Sunday, December 11, 2011

Academic Advising vs. Scheduling

In looking back on my own high-school career, I remember the few times I had interactions with my guidance counselor.  She was definitely ahead of her time, wearing pastel-colored velour warm-up suits as "work wear," long before J-Lo and Juicy Couture made this look popular.  I would see her around once or twice a year, when she would tell me what classes I would be taking the following year, and then proceeded to plug them into a computer system which would generate a schedule.  The only other time I saw her was when she handed me back my ACT scores, said they looked good, and asked me if I was thinking of applying to college.  When I answered that I was, she lifted up her powder-blue velvetesque arm and pointed in the direction of a shelf groaning with the weight of large books about various colleges.  She said I could look through those whenever I wanted to get some ideas.

This, my friends, is what I call "scheduling."  And perhaps also "guiding." And by guiding I really mean "pointing."

Scheduling involves no in-depth conversation.  Scheduling is not about looking at the whole student--their academic life, extra-curricular life, family life, and future goals and aspirations.  It is about circling classes on a piece of paper and entering them robotically into a computer.  As modern day "school counselors," we have been highly trained in strong counseling practice.  Scheduling takes none of this specialized knowledge.

"Academic Advising," however, does.  What is the difference?

In academic advising, you are having a dynamic and collaborative interaction with your student. You are examining data from a variety of sources.  You are looking at the student from a variety of vantage points--school, after school, family and home, etc.  You are examining how the classes your student is planning on taking is going to help them meet their future goals.  You are making informed choices with your students and their families versus dictating the outcome.

As counselors, we spend a lot of time with academic advising.  I know that in my school, it takes up the greater part of February and March.  When I first began working as a school counselor, I was concerned because I felt that "scheduling" students for classes was not an activity that was going to best utilize my counseling skills.  I quickly learned that if done in a holistic way, "academic advising" is a process in which you are asking questions in order to gain information in a way to best help your client make important short-term decisions leading to a long-term goal.  Further, these sessions have proven to be an excellent "touch base" time with my students to discover other issues that may need to be addressed.  A student with a sudden downturn in their grades can often turn out to be the student whose family is on the brink of divorce, who has recently suffered a loss, or who is beginning to show signs of depression.  How do you make academic advising valuable for your students and for you?
  • Make sure that students are informed before they come into your office.  How are students getting information about the classes that are open to them for the following year?  Do you have curriculum fairs and/or curriculum nights?  Do you put information up virtually about course-offering for both parents and students?  Do you meet with your students in large groups to discuss typical course choices and options?  What information is made available to your students about how challenging the more rigorous AP and IB courses will be--the level of textbook, the amount of homework per night?  We have a curriculum fair at my current school, and as that program has expanded over the last several years, I find that many of my students come in making better informed choices about advanced curriculum and electives.  Further, in our large-group orientation meetings, we ask them to consider their course selections within the context of their whole lives, and again I find that I have more students who walk in having given this some thought.
  • Gather the data and check for graduation requirements.  What do I have on hand when I am meeting with students?  I have their transcripts including the most recent grades I can get in their current classes as well as their GPA's.  I have teacher recommendations.  My school system has open-enrollment, so the students do not need a teacher recommendation to get into a class as long as they have any required pre-requisite classes.  However, the thoughts of a current teacher about the student's success in the next level of class are a highly valuable piece of information during these discussions.  For example, if a child is getting a "D+" in Algebra 1, is this because the student doesn't understand the material or is it because they don't do any of the homework?  Different answers would lead me to recommend different choices for the future.  I also have all of the course information available to me to double-check any questions that may arise.  I have access to test-score data--how a student performed on a state end-of-course exam can give you important insight.  Additionally, I am always looking to see if they are on track for graduation, paying special attention when they are going into their senior year.  I would highly recommend developing a form, either one that your school uses or one for yourself, which you can review on your own and with your students to make sure those requirements are being fulfilled.  If they are missing courses, that will inform some of what they will need to take the next year.
  • Ask a lot of questions.  Why do they want to take particular courses?  What else is going on in their lives?  If a student is working 30 hours a week, they may not have the time to do the work necessary to keep up with six AP classes.  Likewise, if they are doing football in the fall, they may find their first AP history class to be a bit overwhelming as they try to balance an intense practice schedule with the reading and note-taking.  Is there a lot of change going on at home?  Having this information will give you a view of the student as a whole and thus allow you to better advise on how various class choices will fit into the complete picture.
  • Confront and challenge choices.  If they have gone to the curriculum fair and had discussions with their families, many of them will come in with very realistic course selections.  Some of them, though, will not.  A student who is struggling to make C's and D's in regular classes wants to take two AP classes next year.  A student who has never gotten more than a C in science classes and who is always in your office complaining about them suddenly wants to take three in their senior year.  The student who makes straight A's in AP and Honors classes now wants to take all regular classes their senior year.  One of the things we are trained to do as counselors is to point out the contradictions in our client's statements and actions--this is no different.  I do point these out to students and express my concern--you've never made more than a C in a regular level class and you want to take AP next year?  How is next year going to be different?  What are you going to change?  You've been an A student in challenging classes for three years and now you want to take all regular classes--how is that going to look to colleges?  I will often call the parents of the child during these sessions and include them in the conversation if I feel that this is really not in the student's best interests.  Now is a time to share more information--the level of rigor of the classes, what will happen if the class isn't working out, your school's schedule change policy, what college admissions counselors are looking for.  With open enrollment, ultimately the choice is left up to the student and the family, but by confronting and challenging some of the choices the student makes, you are helping to begin a dialogue about the situation and better inform everyone about the pros and cons of these decisions.
  • Tie their courses and academic performance into future goals.  From the time that they are in 7th grade through 12th grade, it is important to work with them on how the choices they make now will effect the choices they have when they graduate from high school.  Further, their course selection can often help them towards future goals.  If a student is convinced that they have to go to a highly-selective college like the University of Virginia, then they need to be taking multiple AP or IB classes and performing at the top of their game in these classes.  If a student has a strong interest in culinary arts or information technology or cosmetology, are their classes that they can take to further those interests and give them real-world skills and possibly certifications to take with them when they graduate?  If they want to be an engineer, are they taking the upper level math and physics courses that will help them when they set foot onto a college campus?  One of our roles is to help them begin to connect what they do now with what they will do in the future.
  • Connect them with resources and more information.  For students who are first-generation college students, are their programs within your school system that they should be made aware of to support them?  If they are struggling with loss and grief, is there a group at your school that they could be referred to?  If your school has a program to encourage minority students to sign up for advanced coursework, are you making those students aware of it?   If they are 11th graders, do they know how to register for the ACT and SAT?  What if they ask about prep programs?  A student wants to know more about gap years--where do they go?  You have 9th graders who need more support with study skills--what is available?  By no means can you have all the answers to all of their questions or be able to give direct services to the many needs that your students will have, but there are probably many other resources in your school and greater community to assist.  Having many of those at hand--flyers, a list, resource book, etc.--will help to connect students in need with further assistance.  
One of our primary missions as school counselors is to remove barriers to academic success.  As such, it is important to self-assess to determine if you may have preconceived notions as a school counselor about various cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic groups that could be a barrier to students' academic success.  If so, seek out supervision from your director or a counseling supervisor, or perhaps even your own therapy to address these concerns.

These academic advising sessions help us to determine if there are barriers so that we can help students and families eliminate or work around them.  With some advanced planning, access to data, and a list of resources, we can do a lot more than simply "schedule" students.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Parent Portals: Friend or Foe?

In last Sunday's Washington Post, an article ran about resistance to the "parent portal" from a school in Arlington County, Virginia.  The "parent portal" has many different names in school districts across the country, but basically it is a system wherein parents, students, and counselors can go online and see a relatively up-to-the-minute grade report for a student in each of their classes.  As the article points out, there are several different views that stakeholders take of this technology.  Students sometimes feel that it it involves their parents too much in their day-to-day academic lives--if they forget to turn in one assignment or do poorly on one test their parents may focus more on an isolated incident than on a larger picture of success over the long-term in a class.  Further, they feel that there is an:
"...inherent contradiction in a school that preaches personal accountability but gives parents uninhibited access to their grades and test scores." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Teachers can have mixed reactions--some feel that it prevents surprises and keeps parents more informed about how their child is performing, thus helping to start and support communication if a student is struggling.  Others are concerned about possibly unrealistic expectations on teachers for quick turnarounds in grading assignments:
"We have parents who want to know exactly how their children did on a test immediately after they take it,” said Wanda Perkins, president of the Arlington Education Association, which represents teachers. “At a certain point, it becomes too much pressure on the teacher and the student." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)

Parents, on the whole, seem to be fairly supportive.  In the Post article, an Arlington County spokesman states:
"This is a way for parents to see how their child is progressing beyond parent-teacher conferences and report cards.  Students need independence, but they also need support.” (source:  www.washingtonpost.com)
Further, as this article from Education World discusses, there is a view that if parents are kept more up-to-date on their child's academic performance and attendance in school, they are more able to support instruction from home.

I worked in a school system as a teacher that had a "parent portal."  There were definitely pros and cons.  As a teacher, I updated grades at least once a week, but oftentimes on a daily basis.  There was a time, though, where, because of my schedule (I was split between two schools preparing winter concerts) I did not enter grades for a week and a half.  A parent called my administrator and I received an e-mail admonishing me for not updating my grades in a timely manner.  I was able to explain the situation at hand, but with this technology comes a commitment to keep up with grading and postings.  The school system I was in ultimately set a policy of putting in a certain number of grades per week, which was helpful as it laid out for the entire community what the expectations were--teachers, parents, students alike.  On the whole, though, as a teacher I felt this technology was highly beneficial--students and parents always knew where they stood in my class, and personally I always welcomed when a parent called or e-mailed with questions or concerns about a certain assignment or grade.  It allowed us to come up with a solution and a strategy as a team to help their child get back on track.

I also did my school-counseling internship in the same system, and as a counselor I found the "parent portal" to be invaluable.  I ran a 9th grade Study Skills group for boys, and as a counselor was able to access the portal for all of the students in my group.  One of the reasons that I felt the group was successful was that I was able to print out a grade report for each of my students in all of their classes each week.  If we think about where middle and high school students are developmentally, they are primarily still in the "here-and-now" with regards to the orientation of time.  They neither look back a great deal to reflect on what they have done, nor do they think ahead too much for future consequences.  As such, many of them are genuinely unaware of just how many assignments they may have missed or just how much a low test grade has effected their overall performance in a class.  I found that being able to go over these reports with the students allowed them to take some personal responsibility and helped facilitate weekly discussions as to how they could improve.  We used this information as one of several tools to help them examine their study habits more closely and effect change over several months.  In the end, the group was highly successful and the students were able to improve a great deal and reduce their number of failing grades over the course of an academic quarter.

I think this is ultimately the answer that bridges the gap between concerns that these portals inhibit students from developing successful independent academic habits and the fact that they are a useful tool that help parents, teachers, counselors, and students develop a network of support around individual students.  As counselors, we can work with students and their families to learn how to use the information from the "parent portals" as a tool for academic success, building independence and strong academic habits, which in turn will help to support the educators in our buildings.

I'd welcome other thoughts on this topic--feel free to post a comment below.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Open Letter to NBC and "The Sing Off"

I love the television program, "The Sing Off."  Love may not be an adequate enough word, actually.  Perhaps "I am obsessed with 'The Sing Off'" or "I weep silent tears of darkness into my pillow if the DVR fails to record 'The Sing Off'"are better statements.  As a former choral/vocal music educator and a current professional ensemble singer, I am thrilled to tune in each week to a program that celebrates strong a cappella ensemble singing.  Nowhere else in mass-market media will you find this, and I am thrilled that NBC is willing to shine a light on this genre of music.

However, I am also a school counselor who works with high-school students on a day-to-day basis.  The issue of bullying within our schools is currently receiving a great deal of public attention.  Thus, I was very glad to see that the vocal group, Pentatonix, decided to work with The Trevor Project.  For those of us familiar with the organization and the issues of bullying and harassment, we know:
"The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth." (source: www.trevorproject.org)
This statement is at the very top of the homepage of "The Trevor Project," and quite clearly states that its services are geared towards LGBTQ youth.  Yet, when the segment was aired showing "Pentatonix" visiting and working with "The Trevor Project," there was no mention at all of the fact that the organization works with this very specific population.  The reason that an organization like "The Trevor Project" exists is because the adolescent LGBTQ community is at a higher risk of bullying and harassment.  In the 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network):
  • 9.1% of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30.0% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0% and 6.7%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.1%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. 
  • 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (source:  2009 National School Climate Survey at www.glsen.org)
Further, there have been multiple suicides/violent incidences in the last several years involving bullied and harassed gay youth--Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer, and Larry King are but three names amongst many that have lost their lives due in part as a consequence to repeated taunting because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 

Thus, on the one hand, any exposure that an organization like "The Trevor Project" gets on a national platform is positive--it raises awareness that there are people out there working to help prevent future bullying and harassment within our schools and serving as a resource for adolescents who may be struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide as a result of the actions of others.  However, my concern is that by removing any connection between "The Trevor Project" and LGBTQ youth, there is again a message being sent that being gay or transgender is not something we talk about in an open forum, that it is something better left to be discussed behind closed doors.  Further, many LGBTQ youth who are bullied or harassed may feel that traditional resources for all bullied or harassed students may not apply to them--they need to know that an organization or a resource is specifically gay-friendly.  For example, an anti-bullying bill recently debated in Michigan was going to include a clause that would have exempted adult-and-student bullies alike from any repercussions if the bullying and harassment was based on a religious or moral belief of some kind.  That clause was ultimately removed, but I believe that it is understandable that many LGBTQ youth may be skeptical of just any anti-bullying organization unless it has some clear text or mission about working with their specific population.

While I do not know for sure what the discussion or reasoning was behind leaving out any mention of "The Trevor Project's" LGBTQ ties, I do know that on NBC's rival network, ABC, there was a prime-time show the same week that also featured "The Trevor Project" and "GLSEN."  Friday's episode of Extreme Home Makeover told the story of Carl Walker, a young boy who hung himself because of the harassment he was facing at school.  Some of the boys made fun of him and apparently told him to "stop acting like a girl" and called him "gay."  (source:  abc.go.com/shows/extreme-makeover-home-edition)  The show did not shy away from explaining this.  Further, when the large group of people came marching down the street in support of the Walker family and to help build their new home, "The Trevor Project's" banner, including its LGBTQ affiliation, were clearly able to be seen.  While this episode of "Extreme Home Makeover" also tried to focus on the issue of bullying at large, it also took moments to shine the lens on the LGBTQ aspects of this specific case.

I was a bit surprised, given that NBC was the network that in 1998 aired the show Will and Grace, only a few months after Ellen, one of the first major shows to feature a gay lead character, was cancelled due to poor ratings.  I was proud of NBC at that time for taking a risk that, whether intentional or not, was supportive of the LGBTQ community.  I feel that NBC and "The Sing Off" missed a similar opportunity in the instance of "Pentatonix" and "The Trevor Project."  With the specific issues of anti-gay bullying, suicide, and violence amongst our teenagers, including the fact that "The Trevor Project" works specifically with LGBTQ youth should have been a risk worth taking.