Students Get a Boost

A new council brainstorms ways to improve school
Members of the John M. Marshall Elementary School's inaugural Leadership Council, from the first and second semester councils, came together for a photo on Tuesday. Jessica Sinacori

There’s some blue-sky thinking going on at the John M. Marshall Elementary School in East Hampton, intended to draw students into decision-making. 

“We wanted our students to have a bigger say in school affairs and take on a more active role in the school community,” said Russell Morgan, the assistant principal, in his office earlier this week.

Seated next to him was Ava Tintle, a self-possessed fifth-grader who is a representative of the school’s inaugural Leadership Council, an 11-member group formed at the start of the school year with the express goal of bolstering student voices. 

“When students feel that their views are being heard, it can be really motivating for them,” Mr. Morgan said. By nature, children are full of ideas, and the assistant principal stressed that one focus of the Leadership Council is to mine ideas that can be “actionable.”

Through a series of prompts during the council’s weekly meetings, overseen and organized by Mike Magee, a fifth-grade teacher, issues are discussed and ideas considered. Opinions then are shared on the Leadership Council’s Google Classroom site, where students are encouraged to weigh in, always using proper grammar and respectful language, said Jeff Tupper, the fifth grade English language arts teacher. Mr. Tupper and Jessica Sinacori, another fifth grade teacher, assist Mr. Magee as the council’s co-facilitators.

One of the changes implemented by the Leadership Council involved lunchtime seating. 

“We always had to sit with our class for lunch,” Ava said, but many students wanted to have the flexibility to sit with their friends instead. So, she said, the Leadership Council pondered the possibilities during its weekly brainstorming sessions and surveyed student opinion. After rounds of ideas were generated, a solution was found and presented to Beth Doyle, the school’s principal, and Mr. Morgan, her deputy.

“Now we have free lunch on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, where we get to sit anywhere we want,” Ava said, of the school’s new policy. “On Thursdays we have to mix it up and take a number and sit at whatever number table that is. And on Fridays, we made a compromise. We sit with our class.”

Research has long suggested that children learn best when teaching is aligned with their natural exuberance, energy, and curiosity. Increased student involvement is fast becoming a highly effectual model for a more cooperative learning environment, which educators believe strengthens students’ commitment to community and democracy. They also have noted that in order to better equip children for the changing demands of the 21st century, old-school, and 19th-century, teaching techniques must be rethought.

Student-centered pedagogy draws from the basic principles of the Reggio Emilia approach, a progressive childhood education movement formed at the end of World War II in Italy that celebrates the child as possessing strong potential for development and who learns and grows into that potential through relationships with others.

Indeed, one such example of student growth through equitable partnerships with John Marshall teachers and administrators is a photography initiative, which came from a Leadership Council request for more opportunities to explore photography during the school day. As a result, a roster of photographically inclined fifth graders was drawn up and a Google form circulated to staffers, who use the form to assign an official student photographer to document in-classroom events, or schoolwide functions such as Family Night and all-school meetings. 

“We wanted to help kids build leadership qualities now,” said Mr. Morgan, recognizing that for these fifth graders the often-tricky years of middle school loom. “This is about character education. How can we foster being a good 10 and 11-year-old?” He hopes doing so will translate to more confident adolescents in middle school. 

Today’s fourth graders at John Marshall are already being prepped to take over the Leadership Council next year. Current council members are charged with showing the younger group how to navigate around Google Classroom and teaching them digital citizenship skills, always under the guidance of the council’s co-facilitators. 

To join the Leadership Council, students are asked to submit a short narrative on “Why I would make a good candidate.” The first elected council runs through the first semester, which is then replaced by a new council during the second half of the academic year.

One criticism often leveled against such leadership-type school councils is that they attract the most confident students and are not fully representative. However, at the elementary school here, members are asked to vote their peers in, and even though teachers have the ultimate say, the system seems to allow for a greater representation of diverse students and opinions. 

Ava, whose teachers said showed such remarkable leadership qualities that she was asked to be on the second council, said her greatest lesson from the experience was one of not being swayed when confronted by different opinions.

“It’s important to stick with what you believe in,” she said, saying that one of her best friends did not agree with mixing up the lunchtime seating schedules. Nevertheless, Ava and others persisted in their campaign and found a solution that seems to please just about everyone.