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
Tanja Landry firstname.lastname@example.org
Ted Moes email@example.com
Inquiry Team Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Type of Inquiry: NOIIE
Grade Levels: Secondary (8-12)
Curricular Area(s): Not applicable
Focus Addressed: Aboriginal understandings (for example, Traditional Knowledge, oral history, reconciliation), Community-based learning, Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving), Differentiated instruction, Experiential learning, First Peoples Principles of Learning, Flexible learning, Formative assessment, Growth mindset, Inclusion and inclusive instructional strategies, Indigenous pedagogy, Inquiry-based learning, Land, Nature or Place-based learning, Self-regulation, Social and emotional learning, Transitions, Universal design for learning
In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? Our focus was on our vulnerable learners: How to better understand their needs; how to nurture their voices; how to better leverage the unique strengths of our school to further these goals; how to involve the community in supporting these goals.
Scanning: Houston Secondary School has a large vulnerable student population. Causes of student vulnerabilities are wide ranging but primarily socio-economic and therefore beyond the capacity of the school or district to affect directly. Established team members noted that HSS has in recent years implemented many programs to address vulnerable learner needs specifically, and student mental health issues more broadly.
We noted that current practices in addressing these needs (i.e., supporting students in crisis) seemed to be reactive and ad hoc. In too many cases student engagement in their academic learning has been low, and coordination of various school capacities to address these needs minimal. A consistent school strength has been the positive relationship between individual teachers and students over the duration of student high school careers. The school’s professional staff is highly collaborative. Finally, during the scanning process we realized that our speculations were just that; we really didn’t know what the needs of our vulnerable students were because we had not yet asked them.
Focus: Our focus was on student mental health. We accepted that social/emotional learning may be a foundational condition for student engagement in academic learning. At minimum, a school-wide effort is necessary for progress at meeting the needs of our vulnerable learners. Since many of the factors affecting student mental health have their source in the home or community, the community should be involved in school efforts is this area.
Hunch: Student mental health is growing area of focus at all levels of the education system. Asking students their thoughts on their learning and social emotional needs, using the concepts and vocabulary available to educators in an open and honest way, should lead to more responsive and proactive school-based programming. Further, the simple act of facilitating these conversations will serve to destigmatize many of the mental health challenges students may feel are uniquely their own, but are in fact shared by many others. Finally, we wondered whether, and to what extent, students perceived their relationships with teachers to be important to their mental health.
New Professional Learning: Future and current professional learning include:
• Social Emotional Learning (i.e., CASEL)
• Other mental health/social emotional learning resources as promoted in the Vancouver Mental Health Conference 2018
• Principles of aboriginal learning
• Community-based learning and locally developed curricula
• Inquiry-based/Project-based learning
Taking Action: We began by meeting with individual students identified as vulnerable learners and were regular high school attenders. These one-on-one interviews strongly indicated the teacher-student relationship as a factor in their continued attendance. Students felt supported in their social/emotional decision making. Students indicated that tone of voice, a caring demeanor, teacher interest in both the student’s welfare and future goals and opportunities were valued by them.
We then held focus groups with students from each grade at HSS and asked more general questions about their experiences. Focus groups were designed to be representative of the general student population and we utilized food as a factor in eliciting conversation. Generally, students at HSS felt supported and that relationships with key teachers were positive. Younger students (grade 8-9) did not share the view that teachers cared about their mental health and general success. However, senior students (grades 10-12) described feeling cared about by teachers, and engaged in behaviours demonstrating care about student mental health. Students expressed the importance of these relationships with teachers, and identified the following supportive and important teacher behaviours: discussion of non-academic topics with teachers around shared interests, being asked how they are doing each day, and a warm greeting. Our hunch is that senior students have benefited from more opportunities to connect with a larger variety of teachers during their academic career at HSS, and had longer to build these relationships.
The physical learning environment is also a factor. Students prefer and thrive in dynamic environments that showcase student art. Students felt connected to the school when they saw and experienced the art (and work) of current and former students on the walls. When student work was recently removed and/or painted over at HSS, the students were angry and felt betrayed.
Checking: One pleasant and unforeseen consequence of our activities was the number of students who chose to focus on mental health issues in their inquiry projects. Grade 8/9 students engaged in two inquiry projects during the course of the year, and were able to investigate topics or questions of their choice. Many students chose to investigate and accommodate specific mental illnesses, based on personal or family experiences). Others chose to investigate (by conducting surveys, etc.) why some students feel apathetic towards their learning. Still others chose to share how they deal (or could deal) with anxiety. The process succeeded in generating discussions and collaborations in a manner that delivered on the intent of this inquiry, namely, to generate discussion and work towards destigmatizing issues surrounding mental health.
Reflections/Advice: We learned the importance of teacher behaviours in supporting student success. Actively connecting with students and striving to build relationships with them will not only support vulnerable learners, but all learners. This encourages us to use teacher-student connection as a tool. We wonder about ways of building these relationships intentionally. We are more aware of how we design learning spaces, and the importance of exhibiting student work. We are mindful of how non-verbal cues are integral when engaging with vulnerable learners. Our moods and reactions to students affect their learning and engagement. During times of personal stress and school business, we need to engage in personal practices that maintain a commitment to genuine, positive and supportive interactions with students.
A potential direction to take this inquiry next year is around intentionally designing space with students that would enable both academic and non-academic connections to take place. Our next steps are to work at a community level to build student connections and enhance community-based learning opportunities. We plan to collaborate with community groups and Silverthorne Elementary School. Opening up the dialogue around student mental health led to a larger school project, the Community Connections Network (CCN), the goal of which is to bring the community into HSS on a deep and meaningful level.
A recurring cautionary admonition pervading our activities was not to infer too much of what students were thinking or assume too much about what students needed on the basis of what we discovered. This, we realized, is a “blind spot” of teachers who advocate for their students in general. Rather, we needed to remind ourselves a pillar of our project was to create the conditions where student voice and dialogue were maintained, no matter how (to the teacher mind) fantastical or impractical some of the ideas may seem at first glance