“We Tried Advisory and It Didn’t Work” - Designing Advisories for Resilience by Jeffrey Benson and Rachel Poliner

“We Tried Advisory and It Didn’t Work”

(Originally titled “Designing Advisories for Resilience”)

In this Educational Leadership article, consultants Jeffrey Benson and Rachel Poliner describe their work with a number of secondary schools that have had difficulty implementing advisories and list the elements they believe are essential to success:

The advisor’s role – The purpose of advisories is community building and youth development, which is unfamiliar territory for many teachers. Some feel awkward with sitting in a circle and holding open discussions and default to keeping students in straight rows and giving writing assignments rather than having them turn and talk. “These teachers may feel more comfortable in the short term,” say Benson and Poliner, “but they aren’t taking the risk of learning to be an advisor.” Principals and the advisory team can take specific steps to help: clearly describing the advisor’s role vis-à-vis the advisory curriculum, discipline issues, and parent contact; articulating the specific short- and long-term goals of advisories; and being careful to refer to advisor, advisee, and advisory meeting rather than teacher, student, and class period

Professional development – The most effective PD is run like an advisory group – small, lasting at least a year, and using rituals to establish a sense of community. It’s helpful to have a text (one Massachusetts high school read Carol Dweck’s Mindset) and think about schoolwide norms and practices (such as finding a replacement for wishing students “Good luck” before important athletic or academic events). 

Content, format, rituals, and materials – Advisory group leaders should have training, materials, and structures to develop students’: self-assessment and goal-setting; social competence, assertiveness, and sense of autonomy; communication, negotiation, and problem-solving skills; and sense of purpose for the future. “Advisors can help the group craft norms for good discussions, use varied discussion formats and techniques, and coach advisees when needed,” say Benson and Poliner. Advisories can discuss students’ time-management struggles, high and low points of the past week, service projects, hobbies and passions, and career goals. Advisories can also be the forum in which a major event in the news is discussed – for example, when students in one Boston school returned from their spring 2013 vacation marked by the Boston Marathon bombing, the principal blocked out a longer advisory period first thing in the morning, gave teachers discussion prompts and information on counseling resources, and held a staff discussion after school. 

Structures – Benson and Poliner mention two different approaches to scheduling: one high school has 30-minute advisories twice a week; another has a 10-minute check-in mid-morning every day and a 40-minute advisory once a month. 

Groupings – Small is better, say Benson and Poliner. One school found that with groups of 20, even with two advisors in the room, students acted the way they did in regular classes. The school split the groups in two and found alternative spaces to meet. Groupings can be by grade or mixed-grade, and it’s best to keep groups and their advisors together for several years. 

Aligning with school mission and context – “The values promoted in advisory should be expressed throughout the school,” say Benson and Poliner. This means connecting advisory to counseling, schoolwide student leadership programs, induction of new students and staff, school spirit activities, and discipline policies.

Assessment and feedback – Each school’s advisory coordinating team needs to use surveys, focus groups, and classroom visits to continuously assess what’s working and what’s not with scheduling, grouping, curriculum, and materials. 

Stamina – Schools need to make necessary adjustments and stick with advisories, conclude Benson and Poliner. Done right, they can make a major difference to school climate, staff efficacy, and students’ lives. 

“Designing Advisories for Resilience” by Jeffrey Benson and Rachel Poliner in Educational Leadership, September 2013 (Vol. 71, #1, p. 50-55), www.ascd.org; the authors can be reached at JeffreyBenson@LeadersAndLearners.org and RachelPoliner@LeadersAndLearners.org


From the Marshall Memo #502

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