• Middle School Advisory Programs Find Their Way

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    Last spring, when Portland Public Schools moved to ensure that every middle school in the district had an active advisory program, the focus was on relationship building and giving students and teachers the tools needed to nurture a sense of belonging.

    The goals for the advisory programs were clear. What the district had yet to arrive at was a curriculum that would help everyone achieve those goals.

    Enter Dr. Jill Bryant, whose team was in their third year of their Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum adoption process. It soon became clear, both to Bryant and Joanna Tobin, PPS’s senior director of middle grades core academics, that the essential work and hoped-for results of TSEL and middle school advisory were perfectly aligned.

    “We all agreed that advisory programs are central to supporting adolescent learners,” Tobin said. “So, when we started looking around for a curriculum, we realized that transformative social emotional learning covers everything we want to have in an advisory program. We thought, ‘why not bring these two things together for the best of both worlds?’”

    Social emotional learning is built on the five pillars of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Bryant and her team kept these tenets front and center when they were selecting TSEL curricula for middle grade students, eventually landing on two options: Wayfinder and We Do It for the Culture.

    Each curriculum prioritizes lessons that empower students to create their own equity-based and social justice-focused learning communities. And, since community building is such a crucial tenet of social emotional learning, middle school communities were given the freedom to choose the curriculum that best suited their unique needs.

    “It was important that we involve students, teachers, principals, and families in the curriculum selection process,” Dr. Bryant said. “That way we were modeling the principles that form the foundation of social-emotional learning.”

    The district teams charged with redesigning the middle grades instructional framework also made sure to leave some room in the advisory schedule for teachers to talk to students about things playing out in their own hallways and classrooms.

    “Prior to this year, a lot of the schools had advisory periods but no set format or structure,” said Richard Smith, director of middle grades redesign for the district. “Advisory had inadvertently become a time where lots of things were happening with very little productive guidelines. Now, students and teachers have a framework to aid them in exploring issues in a safe and trusted environment, while, at the same time, providing them enough flexibility to address what is going on in their individual schools.”

    Another crucial consideration when deciding how to structure the new middle school advisory program was a professional development component for teachers.

    “We wanted something that would explore issues of equity and was aligned with our instructional framework and graduate portrait,” Dr. Bryant said. “We also wanted a program that offered strong professional learning opportunities for our teachers. These curricula do that. They give students and teachers the chance to thrive together. ”