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How to engage your Senior Students when they're OVER school!

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

Have you already guessed that I'm talking about Year 13 (aka Grade 12)?! Disengaged, and ready to leave what has become, to them, a claustrophobic system, how are you going to keep them motivated by somehow bridging the gap between school and the next phase of their lives? Read on...!

It took me a few years to work out a system that worked, but I did it! Like you (why would you be reading this otherwise?!) I was over senior students who were either wagging class because the surf was up, or busy with ‘more important’ things like prefect duties, playing in a sporting tournament or working in somebody else’s class to finish an assignment (really colleagues??). Year after year, I watched the truancy and engagement get worse. Thinking it must be me – getting older, less able to keep a young audience wowed...wah...wah.. - I continued to find more tricks to add to my performing seal act. Results: limited at best. What was I missing? These ‘kids’ just wanted out of the school system. They considered themselves adults, knew everything about the world, and wanted to manage themselves. Many couldn’t wait to get to work, polytech or uni. I’ve seen several brilliant teachers request, “no Year 13 classes for me next year thanks!” because they’ve run out of hair to pull!

One day after school, thinking we should “scrap everything," because there must be a 'better way', I realised I could do exactly that … “scrap everything”! We know the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You can’t fight a cowlick, you have to work WITH it. I decided to work WITH my students, give them exactly what they wanted – freedom (with conditions). A senior student privilege that treated them like adults.

A tutorial system is born

A tutorial system – one that only the students opting for that assessment would take part in – was born.

I rewrote my year plan (we'll get to that below), and redesigned the way I planned for each week. I did it overnight and began my new system the following day - yes, half-way through the year! Full disclosure: I left teaching a year ago, but the graphic below is a tidier version of an actual plan for the week.

My planning was now online so students could see when a tutorial was on in an assessment they were entered for and knew that was a non-negotiable; they had to be there or 'else'! Students who had not entered the assessment that I was tutoring in for that week would work quietly and independently on other work for my subject. If they had other things they were desperate to do (work over in the art department, plan a school assembly, see a coach), fine. For my planning I used Microsoft OneNote, but you could also use Google Drive (it's vital that you set your system up properly), Sites or Classroom. To recap, in that online planning, students could see:

  • what tutorials were on;

  • what they needed to be ready for;

  • what to do if they weren’t with me for a tutorial but working independently instead; and

  • what to catch up on if they were away.

  • All the other logistical stuff such as who I needed to see, due date reminders and so on.

Why use the tutorial system?

Keeping senior students engaged in class is about:

  • Giving them the feeling of choice. A teenager ‘boxed in’ is a dangerous thing. A senior teenager who’s dying to leave the confines of ‘babyish’ school is even worse!

  • Making them feel empowered. With choice comes empowerment. You know, the old, “Nobody’s telling me what to do; I’m doing what I want.” Well, yeah, you are, but thanks to my super awesome system you’re kinda doing what I want too! Boom!

  • Making them feel safe. They know there’s a structure to this – they won’t miss out what they need, and you seem organised enough not to let them fail.

  • Keeping it focused and keeping it moving. It’s about deep, critical discussion and detail. With a smaller group or a group that has ‘bought in’ to this topic/assessment proper engagement is more forth-coming. You don’t have the restless ones who are, “not even gonna do this assessment anyway,” distracting you and the other students.

  • Them understanding that a tutorial is about group discussion and activity. It’s about playing an active and engaged part in the lesson (tutorial) now. It’s not like they can hide behind 29 others in the disengaged classroom and think about their weekend while Snapchatting on the sly under the desk!

Set some 'common understandings'

Have 'the discussion'. This is the consensus to which you must secretly guide them (mwah-ha-hah):

1. Attendance at tutorials is non-negotiable.

2. If you’re in a tutorial, you’re taking an active part in it.

3. If you’re not in a tutorial you’re working quietly on other things. ("If that’s watching Netflix, go for it; it just means you’ll have to do more work at home. You and I have better things to do than nag and bag all period.")

4. If it’s in the plan, it has to be done.

5. If you’re absent, you can see what you should have done (cos it’s all online). Catch up!

What does a lesson look like?

I do up the plan for the week, based on what I would be able to manage if I was a student. I then tweak at the end of each day as needs dictate. A plan for the day will look like this.

Most students will have already seen the plan (because they know to check if their tutorials are on at least!) but I also have it up on the projector screen to view as they walk in. They go straight to their appropriate seat - either the tutorial group, or individually placed desks around the room's periphery. Some may ask to go to a computer lab or the library. Others may check in and out again straight away ("I'm here Miss, but need to work in the art room this period please.")

A tutorial is run for the assessment that’s the focus of the week. Students who have entered that assessment will sit with me in the center of the room for this. Students who are not entered in that assessment will work around the fringes of the room on other work. This other work might be for another subject or it might even be Snapchatting - it doesn’t matter, because we’ve agreed that, if it’s not done in class, it’s done in their own time. Remember, no nagging or moaning from either party - #happinessallround. If, as does happen, most of the class is studying that tutorial assessment, teach to the whole class as per normal but let the 3-4 who are not doing that standard work on the sidelines/at the back of the room or in the library. Otherwise, the system that works best for me is:

  1. 10-12 desks sit in the center of the room. This is where tutorials take place. Why in the center? Because it disperses the others around the room so that they’re reasonably well separated from each other. They need to be focused on their own stuff.

  2. The rest of the desks are place in singles or pairs around the edges of the room. This is where students will work quietly, managing their own time like the grown-ups they want to be. Some may need to work as a pair, but most will be focused on their own work. These guys are seniors; it’s time to focus … for real!

  3. Students working on their own know they can interrupt my tutorial session to ask a quick question. They are not left to flounder. I also found I was sometimes able to tutor for half the lesson, then move around the room to help everyone.

  4. Occasionally have a day where there are no concrete plans - students are working and you are roaming and helping.

You want to try it? Go for it!

You've no doubt decided on a theme for the year, and your texts connect accordingly. So, here are your next steps:

1. Design your year plan (see the example below) around the key assessments. This should include:

  • A brief study of key texts / external assessments first. This will take up most of the first term.

  • A focus on a different assessment each week that will involve students who have chosen that assessment sitting with you in a tutorial session.

2. Give each student a copy of your year plan. (Put one on the classroom wall, and one online as well.) Tell them you’ll all be doing a brief study of your key texts. This is because:

  • Regardless of the assessments they’ll finally choose, an appreciation of the arts enhances life.

  • Other assessments will likely ‘hang’ from the key texts. Students need the bones from which to hang their flesh!

3. Provide students with a list of assessments with a summary of what they have to do for each. This will help them consider what they'll enter.

4. Watch/Read main texts. This will involve:

  • One film (This is a good hook at the beginning of the year!)

  • One written text / two short written texts (Tip: If you’re doing a ‘long’ text, and you know your students are reluctant readers, get the audio book to play in class, or opt for short texts.)

  • Filling in Student Response Journals as you go. This will give students a basic understanding of the elements of each text; enough to use them to 'bounce from' for other assessments, and enough to give them a great resource to keep working on if committing to completing the assessments for the text studies.

5. Students now have a good understanding of the key texts, and can better decide what assessments they’ll do and how they’ll do it. Get them to commit to which assessment they’ll complete this year by entering them on your SMS system (in New Zealand I think most schools use Kamar) and advising their parents.

6. Begin your flexi programme and enjoy a refocused, more motivated senior class!

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