Giving the Kids the Keys: An Advisory Plan that Involves Students in Setting Standard

by Bill Johnson, National Re:Learning Faculty

Just as a learner’s permit allows students to develop the skills of driving under the tutelage of a responsible adult, this advisory curriculum gives them a framework in which they take gradual responsibility for their own success a system of performance tasks, initially in a coached and guided environment, but finally on their own. Students can be handed the keys to their own future, encouraged to investigate and reflect on what their schooling is about and prove themselves in the “road test” of a graduation exhibition. It is an “inside out” strategy for change, in which students and teachers collaborate to systematically investigate topics that question the nature of schooling??its patterns, its connections, its disciplines.

Since the advisory program is not in the purview of any one department or discipline, it is the ideal setting for such inquiry and reflection. It can draw methods, styles, and activities from all the disciplines, putting knowledge from content area courses to use. The advisory becomes a place where students analyze, evaluate, and synthesize their discipline-based course work, looking for connections between courses and content areas, seeing how the knowledge applies or transfers to other (“real-world”) situations, and so on. At the same time, they develop awareness of the school’s exit outcomes and the requirements of the graduation exhibition. In the advisory students weekly practice demonstrating the concepts identified in the exit outcomes through inquiry, activity, and assessments.

The framework has four components:

    1. A series of proposed topics and/or themes.
    2. Essential questions designed to provoke collaborative inquiry by students and teachers, driving the program forward and focused on constructing knowledge.
    3. An activities “menu” from which advisory groups can pick and choose how they want to investigate ideas and pursue essential questions.
    4. Assessments connected to the activities pushing the inquiry deeper and requiring students to reflect critically and demonstrate understanding.

The framework divides into four five-topic sequences, each of which can be the advisory curriculum during one school year. Each topic extends over four to eight meetings encompassing a minimum of 200 minutes; depending on the advisory group schedule, the sequence can be completed over a semester or a full year.

In the ninth-grade sequence, students explore systems, patterns, and connections in an academic context and begin to investigate what the school’s stated exit outcomes (such as “complex thinker” and “effective communicator”) might look like. In the tenth-grade sequence, they continue investigating outcomes (such as “involved citizen,” “self-directed achiever,” and “collaborative contributor”), and they take a first look at the purposes of the graduation exhibition for which they will prepare during the years ahead. The eleventh-grade sequence examines the curriculum itself and begins to devise performance standards in each area. (An example follows.) The twelfth-grade sequence focuses on the graduation exhibition, generating performance standards in research and writing, preparing and presenting a proposal, creating a visual and oral component, working with a mentor, and using a peer critique team. The final semester of senior year is devoted to carrying out the graduation exhibition in a timely manner so that it meets the standards agreed upon. A sample unit in the eleventh-grade sequence:

The Purpose and Nature of the Disciplines: Language Arts, Social Studies, and Foreign Languages

Essential Questions:
How does language limit and liberate people?
What can be learned about a culture by simply studying its language?
Are social sciences really “science”?
What is the significance of studying “the history of [any language, culture, etc.]”?

Each of two student groups will conduct a timed debate (in a “fishbowl” setting) for the other group. Group members will divide into “pro” and “con” positions for each of the issues raised by the Essential Questions (e.g., “Language does liberate people vs. Language does limit people”; “Little/much is learned about a culture from studying its language”). Each group will critique the other’s arguments.

For a complete description of this advisory curriculum contact Bil Johnson, Education Dept., Box 1938, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912 (tel.:   401-863-3116    401-863-3116 ).