In the first quarter of this school year, which has just ended, Regional School Unit 71 (Belfast, Swanville, Searsmont, Belmont and Morrill) launched “PD Fridays.” PD stands for professional development, which teachers, support staff and administrators engage in together every Friday afternoon when students are released from school.
One of the instructional practices we’ve been learning about and working on in the first quarter involves teachers designing instruction such that students may share their learning with various audiences beyond the classroom. The inclusion of an audience in the design of instruction has been shown to spur student motivation and elicit deeper engagement and purpose in the undertaking of meaningful and rigorous work.
District staff have been working out of a book entitled Leaders of Their Own Learning: How to Transform Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment by Ron Berger et al, along with its just published Leaders of Their Own Learning Companion Guide.
We all know about the enthusiasm generated by athletic teams, choral and instrumental concerts, drama club productions, art exhibits, technical education projects, science olympiads, math meets, science fairs and the like. Part of what elicits such passionate engagement and hard work on the part of students is the knowledge that there are real stakes in the form of a real audience that will be giving them feedback of one kind or another. A public audience will bear witness to the quality of their work (or lack thereof) — will see for themselves the results of students’ practice and hard work. The crowds in the stands, on the sidelines and in the audience add kinetic energy and excitement for the students in the spotlight of attention — not only during live performances but also during practices and rehearsals that are preparations for the real thing.
We believe that students’ intensity of engagement and urgency of purpose could become more of the norm in day-to-day academic activities. A diagram in chapter six of the book posits a “hierarchy of audience” theory that the more high stakes the audience the more engaging and motivating the school work.
This year we aim to have 100% of our students do at least one “student-led” parent-teacher conference. We also aim to have 100% of our K- 12 students participate in a Celebration of Learning this spring. Mark your calendars for the Belfast Area High School Celebration of Learning on Friday, April 17 (presentations in the humanities in the morning and presentations in math, science and technology in the afternoon). Dates in our seven other school sites will be announced in late winter.
Here I’d like to publicly thank those community partners who have worked hard to help our children and young adults succeed. Last year at this time in an article entitled “You’re Invited,” I announced a supper-hour book study on Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough that was open to the public. Many members of the community and I enjoyed wide-ranging conversation over pizza and salad. I thank these individuals for their commitment to helping our students succeed.
I’d also like to publicly thank the many community partners who have stepped up to offer special enrichment programs for students on PD Fridays afternoons. The Game Loft runs after school programming every day and opens its door early on PD Fridays. The Waldo County Y started a new after-school program at Ames Elementary School, serving students in the tri-town The Waldo Y has a long history of offering after-school programming to middle school students daily and has also opened its doors early on PD Fridays. Waterfall Arts is offering a fabulous Art Club at CASS on PD Fridays. The Belfast Free Library is offering special programming on Friday afternoons and has a long history of providing special courses and events. The Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition has been offering fascinating programs to students during vacation weeks. The Cornerstone Montessori School offers a Friday afternoon Nature Series. And Kids Unplugged offers a program on PD Fridays. Bank of America volunteers are teaching chess to students and have long offered students free Junior Achievement Classes. On behalf of RSU # 71 staff, students and families I extend heartfelt gratitude to all these organizations!
Finally, I’d like to lift up and recognize the educators who are already exposing students to a variety of audiences. We are very lucky to have such a dedicated and talented workforce across the school district. My next article, during the second quarter of this school year, will give examples of rigorous learning that has culminated in sharing with audiences beyond the classroom. In late January we will also be premiering a TV show entitled RSU 71 Students Shine featuring the teaching and learning of students and staff across our district. Stay Tuned!
Mary Alice McLean is superintendent of RSU 71 (Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville)