A Tale of Collaboration: Two EL Education Schools Bridge Communities and Learning
Katie Meisner and Deb Pinto
This story was written by Vallejo Charter School Instructional Coach Katie Meisner and EL Education Consultant Deb Pinto.
Once upon a time there were two EL Education network schools that yearned to find a way to share practices. For two years, educators of both schools reconnected at the EL Education National Conference and brainstormed world-saving partnerships. Finally on December 5, 2017, armed with tri-folds, learning targets, and meaningful content, well-prepared seniors from Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL) in Grass Valley, CA boarded a school bus and made the three-hour journey to Vallejo Charter School (VCS) in Vallejo, CA.
VCS, an 11-year member of the EL Education network, is a K-8 school located in the diverse urban community of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area. SAEL – an EL Education school in its fourth year of existence - sits at the gateway to the Gold Country in the Sierra foothills and serves a rural high school population.
This spring, SAEL will graduate its first class of seniors – students who entered as freshmen in the school’s opening year. This year, 28 of the 31 seniors are college bound, and all seniors are applying to college. When staff and students at SAEL landed on their senior project topic, a college and career fair, they were in need of an authentic audience. They reached out to the 8th grade class at VCS, who excitedly hopped on board.
For the Senior Class Project at SAEL, seniors worked through the process of choosing colleges and being prepared for life after high school. Students were given support and time to research colleges and other options, worked on their applications, and met regularly one-on-one with the Guidance Counselor for support. Students then created a variety of presentations to share with Vallejo 8th graders focusing on information about specific colleges and majors and how students can best prepare themselves for college while still in high school. Other stations included how to take a legitimate gap year, military, how choices affect you, and student financial aid. SAEL students created these learning targets to guide this product:
- Academic Content: I can identify three areas of interest that are relevant to my future; and
- Character: I can actively participate, ask questions, and seek relevant knowledge.
The timing of this collaboration was a perfect fit with recent Vallejo Unified School District initiatives that work to prepare students for the transition to high school. Once SAEL students set up their stations and gave one another last minute pointers under the guidance of Senior Project lead teacher Amy Hooper, Vallejo 8th graders joined them in the gym for Opening Circle.
SAEL designated some seniors to serve as Student Hosts. Their role was to help connect 8th graders with presenters, showing a map where specific presenters and topics could be found. Vallejo 8th graders were shy at first, but well-practiced SAEL Seniors artfully drew them in and carefully tailored each interaction to respond to the variety of questions and interests voiced by the 8th grade students.
Vallejo Charter 8th graders carried clipboards with notecatcher packets containing learning targets, expectations, and exit ticket reflections.
In addition to learning how to prepare for success in high school and college, 8th graders were also on the lookout for effective public speaking qualities demonstrated by SAEL seniors. Later, when the 8th graders prepare for Passages, they will revisit these note-catchers to articulate some characteristics of effective public speaking.
8th Grade Lead Teacher Zuzu Hussien said, “My students were enthusiastic and engaged in their note-catchers; they needed far less redirection to produce quality records of their experiences than they normally might have needed.”
Instructional Coach Katie Meisner added, “I noticed very unique and distinct lenses on note-catchers; they were meaningful and specific to their owners in a wonderful way that made it clear presenters didn’t just repeat themselves. SAEL senior presenters adapted their talks to the 8th grader to whom they were speaking!” Katie also mentioned that - days later - one 8th grade student repeatedly asked Katie for her note-catcher back to use for reference as she builds future presentations. This young woman was positively impacted by this experience.
Vallejo students uncovered meaningful takeaways about criteria for quality public speaking, which will provide valuable models for Passages. They also took note of exemplar presenters who garnered their attention and named criteria such as eye contact or lack of reliance on note cards.
The excitement generated by this first exchange will not end here. Collaborating staff are considering ways SAEL seniors can support Passages for Vallejo 8th graders. There are plans afoot for SAEL seniors to schedule Google hangouts this spring to provide Passages practice and critique as VCS 8th graders work to prepare.
The eager educators who planned this collaboration wondered whether this short visit would allow seniors and 8th graders to connect in ways meaningful enough to drive the individual focus of presentations forward. They enthusiastically answered, “Yes, it did!” These student-to-student connections were essential in meeting learning targets. In parting, Katie Meisner shared this; “I had a moment of butterflies in my stomach when I realized that this experience quite likely triggered a shift in paths for many of our 8th graders.”
Another teacher remarked: “I am watching my kids’ faces and I can see this is changing their lives.”
SAEL Principal Erica Crane celebrates this first step, “Service is at the heart of EL Education’s mission. I am excited to witness this first link in the bridge that will connect our two communities. The importance of an authentic audience for any product is immeasurable and THIS audience, this class of Vallejo Charter 8th graders knowledgeable in EL Education practices and the expectations for high quality work, made the work of our seniors ever more meaningful.”