PLP Pathways: Notes From the Field

This PLP Pathways Note from the Field has been crafted by Kyle Chadburn and Andrea Gratton, middle level educators at Orleans Elementary School. You can follow them on Twitter @OEShumanities

The Importance of Reflecting on Identity

When working with adolescents, developing relationships and building the capacity for empathy is a must. Without those foundational relationships between staff and students, as well as students with each other, learning opportunities will not reach their greatest potential.

However, adolescence is a time when students are almost constantly changing. Their passions, interests, hobbies, strengths, challenges, and beliefs are in a state of flux that makes it difficult to build those powerful and necessary relationships. However, the more students are able to reflect on themselves as learners and as human beings, the better they can communicate their needs, strengthen bonds with those who are available to support them, and find the motivation they require to be successful inside and outside the school community.

Using PLPs to Explore Identity

The middle level of our K-8 school has been developing new ways for students to engage in guided reflection about their individual and group identities. Much of the progress on individual identity has come from our work on Personal Learning Plans (PLP). We have a designated PLP work time each Friday, and so far this year, we have focused that time solely on exploring the facets of our identities.

Setting the Stage: Surveys, Selfies, Strengths & Challenges

Our process began with a student interest survey. The survey asked questions ranging from curiosities to hobbies, and favorite things to future goals. Not only did this provide our middle school staff with a helpful tool so we might better understand the wide variety of interests our students have, but it also provided the students with a chance to realize interests or passions that they hadn’t really considered beforehand. I am often surprised by the number of students who, when prompted to answer the question “What are you interested in?” will respond with a simple, “Nothing.” Yet, when you take the time to dig deeper and provide scaffolding for this type of self-inquiry, students suddenly realize that they have far more interests and curiosity than they thought. Often they simply have never been permitted or enabled to explore them in the past!

After students spent some time answering questions and learning about themselves, our next step is to reflect on personal strengths and challenges. We provided students with a list of critical, transferable skills that are valuable in academics and in other aspects of their lives. Students were also permitted to include additional skills that were not listed if they were able to explain the importance of the skill. When our list was complete, we asked students to choose the three skills that they believed were their greatest strengths and three that were their greatest challenges at this point in their lives. These lists were shared by students at their first student-led conference of the year in mid-September, and will be used, along with parents’ input from the conferences, to form PLP goals in the near future.

The final step, as we get this process started, is to allow students to provide a visual representation of themselves on their PLP website. This could be a sketch, a FlipGrid video, or the most popular choice, a selfie. Though it is easy to write off the selfie as a wasteful and indulgent activity, it is also important to remember that it is a significant part of the culture in which our students are living, and it can have far more significance in helping us understand our students than we might believe at first glance. How they choose to represent themselves in their selfies provides insight about how they hope to portray themselves to the world. Plus, it is a fun and engaging process, and a great chance for students to see teachers participating in an activity that belongs to their generation.

Digging Deeper: Core Values & Sketchnotes

We are now reaching the stage of our process where we ask students to dig even deeper into their identities by examining core values. Identifying strengths and challenges is an important first step, but it is when we ask students to think about what is most important to them that they truly start to broaden their abilities to be self-reflective. For some students, this may be the first time that they are asked specifically to assign value to non-material things and examine what it means for something to be intrinsically valuable. Similarly to our strengths and challenges activity, we provided student with an extensive list of values and attached definitions. We provided opportunities for students to challenge these definitions if they wished. We then asked them to apply a “zoom in” approach to defining their core values. They started with ten values that they appreciated in others, then reduced to seven, then to five. It was not an easy task for many students, and they needed a sounding board to make some of their decisions. Therefore, if students are comfortable doing so, this is a great opportunity for teachers to open conversations with students, or for students to open conversations with each other.

The second component to our core values work was asking each student to create a Sketchnote. In case you’re unfamiliar with Sketchnotes it is essentially a way to collect ideas creatively through drawn pictures, symbols, and limited words. Our students embraced this activity more than any other identity work up to this point. The process of translating their definitions and examples of these core values into a visual medium was incredibly powerful to watch, and the end products are sure to be as well!

Potential Drawbacks

Despite the many positives associated with taking the time to explore identity with adolescents, it is important to acknowledge the potential drawbacks as well. This is especially critical when trying to advocate for this time in your school’s schedule or space in your district’s curriculum. By acknowledging the limitations, and then clearly articulating ways that the benefits outweigh them, you will be able to make positive change more quickly.

One drawback, as is often the case, is the time commitment. In order to do these activities and get quality results, it will take some time. Our students have spent six, thirty-minute sessions on their PLPs so far this year, and we are part way through completing their core values Sketchnotes. However, we have found that it is time very well spent, and there are few other activities that will provide such profound insight into students.

Another potential drawback is the possibility of disengagement from some students. There are a number of reasons why students might disengage during this work. Some come from backgrounds where reflection vulnerability are frowned upon. Others may have suffered some form of trauma, and this type of introspection opens old wounds. Of course, there are always cases where some students just don’t seem to see or understand the value of these activities.

Regardless, we have found that the vast majority of students do engage in this work, and for those that do, the awareness they gain from the work makes it a worthwhile endeavor.