We All Win Together: Met Graduates Reflect on Advisories

Rich with ideas, opinions, and passions, advisories are a place to get feedback, to try out new ideas, to learn, and to teach. As teams focused on a common goal-learning and life success for everyone in the group-advisories at the Met redefine what it means to teach and learn. Advisories go beyond forced groups in which individuals relate to each other in predetermined roles of either student or teacher. Instead, advisories are communities of people who come together, appreciate, and learn from each other regardless of age, background, and interests.

During 2004’s summer months, Kristin Waugh-Hempel and Chris Hempel, both advisors for four years at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) in Providence, Rhode Island, talked with seven of their now-graduated advisees about the centrality of advisories at the Met and the impact of their advisory’s relationships and connections. In this article, Waugh-Hempel, now the Met’s Learning Through Internships (LTI) director, and Hempel, now a Met principal, present excerpts from this reunion conversation along with their own reflections on their experience as the group’s advisors.

KRISTIN: Before we begin talking about the role advisories play in learning, could you describe what an advisory is?

TAKESHA: An advisory is a group of people who come together to make decisions and to discuss things, like a family where people learn from each other’s experiences and who come together for a purpose-to help each other-because we were all trying to graduate.

ALEX: You feel that your opinion is respected. So is your race, where you come from, things that are part of your culture. You feel like you can bring them into the advisory and feel comfortable and safe there. Advisories are about relationship building through discussion. Sometimes you can have conflicts in there, but the advisor is there to help everyone learn from the conflicts. Sometimes we had conflicts that were very, very heated, and we had to learn how to control our anger or our emotions. How do you start growing as a person? The advisor is there for that. And the advisory is very helpful in teaching you that.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) began in September 1996 as a bold new school with high standards, and strong family engagement. By 2005 the Met will house 120 students at each of its six small schools throughout Providence. The Met is a community school that provides programs after school and in the evenings, and allows community access to its facilities including a state-of-the-art athletic center and track, a performance center, a culinary kitchen, a technology center, and a school-based health center.

At the Met, each student works with an advisor, a parent or guardian, and a workplace mentor to design a personalized curriculum based on the student’s interests. Students work at internships in community businesses and organizations two days each week, learning academic skills through real-world problem solving. The Met aims to empower students to take charge of their learning, gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve success beyond high school, and to become life-long learners. For much more about the Met, visit www.metcenter.org.

TAKESHA: You were with people that you cared about and there were things they were passionate about, so you learned. We just basically learned from each other, passing on everything. Some of it started by passing on information about common interests, whether it was music or shopping or video games, but then it became about STDs and aerodynamics and graphic design. It just happened all the time. It was sort of like the joy that everybody got from seeing you at your best. You wanted to learn because everybody liked what you were teaching or you saw that everybody was proud of you.

ALEX: You go to your peers’ exhibitions and they blow you away with what they’ve learned and accomplished or with their self-reflection and goal setting. And it feels like it’s not just the advisor giving you feedback, so you realize that your peers are seeing what is going on with you. Their feedback helps you understand when a project really comes together and how to finish it and how you can use it to help the community or the school.

Reflections from Kristin and Chris
One year, we had a guest speaker come in to the school to discuss how the actual events of the first Thanksgiving differed dramatically from the myths perpetuated by American society. The speaker went to great lengths to differentiate the “His-Story” of Thanksgiving related by the white man from the truth of the actual event. He explained that the “truth” about Thanksgiving is merely a romanticized version of the event meant to gloss over the decimation of Native Americans. Yet rather than ending with the point that history is ultimately a collection of perspectives, he substituted one truth for another equally distorted “truth,” thereby displaying his bias. The advisory discussion that ensued was memorable due to the students’ intense historical identification as aggressors or aggrieved. In the hour, we ventured far beyond the issue of historical accuracy to talk about the history of our countries of origin and the negative impact of colonization, about the role white men have historically played in documenting important world events and the impact that has had on others. This discussion launched us on a month-long learning journey through issues ranging from economic inequality to cultural identification.

CHRIS: What role, if any, do you think that an advisor has in creating a communal learning environment?

TAKESHA: They serve as a liaison, finding common passions. An advisor is like someone who is the head of the group, but doesn’t necessarily act like the head of the group. It’s someone who participates in the group and is there for structure and guidance. I see an advisor like a teacher in wisdom, but not really like the teachers in regular high schools who I see more as supervisors. Advisors are more like coaches and less like supervisors who tell you what to do and how to do it and if you don’t do it their way, then you get in trouble.

Reflections from Kristin and Chris
Creating a thoughtful learning environment in advisory takes a lot of preparation. Advisors identify and adapt to the dynamics of the group as they empower students to take charge of their learning. We spent a great deal of time nurturing leadership in the advisory so students felt comfortable taking over and teaching each other. It is critical to have thoughtfully planned formal and informal activities in various configurations designed to “cross-pollinate” and build connections and trust between students. We would appoint student co-facilitators to organize and run advisory, to create guiding questions for books we read together, to plan camping trips and afternoon excursions.

KRISTIN: So, did you just walk into the Met and automatically have that relationship with your advisor?

TAKESHA: No, I think it was easier because we talked. In traditional high schools, you don’t really talk to your teachers. Here, the teachers stay after, they come earlier, they call your house, they talk to your parents. You know them because they make themselves known. Before I even stepped in the classroom, you had called me. I know that the conversation we had was about the book that I was reading, about the Salem Witch Trials. I asked you about what you liked and about your nationality because I thought your name was “Wah.” So we had a conversation.

CHRIS: Do you feel that the fact that you knew who your advisor was and she knew who you were encouraged you to learn somehow?

TAKESHA: Yeah, it made it easier because in life sometimes you have good times and sometimes you have bad times. If you have a relationship with someone who knows you and knows how you act and knows if you’re acting out of character and knows how to talk to you, then they can help you. Just you knowing me as an individual helped me get through high school. I know that all the stuff that I went through during high school, that a normal teenager goes through during high school, can keep you from doing your best. And there are a lot of students who don’t have somebody who helps them at home and probably don’t have somebody who helps them at school, so that’s probably why a lot of kids don’t finish. If they get sidetracked, they don’t have anybody who’s going to stop what they’re doing to help them.

Some thoughts from Met parent Ann Rule. Rule’s son Matthew McCormick is in his senior year at the Met.

My son is a bright young man whose struggles with learning presented a challenge to an antiquated “one size fits all” educational system. Countless times in middle school, I would see him become overwhelmed, frustrated, and giving up. The teaching strategies used at the Met meet his needs. He sets learning goals with plenty of advice and guidance from people who are part of his learning team. He is then expected to be responsible and accountable for meeting those goals. Most of all, any struggles in meeting these goals are not seen as failures but rather learning experiences that are reassessed and new strategies are developed constantly building on what he has learned.

His advisory is a place where all students are respected for their skills and interests. My son not only learns academic skills in a meaningful context, but he is also learning life skills which enable him to develop mutually respectful relationships, give and take constructive criticism, handle both the positive and negative consequences of his decisions, and be a contributing member of a larger community.

The Met is a place where parents work closely with teachers. Raising a teenager is a difficult struggle. I now feel I have a community of people helping me. His advisor and even school administrators really know him. Family involvement is so deeply embedded in the culture of the school that my relationship with my son flourishes.

For my son, the world is his classroom and his advisor helps him structure his learning into manageable increments. He is acquiring the skills to be a “life long learner.” He is being taught to learn and consequently learns what he is taught.

Reflections from Kristin and Chris
A very bright and academically gifted student arrived at the Met a year behind her age group due to severe bouts of depression that would often go unchecked for months. During the depressive periods, she was chronically tardy and often fell hopelessly behind her peers on internships, projects, and advisory assignments, rebuffing any attempts to make a connection between attendance and success. Yet she kept coming to school and, when there, was able to complete weeks of work in short order. We tried desperately to get her into counseling to mitigate her cyclical bouts of depression with little support from her family. When we felt that all hope was lost, she wrote a letter that ended: I want to succeed, go to college through way of high school diploma. I know you’re trying to help me, and I ask you, though I shouldn’t, for just one thing more: to keep asking me what you can do to help. Whereas I would feel horrible for you to drive out to my house every morning and harass me into school…or even to call me every morning, it’s a good idea. That doesn’t mean I agree to it, I’m just saying thank you for offering; it means I know, at least, the limit you’ll go to. I don’t even really want to ask you for help but I suppose, if you keep offering, I just might get brave enough.

KRISTIN: Did the fact that your relationship with your advisor was more “human-to-human” than “teacher-to-student” ever get in the way with either your relationship with your advisor or with your relationships with the students around you?

ALEX: I think a lot has to do with how the advisor starts it off, comes in, sets the tone, sets the expectations of the advisory from the beginning, and sticks with them. “I am here to be your friend, but I am also your teacher and we have a job to do. My job is to help you academically, but also to help make sure that you meet your potential and that you reach all the goals you have for yourself.” And advisors also help the students figure out who they are.

RAMON: I think also that having a relationship with a teacher makes a difference. I wouldn’t skip school because I knew you would wonder why I wasn’t there today. At other schools, if you don’t go to school, nobody cares. And if you don’t know what’s going on in class, sometimes the teachers don’t take the time to explain it.

JESSE: I think that’s a good point about having such a close bond with your teacher. I did more because I was close with my teacher. For example, at my old school it was all about, okay, what can I do and not do. If I could fake a signature, I could be out for two days. Here, Kristin would call me. “Where are you? What’s going on?”

JOE: I think every teenager, no matter who you are, has some kind of emotional baggage. I can’t imagine any kid that doesn’t. Some have more than others, but a lot of times it’s too difficult for kids to deal with it at home and to talk to their family about it, because a lot of times, family is right involved in that baggage. But if you have a place that you can go to and feel comfortable enough to talk about it, then that makes you want to go there. And if you set up that environment where the kid is comfortable coming in there and talking about it, then that is the reason the kid is coming to school. Because most of the time when a kid isn’t coming to school, it’s because they have an issue, they have emotional baggage but they have nowhere to go, so they say, “Let me stay home by myself.”

CHRIS: So what would you say if a teacher said, “You know what, I’m not trained to do that. That is not what I am most effective at. I was trained to be a historian; I was trained to be a math teacher. I am not a social worker: I am not a guidance counselor.”

JESSE: I think the reason it works so well is because they’re not trained for it, somehow. It’s a lot more realistic and it made me a lot more trusting. Like whenever I talked to a guidance counselor, I just could see what he was trained to respond with. And I think that what makes you a good teacher is dealing with you as a person and not as something they’ve read about and are dealing with on a case study basis. Instead, they’re just interacting with you. Even if it doesn’t go as well as it would have otherwise, I felt like it was a real bond instead of “work.”

JOE: When someone sits down with you and says, “You know, these are the things that troubled me when I was at this stage, these are the issues I ran into. This is how I dealt with this then, and maybe it wasn’t the best way to deal with it, or maybe it was.” Being reflective and being able to express that to the students is very helpful. When an advisor is open about the experiences that they had, it allows the student to be reflective and to think, “Other people have gone through similar things. And they were able to get through it. And look at them today-they were able to get past that.” That’s very important to a teenager.

ELISSA: You know, being in a regular high school, for every little wrong thing that you do, the school automatically either punishes you or calls the cops or calls your parents. What’s good about you guys is that you try to figure out the problem behind the behavior; you’d sit down and talk about it and figure out the problem. So you personally try to figure out with the kid what the problem is instead of just calling someone else to punish the kid and that’s the end of that. Instead, you actually fix the problem by going behind the problem.

ALEX: You also value student voice. And that’s the most important thing-I mean if you don’t value the voice, you’re not going to get far. You have to stop and listen. I mean you can disagree, but you can say, “Okay, let’s figure this out.” We had to learn to work with each other as people, not because one of us had authority or power.

KRISTIN: What role did your advisor play in your learning?

TAKESHA: I’d say that you served as guidance. I always think of it as guidance because you never really did the work, but you helped me to do the work. So I’d say you knew what I was interested in, you knew my passions, so it was easier for you to help guide me. You’d see something about a book or a conference or a program that brought my interests together in new ways or would build on an interest and expose me to something new and you would encourage me to check it out. And you also saw things that I didn’t know I was really interested in. So you weren’t just connecting the obvious stuff. And you’d use those things to get me to work on things that I hated, like math. Just sitting back and watching what I’m doing on my own, not telling me what I have to do, but reminding me of my goals and showing me the choices I have about how to get there and showing me when I’m making a choice that isn’t helping me toward those goals.

CHRIS: Did you ever feel like there was competition among people in the advisory?

JOE: Well, not in a bad way. It was the kind of competition that made you want to do well. Once somebody had a success, everybody was happy and proud. It was healthy. Seeing somebody try hard made you try hard, which made the next person try even harder, so everybody was becoming successful at the same time. So it wasn’t like competition against each other. It was like a marathon race where I pass the baton to you and you come in fast and then the next person comes in faster and then next person comes in faster, but at the end if we win, then we all win together. That’s what it was like.

KRISTIN: Is there anything else you think is important, something that you would want people to know about advisories and that you think people should know before becoming an advisor?

TAKESHA: If you’re going to be an advisor, don’t necessarily come in and think that you’re going to run it, that you’re going to be the one teaching. Because little do you know: you might actually learn more from the people you’re teaching than what you actually intended to teach them. When we were in your class, you probably didn’t know a lot about horses, and I know you didn’t know a lot about medicine, but through me having a passion for medicine and Elissa having a passion for horses, you learned more. You automatically assume, “I’m going to teach them English, I’m going to teach them math, I’m going to teach them science.” And you came out knowing about Cape Verde and being Cape Verdian, about the history of Cambodia and what it’s like to be Asian, about being half black-half white. Those are just things that you normally wouldn’t know. And then you don’t know that when you get in there, you are actually going to have family, how much everyone is going to mean to you, how attached you are going to get. It’s not a nine-to-five day because at five o’clock if there is someone who really needs you, would you rather walk away from someone who is becoming like your family or would you rather stay till six or seven because that’s just what you have to do? So, know that it is not going to always be like you intend. Structure is good; you can plan to talk about panda bears from nine to five, but know that we might not even talk about panda bears because something else came up, and that’s okay. A schedule helps you, but it’s not always going to be what you want and it’s not how you should make your decisions. If you’re willing to run an advisory, you have to be willing to deal with whatever comes with it.

CHRIS: I’m curious about what it has been like for you at college, how what you learned at the Met affected your college experience.

TAKESHA: When I got to college, I made a point to get to know my professors and so they got to know me. I did go to a small college because I knew that I liked small schools. Coming from the Met and being an independent learner made it easier. I already knew about scheduling my time; I knew how to multitask and set priorities; I knew what my learning style was and what I needed in order to learn best; I knew how to learn from those around me. And I figured that out through learning at the Met, through learning on my own and learning with somebody guiding me. So it was easier for me to talk to an adult and tell them what I didn’t understand and what I needed and how I learn. I had already learned how to learn, period.

A final reflection from Kristin and Chris
How can you truly hold students to high standards without knowing the extent to which they are capable of reaching or exceeding them? As an advisor, you have to know your students, know what motivates them, know their warning signs, know their limits. But to reach that point of familiarity, you have to be willing to know yourself and be open to your struggles. Being a good advisor takes tremendous humility and a willingness to let go of your locus of control as a teacher, as a purveyor of knowledge. If you present a fa?ade of perfection, your students will never bridge that chasm of distrust and of silence and become engaged learners who are honest about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they want to know. And as educators, isn’t that what we want? Students who are excited about learning and who understand themselves as knowers and doers who take every interaction, every success, and every disappointment as an opportunity for mental and emotional growth.

Related Resource

“Sustained Relationships,” a section of “Succeeding Together at the Met: An Online Portfolio,” produced by What Kids Can Do, details the relationships and connections among advisors, students, mentors and parents. Find it online at www.whatkidscando.org/portfoliosmallschools/MET/Sustained.html

Kristin Waugh-Hempel graduated from Swarthmore College in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education and Sociology/Anthropology. Her Bachelor’s thesis was on parental involvement in education. She was an advisor at The Met from 1998-2002 and her students are now in colleges and jobs throughout the East Coast. After her students graduated, Kristin became an LTI (Learning Through Internship) Coordinator, working with two of the six small Met schools in Providence to identify student interests, recruit mentors, and build educationally rich internship experiences. Now in her seventh year at The Met, Kristin is the Director of the LTI Program and oversees the LTI process for all six Providence Met schools. She will receive her Master’s of Educational Psychology this November. Her Master’s thesis was on learning through internships.

Chris Hempel graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Connecticut in 1992. Soon afterwards he became a youth counselor for adjudicated youth in Litchfield, Connecticut. He received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University in 1995. In 1996, he joined the Met as one of the original advisors. He brought to the Met not his training as a social studies teacher along with experience as an Outward Bound instructor. Since his students graduated in June 2000, he has continued to work with The Met and the Big Picture Company, first as the Curriculum Coordinator and Quantitative Reasoning Specialist and then as an Aspiring Principal. In 2002, he became principal of one of the six small Met schools in Providence.

Student Bios

Takesha Lopes, from a Cape Verdian family, recently graduated from Dean College with her Associates degree in Criminal Justice. While at Dean, she was a Resident Assistant and the president of her class. In the fall of 2004, Takesha enrolled at Providence College as a junior.

Alex Rivera immigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico just before entering junior-high school. He is the oldest male of nine children. After gradating from the Met, he completed an Outdoor Leadership Program at Green Mountain Community College and has worked at the Met ever since. He enrolled last year at Vermont College and plans to complete his BA by 2007 as a first-generation college-bound student.

Ramon Frias transferred to the Met during his junior year from Providence’s Central High School. He grew up in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States at the age of eight. After graduating from the Met, he has taken on various part-time and full-time positions. Among the first in his family to pursue higher education, Ramon recently enrolled in Vermont College full-time and is working as a teacher’s assistant at the Met.

Joe Claprood, deciding to put his education before his socialization, attended the Met after growing up in North Providence amidst a tight knit group of friends and family. After graduating, he enrolled at Rhode Island College where he has been on the Dean’s List numerous times. As a first-generation college-bound student, Joe will be graduating in the fall of 2004 with a BA in political science.

Jesse Suchmann is entering his junior year as a design student at Syracuse University, where he has not only maintained a top ranking in his highly competitive class but has also been a teacher’s assistant during his sophomore year. Jesse is hoping to use his talent and education as a graphic artist to work towards positive social change.

Elissa Toro has continued to follow her passion for riding horses. Certain that she wants a future in animal care or research, she is currently managing a local stable while attending community college and deciding on a college or career program to achieve her life goals.

Also in conversation though not represented here was Cynthia Tapia, who came from Peru with her family just before entering junior high. During junior high, she was segregated into a Spanish-only classroom and had very little connection with the English-speaking community. After graduating from the Met, she got married and gave birth to a baby boy while continuing to work towards her Associates degree.