When I was living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia conversations between people often happened over a coffee ceremony that involved sitting and talking while the host had coffee roasted, ground, and brewed over a charcoal fire at someone’s home or at an office. In a home, children would eat popcorn while adults drank coffee. In an office, supervisors and subordinates would drink coffee together. To me, there was less concern about scheduling time to get together because the rhythms of everyday life allowed for programming that allowed for conversation and relationship amidst the work at hand.
At Randolph, Advisory is the attempt to create similar rhythms and time for the building of human relationships in a highly structured American school community. Every culture has its own program that serves as a platform to promote mentoring relationships. Depending on where you grew up that program could have looked like a front porch, a kitchen, a coffee shop, a pasture, or a classroom.
In the Upper School, we have a unique time scheduled every week where students sit and discuss matters of mutual concern with a faculty advisor and they check in with their advisors every day. Advisory is the relationally connecting antidote to the scheduled machinery of the American high school. Snacks are often brought by the students and discussions range from the personal to set topics. Students are assigned to the groups in an effort to create a wide variety of student interests and personalities so that students learn from each other as they talk and grow over the four years they are together. Faculty advisors and co-advisors are assigned to a group in an effort to balance with each other and connect with students’ overall development in high school.
When I arrived at Randolph last year, I was assigned the responsibility of looking for ways to strengthen our Upper School Advisory Program. Having recently come from a highly relational and communal context overseas, I chose to look at Advisory not as a program as much as a shared time of relational connection and being together, much like an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. An activity in which students, parents, and faculty all participate, it has its own rhythms and rests, and all perspectives must be considered in order to think about change. Communal programs must be communally critiqued, developed, and implemented.
So, we began with a long period of listening.
Listening took the form of conversations, surveys, and focus groups with students, parents, and faculty regarding Advisory and the relational climate of the Upper School. All of the data from these times of listening were compiled, appropriately anonymized, and through the Faculty Summer Collaboration Grant, a team of 17 Upper School faculty met in two rounds to pore over the various perspectives and consider new directions based on this feedback. With an aim to foster empathy and a to ensure a more positive experience for all involved, we turned to the Stanford d.school for their process of listening, seeking empathy, re-design, and prototyping to create a new and improved prototype of the Upper School Advisory experience for the 2015-2016 school year.
Ultimately, the work over the summer both clarified the expectations and aims of the Advisory program and created three new (or renewed) activities to help us carry out our aspirations.
First of all, Advisory should be a main driver of bringing about the second half of the Randolph mission statement, that “all in partnership with Randolph are elevated and inspired to enrich the lives of their families, community, nation, and world.” We do this through conducting more efficient school business, creating enjoyable common programming, and providing opportunities for students to engage to the benefit of others beyond themselves. Our goal is to inspire them to be people who will fulfill that last line of the mission statement. Just as you cannot enjoy an excellent hand-brewed cup of coffee and not praise its quality and desire to share it with others, we aspire to create an advisory experience that demands to be shared, enjoyed together, and leave you wanting more.
In September, we will hold the first ever On-Campus Day of Service.
Advisory groups will reach out to others on the Garth Campus and help with activities from road beautification to a re-design of the Upper School library. In November, we will host an Engagement Expo where each advisory will select a task to benefit others, carry out their plan, and share about it with the Upper School. Lastly, teachers will be meeting in grade-level Advisory cohorts to communally plan activities and address issues of mutual concern to their students.
During the focus groups, students asked for speakers and fun. We will bring back Advisory Olympics, which, as Mr. Liese told students at this morning’s Community Time, will be “bigger and better than ever before.” We will have our first speaker, Jess Ekstrom, visit on September 8, to talk with students about how they can put their empathy into practice. Never before have we as a division dedicated so much time to corporately planning and designing common advisory experiences for the benefit of our students.
We look forward to hearing from students and parents as the year goes on about the type of experience you are having with Advisory. Next summer, teachers will be working again to further refine and improve our common interactions around advisory. And from an Ethiopian coffee ceremony to your corner Starbucks here in Huntsville or to a Randolph classroom with advisory breakfast treats, the world is sharing and being inspired by good coffee and the conversation that flows with it. May all who participate in Upper School advisory take advantage of the opportunities to engage and be inspired to enrich the lives of others at Randolph and beyond.
Photo from an Ethiopian coffee ceremony by Kelsey Foster; used with permission.