Nearly all the teachers at Des Moines’ Theodore Roosevelt High School—about six dozen—were grouped around tables in the school’s library and cafeteria on a recent afternoon, armed with lesson plans and ready to take notes.
Feedback on how to sharpen their lesson plans was flowing, but it wasn’t from fellow teachers or outside experts. The suggestions were coming from the nearly 100 students seated among them. The advice was frank. Here’s how to make a lesson more interesting, some students offered, or more relatable. Here’s what to do to help struggling students grasp concepts, they offered.
This joint student-teacher professional-development session is an integral part of an initiative underway at Roosevelt High to ensure students are central players in important aspects of the school and its culture. Students are openly encouraged to “push back on the adults.” They are helping shape the redesign of the school’s mission and vision statement and its adoption of a less-punitive approach to behavioral infractions. Students are advocating for extracurricular activities that mirror their interests.
“Unless we get feedback from diverse perspectives, we can only operate from what we know—and what we know is limited because it’s just from one person’s perspective,” said Mindy Euken, the 9th grade school improvement coach who is working with Nicole Ellis, the school’s equity coach, on broadening student voice.
Quest to build trust
The student voice and engagement efforts are part of a larger school and districtwide focus on equity in Des Moines. For Roosevelt, that meant adding Ellis to the staff to work with teachers on developing culturally inclusive practices, examining biases, and working to ensure students’ identities and cultures are reflected in curriculum.
There were already avenues for students to weigh in on what’s happening at Roosevelt, including a 40-member diversity and inclusion council that meets regularly with Kevin Biggs, the school’s principal.
But the push to elevate student voice and improve student engagement started last summer after a deep dive into the school’s data, follow-up surveys, and meetings with students unearthed some troubling trends.
One was the chronic absenteeism rate for black boys in all four grades. While the schoolwide average was 35 percent, it was 56 percent for black males, Biggs said. The school also had the largest achievement gap between white and black students in the district.
Black students—a group that includes African-American students and African immigrants and refugees—make up about a quarter of the nearly 2,300 students at Roosevelt. Fourteen percent of students are Latino, 8 percent are multiracial, and 11 percent are English-learners. White students make up slightly less than half of enrollment.
“When people think of Iowa, they think of cornfields, they think of wheat, they think of pigs and farms,” Biggs said. “They don’t think of diversity.”
The disparity in the chronic absenteeism rates was linked in part to discipline referrals, which the school is also reviewing. But some students said they skipped classes because they didn’t think teachers cared whether they showed up. They also said some classes had no connection to their lives, experiences, and communities, Ellis said.
“If the relationship was strong and genuine, and they trusted the teacher, and the teacher showed interest in them, they were more apt to go to class and work as hard as they could,” Biggs said.
That became the focus of the new school year, with a specific goal of cutting chronic absenteeism for black boys by 20 percent by May 2019.
First, Ellis and Euken worked with teachers to ensure that they understood why diverse perspectives mattered.
In one exercise last summer, teachers went on a “community walk.” They got a bus ticket and met up with students in one of the city’s neighborhoods. It was the first time some teachers, many of whom grew up in small towns outside the city, had taken a bus to get around Des Moines, Euken said.
“We said to the staff ‘We really want you to consider what types of cultural wealth you are hearing the students speak to you from their lived experiences; in what ways can they navigate systems that you may be unable to because their lived experiences is different; or what linguistic abilities or strengths they have or that they bring into the school?” Euken said.
Teachers were also encouraged to choose from a menu of five practices they could embrace during the school year to engage students on a deeper level, including assigning rigorous tasks in the classroom, allowing students to serve as co-teachers, using real-world problems and texts in class, and using social-and-emotional learning tools.
Ellis and Euken followed up with a student-teacher panel discussion in October. Students said while the discussion helped them build closer bonds with teachers, it had not led to classroom changes, Euken said.
That’s when Ellis got the idea to try the joint student-teacher professional-development. The first session in December, with most of the teaching staff and about 45 students, focused on changing instructional practices to make classes more culturally inclusive and engaging.
Ellis said she tried recruiting a diverse group of students, including those from the gifted and talented program, student clubs, and those who were regularly skipping some classes. The latter group was especially challenging to get to participate, Ellis said.
Some students were ambivalent about attending even as they acknowledged that teachers need to work harder to get to know them. And some teachers were also hesitant about the extra work the new initiative entailed, while others had doubts about the usefulness of the feedback they’d hear.
That kind of thinking, “is a construct we are trying to flip on its head here,” she said.
Students may not use the technical language teachers employ when commenting on lesson plans, but “you’ll hear patterns of what’s considered best practices for engaging students,” said Ellis, who worked with students to prepare them for the session, including going through practice runs.
Most students at the most recent session had been invited by their teachers. They kicked off with an icebreaker, with teachers and students offering their interpretations of a quote from Pulitzer-prize winning writer, Junot Díaz, followed by a discussion of honoring students’ identities in the classroom and examples of how teachers can do that.
They moved on to review a past lesson, discuss an upcoming class, and broader conversations about what’s working well and what could be improved.
Kalifornia Sotelo, who teaches Spanish, jotted down quick notes as two of her students, 9th graders Ashawn Quinn and Shimayil Idris, spoke.
“Remember, you are not talking about me, you’re talking about the class, how you are impacted,” Sotelo told them. “It won’t hurt my feelings.”
Quinn suggested a five-minute break during the lesson. Idris agreed that if students knew a break was scheduled, they’d be less likely to sneak peeks at their phones. They explored options for how to spend the “brain-break,” and decided Sotelo would play a Spanish-language music video, while students could use their phones, or take the opportunity to follow up with her as needed.
When Sotelo asked about the pacing in class, they both said, “it’s a little fast.” On what helps the most, they told Sotelo they like when she speaks Spanish, then translates to English. And they both said having a PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of class—with pictures and vocabulary words—was more helpful than starting the lesson with quizzes.
“A lot of these are quick fixes,” Sotelo said later.
Idris, who is doing well in Spanish, said it helped to have another student at the table during the discussion.
“Any feedback I gave to her she did not take it disrespectfully,” he said. “She was open, and I was able to give my honest feedback.”
Sotelo said she’s hoping that all these efforts would lead to more African-American students taking AP Spanish classes, where they are underrepresented.
Listening to students
Asantee Tillman, a 16-year-old junior who participated in the December session, saw it as a chance for teachers to hear from students who have a tough time at home. She said she’d seen teachers ignore students who arrived late.
“They just think this kid is bad because he [doesn’t] come to class or she [doesn’t] come to class, but really people [are] having stuff going on at home,” said Asantee, who was often 15 minutes late during her sophomore year because she took two younger siblings to school.
In that session, Asantee worked with her business teacher on his plans for a résumé-writing lesson, and suggested he shorten his introductory remarks. She suggested that he present visual examples of résumés other students had created and walk around the class to proactively seek students who need help but are reluctant to ask for it.
To her surprise, he was open to her ideas.
“He seemed really interested in what I had to say about his lesson plan,” she said, “and he was just real open to change.”
But Asantee said she hasn’t seen improvements in her other classes. If the school wanted to get students into classrooms, more of those who are skipping classes should be sitting down with teachers, she said.
Ellis acknowledged the difficulty in getting some disengaged students to speak frankly with teachers.
“It’s hard to tell a kid to come give their feedback on instruction when they don’t feel like they are a valued member of the school culture and the community,” she said.
Zion Freeman, 17, said he’s seen more teachers creating opportunities for students to collaborate in class and adding time that allows students to discuss what worked and what they struggled with.
He worked with his math teacher last year, and they have a better relationship because of the collaboration. If he’s late for class, his teacher now asks if he’s had lunch, and when she is absent, Zion said he worries if she or her husband, who last year was undergoing cancer treatment, are OK.
“I used to be, like, teachers do teacher things, but to know that extra [detail] about her, it drew me into the class some more,” he said, “because I knew that every day she was here, she wasn’t with her husband, and I was going to savor every minute I got with her.”
To be successful, the program requires some “risk-taking” from both the teachers and students.
“It takes a certain amount of bravery for students in that setting to say to teachers, ‘I don’t know if that will work well,” said Allison Woodward-Chartier, an instructional coach at the school. “For teachers, you’re the expert in the room; so it takes an element of bravery on their part as well to the take that feedback and to make changes.”
Brent Wooters, who teaches social studies, said a concern that’s frequently raised about the world history curriculum is that it’s Eurocentric and does not give great depth to the experiences of nonwhite people. “That’s still a struggle in the curriculum, and that’s something that curriculum leaders will have to take a look at,” he said, adding that a required course or semester offering on African-American or Hispanic-American history could help address that concern.
Wooters said he values the students’ input, especially since they are the experts on how they learn best.
“We’ve got 20 million books out there on how to be the best teacher, but none of them were written by a 14-year-old,” he said. “And that’s what we miss out on in staff development.”
Ellis said the transformation the school is hoping for will take hard work and time. But she’s seeing evidence that when teachers and students fully embrace the initiative, positive results follow.
In the last two months of last year, the chronic absenteeism dropped by 13 percent. But so far this year, the rate had started to inch back up, she said.
Ellis points to Rob Randazzo as evidence that they are on the right track. Randazzo, an algebra teacher, had the highest percentage of African-American males passing algebra with a grade of B or higher last semester. Randazzo said it’s largely because his students get to choose how they want to learn: They can watch online videos he’s created, review notes, use the textbook, or listen to his direct instruction.
They can also pick a combination of all options during one class and do so at their own pace, he said.
And students decide when they are ready to take a quiz, which has boosted their confidence and increased classroom engagement. So far, no one has failed a quiz, he said.
“Before, the conversation would have been, ‘You failed the quiz, what are you going to do?’ ” he said. “Now, the conversation is you’re not ready. You told me you’re not ready to take the quiz, how can I help you get ready? That’s one of the things that I enjoy about the conversation, it’s … a more positive starting point.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students Give Frank Advice on How to Make School Engaging