week 2: big project egg-citement

One of the learning contexts at HPSS is Projects (Big Projects for Yr 9/10, Impact Projects for Yrs 11+).  These projects are student-driven responses resulting in an action, product or resource to provide a solution or innovation to an identified real world challenge.

Today we launched an introductory project to provide a structured scaffolded project to enable new students to understand the processes of the projects strand. The senior students in our hubs who have done projects before are able to develop their skills in taking on leadership roles.

Students need to decide on how to organise their groups, delegate tasks which may include research, design and process/budget management roles.

The initial challenge involves an egg and a perilously steep ramp down the main stairway, namely: to transport the egg safely down the ramp and survive impact with a barricade at the bottom of the ramp. They are given a design brief and a booklet including structure for the inquiry process of designing and constructing the vehicle.

As a project guide, I am there to provide guidance but not answers. The kaupapa of big projects is to allow ākonga the opportunity to take leadership roles, learn to collaborate well, as well as achieving an outcome though their own ingenuity and perseverance.

While in future projects students will elect particular projects to be involved with, the initial one is being done within hubs (mine have decided on boys and girls groups) which provides another good opportunity at the start of the year to build the hub culture and team spirit.

week 1: building a learning community

HPSS groups its students into learning communities as an organisational structure. These communities are an analog of the ‘house’ in other schools, but they function quite differently to most other high schools that I’ve experienced. There are currently 3 learning communities during the foundation years, but this will be expanded to 5 as the school’s roll grows.

Within the learning community, each student is part of a learning hub of up to 15 ākonga, from all different year levels. Students stay in the same hub throughout their time at HPSS and, as far as is possible, will have the same learning coach throughout that time (there is some disruption and rearrangement during the foundation years as new cohorts and staff arrive each year). An overview of learning hubs can be found here.

The idea behind this is that all ākonga have a staff member that knows them well, is involved in their learning and with whom they can share their personal challenges and victories. The smaller group allows the ‘learning coach’ (the entity formerly known as “form teacher”) to form stronger relationships and to have a deeper knowledge of their hub group. There is a restorative framework to allow for escalations of pastoral issues, but the learning coach plays a far greater pastoral role than in most secondary schools.

I have found this approach to pastoral care refreshing. As a form teacher at previous schools, I found it challenging to make time for my form class amongst the competing demands of subject teaching, the busy school calendar and the restrictions of a timetable which considers form class to be just a time to take the roll and read the notices. In most schools a lot of the real pastoral work is done by stressed out deans and focuses on the squeakiest wheels, while the form teachers tick the names off and make sure to follow up on uniforms and overdue detentions.

The model that HPSS has adopted reflects our aim to encourage our students to see themselves as part of wider communities. In addition to check-in times each morning, there are three extended hub sessions that can be used flexibly for a variety of different activities, including pastoral care, team building and assistance with strategies for challenging modules or classes.

Every student has a teacher who knows them well, has built relationships with their parent(s) and/or caregivers, and whom will support and encourage them to make good decisions about their learning. Having just started here, I am still in the early stages of building these relationships, but I can see amongst my colleagues some great examples of strong connections with students and their wider whanau.

At a previous school, as is common, there were parent/teacher meetings once a semester, usually toward the end. I would have 5 minutes to meet with some of the (usually more engaged) students’ parents and discuss their child’s progress. They would be dashing from 1 subject to another for 6 or 7 five minute meetings (or twice that if they have a couple of kids at the school) and trying to assemble a picture of their child’s progress based on the perceptions of their different teachers. Some of this was useful, of course, but – with a lot of my classes being single-semester options – I met with most of my students’ parents only once. There was a certain amount of email communication, but the priority given to forming and strengthening the communication and connection between school and home was low.

The contrast with HPSS was immediate:  In our first week, our only student contact was in individual education meetings with ākonga, matua and kaiako.  I met with the 14 different families of my hub students and got to know a bit about their kids, their home lives, their concerns and their expectations.  While it took several weeks to learn the names of the 24 boys in my form class last year (and only meeting the families of a couple during the year), I already knew the names of my hub group and had a good sense of their personalities from their first day back.

Their first week back as a school (a.k.a week 2) was turned over to induction and community building activities.  As I tweeted:

Relationships are the first priority at HPSS. As our esteemed possum principal puts it:

We’re firmly of the view that if you believe that strong relationships are central to learning then you need the structures, the commitment of time and the processes to build those relationships.

This is a great start to the school year for new and returning students alike. A chance to get oriented, to re-connect with friends or (for newer students) to make connections and begin friendships, free of the instant stress and cognitive load of ploughing straight into the academic year.

The other thing, perhaps the key thing, about the hub model is the chances it creates for leadership. With the smaller size of hub groups and the slightly larger groupings within communities (several hubs might do some activities together, for instance) or even as a whole community, there are a variety of different leadership opportunities, meaning that as our ākonga mature and become more senior they will have more opportunities to show leadership. I noticed this during week 2, with many students showing the confidence to lead activities in different contexts throughout the week.

Relationships need to be nurtured, and schools are beginning to become aware that creating structures which allow the necessary time and attention to be put into forming and building learning relationships is important. HPSS is finding that beginning this process from day 1 (before worrying about the actual learning part) is worth the investment.