Embracing Students’ Own Goals, or what a VW Bus Taught Me About Decision-Making

What happens when students have dreams for themselves that don’t involve being “college and career ready?”

Personalized learning plans are picking up steam in Vermont and throughout the country. Although they look a little different in different settings, the general idea is to help students identify a goal and ensure that school is helping them work toward that goal. The Vermont Agency of Education website put it like this:

A personalized learning plan is a formal document created by students, parents, and teachers and available in digital and other formats both in and out of school, that, at a minimum: establishes individual student goals based on academic and career objectives and personal interests; sequences content and skill development to achieve those goals and ensure that a student can graduate college and career-ready; and is updated based on information about student performance in a variety of learning experiences – including assessments – that indicate progress towards goals.” 

My school has been using the personalized learning plan concept for a long time. One core piece of the philosophy that the school embraces is to “differentiate between the young person’s own goals and others’ hopes and expectations” (Mitch Barron in Centerpoint’s Core Strategies). When I think about this in relationship to personalized learning in mainstream schools, I wonder about how schools are embracing students’ actual goals, and not only offering a narrow view of what it means to be “college and career ready.”

While many of my students have had goals centered around going to college and getting a good job, some students have other goals that challenge us to walk our talk.

Honoring students’ own goals

I once had a student whose goal was to live in a VW bus in a field and make art.

What would you do if, in the PLP development process, your student stated that as a goal? Respond, “OK, that’s great, but what about college?” Say, “well, that’s not realistic, what are you going to do for money?” Would you shut down this student because her goal doesn’t fit neatly into college or career?

What would happen if you simply said, “Cool! Tell me more about that, and let’s figure out how to get you there?”

We often rush to make statements or offer solutions before we fully understand young people, out of our own need to “do something” or to be heard or to make sure we’re saying the “right” thing. Remember that what is needed in these moments is about the young person, not about the adult. Whether or not I think that making art in a VW bus is a realistic goal, if through our conversation I come to understand that it really matters to this young person, it’s my job as a supportive adult to help her get there. It doesn’t mean I need to throw all of my hopes and goals for her out the window, but I also can’t strip her of her autonomy by imposing my own will over hers. 

Ask more questions

Challenge yourself to ask three more questions before you offer any kind of statement. Listen a little more before you have anything to say, even if every part of you wants to just Say The Thing You Should Say. Do this especially when what the student is saying shakes your sense of what’s expected or “good” for the them – because we don’t know what we don’t know, and the only way to find out is to ask. 

So when my student told me about wanting to live in a VW bus to make art, I asked her about what kind of art, what she loved about being artistic, what color the bus would be, what type of field. What would be wonderful about her dream? What would be hard? Instead of shutting her down, we had the conversation, and we became partners in the process instead of adversaries.

Considering the pros and cons – all the pros and cons

Decisional balancing is a frame that can be very helpful to help you through what may feel like counter-intuitive questions. It’s simply considering the pros and cons of two choices, but often with teens we skip consideration of the pros of the choice we (the adults) would rather the kid not choose.

Example: a student says, “I want to drop out of school.” As the adult, we might say, “But think about the pros of staying in school, and the cons of being a high school drop-out.” What if instead we asked: “What would be good about staying in school – and what would suck about staying in school?” What if we asked: “What wouldn’t be so great about dropping out – but what would really work for you about dropping out?”

decisional balancing
A basic decisional balancing chart

The scary part about this approach is that, given full consideration and thought, the student might actually determine that dropping out is better for them. As adults, we actually have to be okay with that in order to fully be there for teens. Teens know immediately when adults don’t trust them. Giving full consideration to all choices, even the ones we don’t want them to choose, is a way to lean into trusting relationship with our teens.

The big picture

Encouraging young people to ask for help only works if we are truly open to listening when they do. When we slow down on our impulse to fix and instead keep ourselves open to listening, we create an opening for teens to really tell us what’s going on. We model how to think through all available options, not just the ones we think others want us to choose. We put aside our own agenda and become partners in collaboration, strengthening our role and our opportunity to make change.

If the process leads to students who are “college and career ready,” that’s great. But if the process leads to a happy young woman, living in a VW bus in a field full of flowers and making art? Well, that’s perfection.

 

VW photo by Marcus Spiering, CC license

3 Reasons to Check Out EdCamp Centerpoint

EdCampCPS Logo

  1. Make a connection. Instead of “sit and get” professional development, EdCamp requires that you move around, actively participate, and talk to new people. I went to a tech conference in the area last spring and went almost the entire day without having more than a small-talk conversation with anyone – and I’m a pretty social person. It’s pretty impossible to get away with that at an EdCamp – I promise. We’re expecting participants with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, so take advantage of the cross-pollination and make a connection with someone new.
  2. Centerpoint isn’t like any other school you’ve seen before. Take a tour through our building, where rooms have names instead of numbers, students cook lunch for the school every day, and staff are encouraged to turn student-centered ideas into action (for example: this week we’re launching a therapeutic in-car driver’s ed program – I think it’s the first program of its kind). We do everything we do for the benefit of our students, and you can see that when you walk in the door. Come be part of our community for a day.
  3. Nurture yourself. Why come to an EdCamp during a school vacation? I think you’ll find it to be a way to “fill your tank,” rather than increase your burnout. We’ll have a ton of food and coffee to get your brain ready for learning (thanks to Physician’s Computer Company, Cabot Cheese, City Market, Healthy Living, and more of our amazing sponsors). The content of EdCamp is whatever participants bring to the table – so talk about the issues about which you are passionate, with other passionate education stakeholders from across Vermont. Put some energy and enthusiasm in your bank, and start fresh after the break with new ideas about how to support learning for all learners.

 

I really hope you’ll consider joining us at EdCamp Centerpoint on April 23. Preregister so we can be ready to host you, and tell your friends, too! Click: https://www.smore.com/7kru-edcamp-centerpoint 

 

A response from Governor Shumlin

Governor Shumlin finally wrote me a response to this letter I sent a couple of months ago.

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your feedback on my speech at the Women Can Do conference. I apologize for the delay in response. In my continued commitment to gender equality, I appreciate your insight and share your desire to empower Vermont’s young women.

Last legislative session, I supported efforts to get Vermont women equal pay for equal work. I continue to be a strong supporter of gender equality as governor and I hope that other states will follow Vermont’s lead in this matter. I take to heart your comment that I must be careful to offer encouragement to all young Vermonters, and appreciate your advocacy on this issue.

Thank you again for your letter. I will keep your thoughts in mind as I move forward.

Sincerely,

Peter Shumlin
Governor
109 State Street, Pavilion
Montpelier, Vermont 05609
802-828-3333

As expected from a politician, the letter is mostly self-affirming – but I appreciate that last sentence in the second paragraph. It seems to me to say that he (or a staffer) truly did read and consider what I had to say.

What do you think?