To create something both authentic and meaningful for our students in this rapidly changing educational landscape, it is fundamental that schools embrace change and rethink long-standing paradigms.
Just as more thought and action are being directed at changing traditional classroom environments that may still dismiss or fail to address the skills and knowledge, and even learning spaces students need to thrive today, broader and more inclusive student-council leadership models are necessary to honor distinct student voices.
With this in mind, the American Embassy School in New Delhi, where I work, decided to move away from a more traditional Student Council framework in an attempt to involve a larger number of students and provide them with broader opportunities.
This change has been instrumental in including the student body in a number of grade-level and divisional projects, as well as service-oriented activities.
In the Middle and Elementary Schools, this meant a shift to a three-tiered leadership program, where a shared leadership model on the part of our teachers allows them to act as mentors according to their own personal or professional interests.
How it Works in the Elementary School
In the beginning of the school year, the Student Leadership Advisory Team–of which I have been a member for the past two years–introduces the program to students in a “village-meeting” format that includes all their fellow grade-level classmates. Our fourth and fifth grade learners, upon hearing about what leadership means and the opportunities we can offer, learn about the responsibilities that will undoubtedly come with them.
The program is divided into three aspects:
Peer Ambassador Committees
Students can sign up to join different groups according to their interests and passions. These committees are formed on a need-basis and will support the curricular work being developed in classrooms, as well as all-school assemblies and special events.
From public speaking and digital citizenship advocation to graphic design, service projects, technology tools, digital documentation and more, students who believe they have a talent or a disposition to serve and help others are invited to select from this list and to offer additional suggestions.
The video below shows some of the opportunities that students at our school had last year and helps to get them excited to become a student leader:
This is not to be confused with after-school activities, which are plentiful at the American Embassy School; students are aware that signing up to become a Peer Ambassador means they will need to dedicate recess and lunch times to serve the cause selected, and, even so, the response is always outstanding! This graph shows the numbers in the 2016-17 school year:
And here is a colorful view of the interests students have:
This year alone, within two weeks of student sign-ups and counting on the indispensable support of our amazing teachers–who assist us in seizing opportunities and mentoring students based on their own interests–seven distinct committees have already been formed:
Library Council, whose members learn about events organization and work with our librarian on a number of projects and special events offered by the library throughout the year.
Photography Ambassadors, who recently received lessons on portrait photography and helped to produce the following video to be shown at our Peace Day Assembly:
Two of these students also helped our official photographer in documenting the assembly, and their work can be seen in the Behind the Scenes section of this video.
MCs at special events and assemblies, who receive training on public speaking and take on the job of presenting to a crowd of eager students and proud parents.
Poster-making Committee, who have been working with our art teachers and a group of high schoolers to create posters and decorations for our Fall Fiesta, coming up in October.
Creative Commons Squad, who is learning about copyright laws and how Creative Commons licenses can help with finding media for projects, as well as learn how to advocate for digital citizenship topics. This group will very soon be preparing presentations for their fellow classmates and even for our teachers, as was the case last school year.
Maker Space Ambassadors, who will meet with the technology team on a regular basis to envision, implement and support the creation of our new Makerspace in the Elementary School.
Social Media Reps, who will learn about having a positive online presence and the importance of keeping a clean digital footprint to help spread the message among their peers, as well as curate content for our social media channels at school.
And the opportunities are only beginning…as the year goes by, more committees will be formed to give more students voice in serving the many special projects where student ownership is encouraged and required at school.
This part of our program is in its second iteration now. In the past, different students from each class would be selected each month to come to a roundtable meeting with the divisional Principal, the Assistant Principal and the Student Leadership Advisors. Topics they would bring to the table, upon having had previous discussions in their classroom context, would range from difficulties at recess time, playground and school facilities, lunch and others. These were then addressed by the mentoring team, and students would offer solutions and suggestions for changes they felt were important in the Elementary School.
While this was effective from the standpoint of inclusiveness, we perceived a lack of accountability and noticed that their part in the solution wasn’t always acted upon thoroughly. Upon much deliberation, we decided that students would have a more comprehensive impact if they actually signed up to become class representatives by writing an application letter stating the reasons why they are ready to take on this responsibility.
At first, we were fearful that students would see this as a popularity contest, but including the “class reps” category in the peer-ambassador application process leveled out the playing field and really helped to illustrate the range of interests of our students. Here’s what the question looked like in the form they filled out:
You can see in the graphs shared above that only a small portion of our interested students are willing to take on this particular job.
Upon meeting with these students and reading their application letters, we were able to create two groups of Class Reps in each grade level to perform this duty either in the first or second semester of the school year. We are looking forward to seeing what this new iteration yields in terms of these students’ impact within our community.
The third and final part of our program consists of offering quarterly seminars, open to all students, that take place on Saturdays. Using the framework envisioned by Stephen Covey in his book The Leader in Me and a design-thinking approach that emphasizes empathy as a core quality, we offer lessons on effective leadership for our young learners. Drawing on the problems brought up during the roundtable discussions, students engage in project-based activities that aim to find solutions and expand their individual set of conflict resolution tools.
Below is the skeleton of one of the lessons we offered last year. You have our permission to adapt this to your own purposes if you are interested in running a similar protocol with your students:
While this work is time-consuming and requires dedication and openness to new challenges, the results of our efforts have been more than gratifying. The reality is that changes that add up to our daily tasks are, of course, hard to embrace, but “we cannot expect others to think differently without embracing this ourselves”, as states the visionary principal George Couros. The success of the program has proven to have a positive impact on our student and teacher body. Students often talk about how excited they are to take on new responsibilities, as well as how grateful they are for the opportunity to grow their thinking and pursue self-directed learning journeys. Treating their interests and passions with respect alone gives them enormous ownership of their learning.
If you have read this far, I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it, and I would love to hear your feedback. Please feel free to reach out with questions and comments in the space below.
Beasley, K. (2015). Classroom Design Matters. Retrieved from https://kerileebeasley.com/2015/08/16/classroom-design-matters/
Couros, G. (2016). What is innovative Leadership? Retrieved from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/5921
Coyle, B., Coady, C. (2014). Beyond Student Council: On Inclusive and Servant Leadership. TIE online. Retrieved from http://www.tieonline.com/article/259/beyond-student-council-on-inclusive-and-servant-leadership
Lewars, J. Representing Student Voice On School Councils. Teaching Times. Retrieved from http://www.teachingtimes.com/articles/student-voice-on-school-councils.htm