Change is coming our way. With the passage and early implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government is working to move schools forward after No Child Left Behind and help states offer fewer, but higher-quality tests. Part of this plan is the “Innovative Assessment” pilot, designed to allow states to develop, try, and refine systems that would combine measures to address inequality with an increased use of competency-based assessments and performance tasks.
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. explained the goals behind the proposed changes, stating, “High-quality assessments give parents, educators, and students useful information about whether students are developing the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills they need to succeed in life, but there has to be a balance, and despite good intentions, there are too many places around the country where the balance still isn’t quite right. We hope this guidance will help restore that balance and give back some of the critical learning time that students need to be successful.”
As the nation moves toward recognizing different ways to assess what students know and can do, it is also the perfect time to acknowledge that alternative learning environments can teach students the skills they need to excel in any form of academic assessment. Outside-the-classroom experiences, like participating in the National Honor Societies or student council, provide perfect opportunities for advisers to help students master the kinds of transferable skills that can help them succeed on both standardized tests and performance tasks. Soft skills, or skills that are a part of emotional intelligence, are increasingly important as the world becomes more automated and more careers require the ability to frequently adjust to changing needs. Most importantly, helping students master these skills helps them develop into the kind, empathetic, and action-oriented citizens we want in our communities.
Important soft skills include communication, collaboration, adaptability, critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, and creativity. Advisers and administrators across the country have shared compelling ideas on how advisers can support the development of these skills while completing fun and charitable projects.
As service and leadership organizations, the National Honor Societies and student council naturally provide frequent and authentic opportunities for students to improve their communication skills. This soft skill set may be the most important for young leaders to master. At Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH—the largest school in New Hampshire with 3,100 students—student council adviser and advanced placement chemistry teacher John Breda Jr. focuses on these skills because “you can have a brilliant idea, but if you can’t convince your boss or a client it is brilliant, then it serves no purpose,” he says. Breda believes the best leaders are effective at communication orally, in writing, and electronically. So he regularly incorporates tasks into student council trainings in which he blindfolds some members so students must collaborate without the power of sight.
At the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning, a growing charter school in Grass Valley, CA, the student council—named “crew council”—is made up of one representative from each advisory (called crews), says Principal Erica Crane. The council leads all-school town halls in order to practice public speaking and uses communication to facilitate change. Council members also help with the dissemination of information back to their crews about issues, concerns, and events. The school strives to help students set character and academic goals and then reach them in the context of growth mindset, Crane says.
Rockdale County High School in Conyers, GA, which features a specialized STEM magnet program within the school, sends students to the LEAD Conferences (www.leadconferences.org) to acquire and practice communication skills, says magnet director Dr. Debra Arnold. The school also provides students the opportunity to speak in front of whole-school meetings and even invite parents and community members to come listen tostudents present. Their approach is clearly working, as Rockdale’s student council has been recognized as a National Council of Excellence by NASC and is represented by NASC-designated Distinguished Student Leaders.
Good collaboration is an obvious goal in any organization and is inherent in success. The National Honor Societies and student council are often filled with high-achieving, driven students who are used to leading, so learning when to stand at the front and when to work their skills into supporting roles is important.
Learning to coordinate multiple stakeholders is undoubtedly a skill that is applicable to both performance-based assessments and post-high school goals. Crane says that within the Sierra Academy council and school, “Individuality is supported and acknowledged, but collaboration, and its importance in college and beyond, is frequently discussed and emphasized.” The council must collaborate with multiple constituencies, as part of their work includes analyzing biannual survey data and making suggestions to the principal and site council about next steps. The council also acts as a forum for representatives to voice concerns from fellow students.
Breda facilitates collaboration at Pinkerton Academy by choosing when to give students space. “I don’t always jump in, depending on the committee, as I believe there is learning to be had when the task is not as successful as the students’ ambitions,” he says.
Some NHS or NJHS chapters and student councils have activities or structures that are honored traditions. Sometimes, especially in schools that are constantly in a state of change, traditions need to be amended. In addition, every adviser knows that events rarely go off exactly as students have planned. As Arnold points out, “Students need practice making mistakes. They need to fail and learn how to overcome that failure.” Advisers can make a real impact when they teach students to adapt to changing circumstances and celebrate evolution.
Breda believes that, “Being able to change plans on the fly is key, as the best plans frequently get interrupted or have to be changed.” In his student council, he gives students a list of normal teenage tasks that they need to plan out over a week. As they are nearing the end, council members are given additional meetings and appointments that they need to try to add in as a way to practice flexibility.
With advisers’ time at such a premium, there is nothing more useful than student members who frequently use high-level critical thinking to come up with new ideas, organize people and materials, and overcome difficulties. Critical thinking is necessary for success in secondary and higher education. Breda helps his council practice critical thinking by using questioning strategies. “I constantly ask questions about ideas, whether in class or student council, to get students to realize aspects of a plan,” Breda says. In time, students learn to pose the questions themselves in order to overcome obstacles.
Both advisers and students know that events don’t always go as planned. When advisers take the time to help students combine problem solving with collaboration, they are directly teaching students skills that will be necessary throughout their lives.
Because NHS chapters and student councils are designed for running actual events instead of solving hypothetical situations, students get hands-on, authentic experiences that are richer and more nuanced. Arnold says Rockdale student council adviser Susan Powell coordinates a canned food drive to help the community and to give students experience analyzing problems within a wider context and taking action to make a positive impact.
While it is true that teenagers are known for risk taking, the ability to combine good risk taking with critical thinking and positive outcomes is incredibly useful. Running for office, heading a project, or making a mistake might be intimidating to some young people, but when advisers support students as they push themselves, young leaders acquire both skills and confidence. “Innovation often involves someone sticking their neck out,” Breda says.
Rockdale’s student council took a risk in planning a fitness-focused initiative in conjunction with local military representatives called “BattleFrog,” in which students and community members compete in a fitness competition that involves risk taking and tenacity. At Sierra Academy, Crane states, “Temporary failures are reflected upon and raised up as steps to success rather than final failures and an end of the road for students.”
Teaching students to tap into their creativity not only creates a more vibrant student organization, but also prepares youth for success on competency-based assessments and future endeavors. For instance, Rockdale’s student
council planned an activity named “11 for 11,” in which students came up with lists of 11 things they could do to commemorate 9/11 by having a positive impact in their community. This activity combined creativity with service and really resonated with council members. At Pinkerton Academy, Breda gives his student council members a list of mundane tasks such as cutting grass with scissors or watching paint dry and asks them to design marketing campaigns to make them exciting. “They tend to come up with creative solutions, some of which are far-fetched,” he says, “but the activity gets them thinking outside of the box.”
Consider taking stock of the soft skills you are teaching in your organization and sharing students’ progress and successes with school administrators. It’s important for your school leaders to see the ways in which you as an adviser are working to support the school as a whole. Successful work with soft skills in NHS chapters and student councils may provide useful connections and examples for classroom teachers as well.
Most importantly, take a second to reflect upon the work done in your organization. An increased focus on competency-based assessments and mastery of soft skills shows how important an adviser’s work is and how much the National Honor Societies and student council prepare students for the future. Learning
Jodie Stewart-Ruck is the dean of students at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon, VT.