Sunday, May 8, 2016

Guest Post: The Power of Connections to Help Our Students Reach Their Aspirations

By Dr. Henry Turner



When Mark Zuckerberg started his book club in 2015 he kicked the year off with Moises Naim's The End of Power: from boardrooms to battlefields and churches and states, why being in charge isn't what it used to be. Naim's general argument is that traditional power systems--such as political, structural, corporate, cultural and even academic--are being challenged by the distribution of power towards smaller and more agile players. Where Clayton Christensen talks about disruption of society, Naim discusses the flattening of power.

One area in Naim's argument that is relevant for us in education is the increase in human connection in our modern world. Naim argues that people are connecting more face to face than ever before and therefore more of them are empowered. An excellent example of the increase connection of teachers is through the development of teacher Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), where educators share and learn with each other to help improve their practice. PLNs can broaden the reach of teacher learning like never before. We should be able to develop the same connections for students as well. Naim states that, "the more contact we have with one another, the greater the extent to which contact breeds aspiration." If this is true, then broadening our students' networks can have a profound impact on helping them learn the pathways of their aspirations.

Disconnected vs Connected

I have never met a student who aspires to have a miserable and unproductive life. But for many of our most disconnected students their aspirations for a better life feel impossible to reach.

Regularly I hear students who skip and fail classes explain that their goal is to go to college. While I'm supportive of our students developing these goals, it also seems that many struggle to grasp the realities – such as attending and passing classes – that are necessary in order to follow the path to reach that goal. Due to this challenge, many of our disconnected students fail to reach their aspirations because the goals seem overwhelming and impossible.

Conversely, many well connected students view college and perhaps graduate school as an inherent and natural next step in their future. These students can articulate clearly the steps that they need to follow in order to attend college they wish to attend, whether these steps include taking honors and AP classes, signing up for SAT prep classes, applying for internships, or participating in service projects. For many of these students the path towards these aspirations feels real because their parents followed the same path. These parents are professional role models for their children

Connecting disconnected students with role models who have achieved their aspirations – such as a college graduate, a doctor, or a teacher – can help them see the path. Here are a few ways that connecting students with each other or with role models can help them find the path to achieve their aspirations.

Tenacity Challenge: Empowering Students Through Connection

Five years ago teachers at Bedford High School, in Bedford, Massachusetts, initiated the Tenacity Challenge as a way to empower African American and Latino students. Geared towards increasing the number of underrepresented groups in Bedford's upper level classes, Tenacity exposes students to rigorous, problem based challenges in a competitive and collaborative environment. Over the past five years Tenacity has grown to include well over 150 students from over 20 Massachusetts high schools. It is truly a powerful experience to watch these students compete and challenge themselves throughout the day. A few years ago the students began asking the organizers to set aside space and time to allow them to connect with each other. So now this event not only challenges them to grow academically but also helps them to establish an affinity group with students throughout Massachusetts.

Through the Tenacity Challenge students have made connections with role models as well. For the competition students are required to interview at least one expert to help them answer the history question. A few years ago a group of students went so far as to interview Lani GuinierElizabeth Warren and two state senators for a project on the Voting Rights Act. Talk about a life changing moment!

The Power of a Student Learning Network

Technology and social media can provide avenues to connect and empower our students to develop their own Student Learning Network (SLN). Organizations such as Black Girls Code have an enormous social media presence to help students create an SLN. Additionally, many professional associations, such as Black Physicists and Wonder Women in Tech have presence on social media to help develop role models and mentors for students. Finally, celebrities, doctors, lawyers, and educators have personal social media accounts to connect with as well.

Think Locally

Social media can help connect students far and wide but there are plenty of experts locally as well. By connecting with local role models, they may learn the path they must pave to reach the goal, such as the courses and internships they should complete in college. Finally, they may also find folks who could support them while they are on this path in the same manner that we rely on our Professional Learning Network. A few years back one of our struggling students met a psychologist through our African-American and Latino cohort program. Listening to the psychologist's life story, and the steps he took to enter this profession, helped this student to find his passion. In a few weeks this student will graduate, enter college and major in psychology.

Here are a few more ways to connect students so they can reach their aspirations:

  1. Develop Mentors – Whether face to face or digitally, help students connect with adults who have accomplished the goals they aspire to reach. Through social media or local networks, connect students with these adults. Sometimes a 140 character tweet with a positive message is all it takes to keep a student on the right track.
  2. Connect Inside and Outside Schools Walls – Connect students who don't typically take classes together through an unleveled class or a club or student organization. Connect students with local professionals in their interested field. Consider reaching out to the Council on Aging or a local university or college. 
  3. Student Learning Networks – Encourage students to build their SLN when they have a chance to engage with peers from other schools. They will benefit in the same way we educators have found power in our PLN.

Conclusion

Naim’s argument is that the shifting of power is partially attributed to the increased connections of people. While there are many ways to analyze this perspective, it is clear that if we connect our students with other people we will empower them to reach their aspirations.


About the Author:
Henry Turner is the principal of Bedford High School in Bedford, MA. During his time as principal, BHS has implemented a 1:1 iPad program, focused on developing critical thinking in all classes, incorporating diverse perspectives and using PLCs as a forum for professional learning. Dr. Turner has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a Masters in Education in History from Framingham State University. Dr. Turner earned his EdD in Education Leadership from Boston College. His dissertation focused on the role of distributed leadership in gaining acceptance of large scale technology initiatives. In July he will transition to be principal of Newton North High School. You can find him on Twitter at @turnerhj or his blog principalhenryturner.blogspot.com.