencies served as a ‘mindset toolkit’, with which meaningful feedback could be given and heard. Moreover, because of this success, all teachers – not just those focused on this initiative – are committed to this approach in the coming year.
• Mental Health Literacy – Two main indicators point to our success in this area. First, in interviews, students indicated a sophistication of understanding of mental health issues that, frankly, astonished teachers. This showed us that students were discussing mental health before we began teaching it. What the students appreciated most was the destigmatizing of mental health. Students felt comfortable approaching their safe adults and discussing their concerns. Second, towards the end of the year, disclosures and counselling referrals were very high. Although it was disturbing to deal with these events, we interpreted it as students finding the courage or feeling safe enough to seek help or disclose their problems.
• Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Identity and Ownership – Overall, this initiative represents our biggest challenge. Although student interviews indicate a satisfaction that diversity and inclusion are explicitly being included in student learning, students feel school culture has changed little. Part of the reason, we surmise, is “school culture” actually has little to do with school, but reflects the culture of the community as a whole. We will revisit this goal for next year, with a particular emphasis on our Indigenous learning.
Our advice and reflection on this Inquiry is:
• Choose a big problem – one that affects many students, may have many influences, and may need many people working in the same direction to solve.
• Work the problem from many angles – encourage team members to take leadership roles in ways that contribute to a solution rather than search for a comprehensive “silver bullet” solution.
• Discuss your progress often, keeping discussions focused on the original problem you have identified . . . something will have a positive effect!
• Avoid becoming territorial or tribal – no one owns ideas and students are everyone’s concern.