July 14, 20210

Collaboration is Key: Sound Discipline on Student Engagement

By Alan Wong

Care, love, and belonging are all fundamental human needs. 

When we belong, we have space to co-create and change the communities we belong to, and the larger world. Sound Discipline is doing exactly that – creating space, embracing student voice, and taking action with students in their Designing Our Own Learning project. 

Students and teachers collaborate to design their own learning

“Designing Our Own Learning” (DOOL) is heading in to year 3, and has grown and developed over time. In our first year, we focused on bringing diverse students and teachers together to examine school structures, explore collaborative leadership and co-create relevant social emotional learning curriculum for secondary students (including adaptations of the research-based Positive Discipline curriculum). Many of these lessons were eventually piloted in advisory periods, with leadership by both students and teachers.  

This summer, Sound Discipline hosted our second annual “Designing Our Own Learning” (DOOL) intensive summer program. Diverse students and teachers from Evergreen High School and Dimmitt Middle School joined together – online this time – to build authentic community, develop youth leadership and advocate for anti-racist practices within schools. Rather than focusing as much on creating structured lessons, this year we broke into 3 “solidarity groups”, smaller intergenerational and intersectional teams whose purpose was to explore and embody anti-racist practices, while also developing projects that could contribute to greater equity within schools. These projects were shared at a virtual community event and brought forward into the school year.  

Throughout the school year in both Year 1 and Year 2, we have held regular DOOL meetings, that give students and teachers the opportunity to connect, collaborate and implement DOOL SEL materials and practices within the school setting. Each of our core partner schools has also run its own youth leadership groups inspired by the DOOL experience. DOOL teams have helped lead school staff development workshops and supported community engagement and SEL both during and prior to the pandemic.  

While there are many SEL curricula aimed at elementary students, none adequately address the needs of adolescents in traditional school settings, which generally treat adults as the experts, students as the recipients of knowledge and fail to adequately meet the needs of BIPOC students. This dynamic naturally leads to disengagement. This project uses the combined experience and wisdom of both teens and educators, primarily from BIPOC backgrounds, to design materials that can be led by students, by educators, or by both. By centering the wisdom and experience of those most marginalized with our school systems, DOOL challenges existing power-structures and points the way towards more inclusive, equitable and liberatory learning environments. 

“By centering the wisdom and experience of those most marginalized with our school systems, DOOL challenges existing power-structures and points the way towards more inclusive, equitable and liberatory learning environments. ”
Alan Wong

Student engagement in a remote environment

Before we dive into content, we build relationships and community – and model collaborative, student-centered learning models. This includes interactive, experiential activities, that draw on the wisdom of the group, help participants to feel safe and serve to level the playing field between adults and youth. Though meeting online can be a challenge, we’ve found that the same techniques that build engagement in person – starting with small creative risks and personal sharing, building community agreements, intentionally creating a space of shared leadership and inclusion – have worked in the online environment, as well. 

Also, the importance of feeling safe is critical and the science is pretty interesting here.  When you come under threat at school, at work, or in any environment, your brainstem – the old-school lizard brain – can interpret that as a physical threat.  It shuts down the part of your mind that enables critical thinking, the prefrontal cortex and goes into fight, flight or freeze. 

That’s why the more safe you feel, the more your brain is freed up to make careful and deliberate decisions – and the easier it is for you to show up as your full, best self. There are plenty of ways to encourage psychological safety and among the most effective is allowing every voice to be heard, really listening to and responding to needs – and, as possible, spending one-on-one time with people on your team or in your community.    

Recognize and encourage students’ agency and value their voice and experience

For many students, the reality is that many adults listen but do not hear them. Their perspectives, hopes, fears, and concerns are often overlooked.   

As adults and people with positional power, we can foster and create spaces where students can be heard. It begins with the belief that their perspectives and stories matter.  We need to recognize and encourage students’ agency and value their speaking out. We also need to center the voices of BIPOC and other marginalized students. 

A curriculum, alone, will not move the dial.  Including students in the design and implementation process will empower student leaders, shift adult perspectives, increase a sense of belonging, and help to create meaningful SEL programs that can better meet the needs of all students.   

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