Learning Together: How developing student relationships and social capital leads to thriving adults

by Andrew Frishman
(Focus on the Big Picture, April 9, 2015)


“I just know that I want to help people… I want to help people that need to heal.”

Across the table from me sat 14-year-old Natasha, who had quietly, but forcefully, made this pronouncement. I sat up in my chair, finished transcribing her quote, put a star next to it, and closed my notebook. I smiled encouragingly at Natasha and her mother. “We’ve got 4 years ahead of us to design the best learning experiences we can, to prepare you to have as many opportunities to do that as possible.”

It was late afternoon on a sweltering day in August, 2002, and, similar to my introductory meetings with my other 14 advisees, this one had gone long; I had been sitting with Natasha and her mother at their family table in a cramped apartment in the Chad Brown housing projects in Providence, RI.

We had been sweating together for the past 90 minutes. This first “Learning Plan Meeting” was designed as an opportunity to get to know each other, but the conversation had been strained. We were sharing the space with Natasha’s two younger siblings, who were intent on SpongeBob and other cartoons that warbled from a large TV in the corner. Natasha’s maternal grandmother, some cousins and friends from the neighborhood had dropped by. While enjoying the opportunity to meet the extended family, I tried to remain intently focused on gleaning insights about Natasha’s experiences in school up to that point, as well as dreams and aspirations for the future.

One of the things at the forefront of my mind was who might prove to be valuable supportive connections for Natasha. Although she voiced aspirations for a career in the medical field, neither she nor her family seemed to have any personal nor professional connections in that area.

As I asked Natasha questions such as, “What have been your best experiences in school? What have you struggled with? What are your favorite things to learn about? The responses had been terse and guarded. I could almost hear the internal dialog, “Who is this guy? Why is he asking these questions? Can we trust him? And why is a teacher coming to our house before school has even started?”

Natasha and her mother asked plenty of questions about the Met High School and the Big Picture Learning approach, and I found myself engaging in a tacit quid pro quo, sharing my background, and how my role as an Advisor would be different than teachers in previous schools. Natasha and her mother nodded, but I had a hunch that we didn’t yet understand each other.

The role of the Advisor is significantly different than that of a Teacher, far more than a semantic shift. In addition to Natasha, I first met the other students in our Advisory when they were rising 9th graders, fresh from their middle school experience. By looping through with them over the course of their 4-year high school careers, I was able to develop contextual knowledge of the long arc of their growth, support them and hold them accountable in pursuit of their personal learning goals. As I cheered on their progress, I forged a close bond with each of them and their families.

I asked Natasha (and her mother) some questions that they later told me no one from a school had ever asked. I shared my own beliefs and motivations for becoming an educator and asked her deeply personal questions about her identity, I inquired, “What do you love? What frustrates you? What do you care about in the world? Who did you want to be? What change do you want to make in the world?” Now, these are challenging questions for anyone to answer, never mind an adolescent just entering into their teenage years, and the point was not to arrive at definitive answers. What I hoped to communicate, however, was a paradigm shift. I wanted Natasha to understand that from here on out, my role would be twofold: 1) To listen closely to understand her own individual interests and goals, 2) To start with those interests, but not leave her there. We would work together to expose her to a wide variety of learning opportunities, to broaden her mind through novel learning experiences that could be transformative opportunities.

Despite her young age, Natasha actually did have quite clear answers to my questions, answers that would prove to be prescient about her future career decisions. Her interest in helping people who were healing sprung from her own experiences. She knew too many people who had been through traumatic events and she wanted to help and support them get back on their feet.

Over the course of four years, I spent countless hours scaffolding Natasha’s learning. Initially, Natasha expressed interest in becoming a pediatrician and recognized that she needed experience working with young children. With training and support she was able to secure her first internship in a day care center called “First Step.” Her supervising mentors, perhaps due to their understanding of child development, were particularly supportive and enthusiastic as Natasha overcame her shyness, developed public speaking skills, and worked individually with students to develop pre-literacy skills. However, they also held her to high standards. I remember Natasha calling me in tears one day; the bus she was scheduled to take was delayed and she was terrified that if arrived late that she would lose her internship. Natasha learned to budget additional time for just such eventualities, and also summoned the courage to call and work out a solution.

Amongst a variety of health-career related experiences while she was in high school, Natasha was a peer teen-health educator and a dietary aid in a nursing and rehabilitation center. Like many BPL students, Natasha also took courses at the local community college, introducing her to health careers and accumulating college credit even before graduating high school. Her culminating experience was an internship in the Emergency Room of Miriam Hospital in Providence. She developed professional work environment skills and forged connections with a series of supervising mentors.

Four times per year, Natasha gave public exhibitions that were attended by her family members, mentors, educators, and--most importantly--her peers. Indeed, it was often the other students in our advisory who pushed Natasha the hardest. Although there was a culture of strong support; students also held each other accountable, pushing each other to overcome challenges, persevere and continuously improve. This culture of support would turn out to be crucial for Natasha and enabled her ultimate success.

One morning in 10th grade, Natasha didn’t appear for school, and no one answered when I called home. Later that morning, it was another student in our advisory who alerted me to the fact that there had been a shooting the night before and one of Natasha’s closest friends was dead. Within a few months, another person close to her would also meet a violent death, and she continued to witness countless other acts of senseless violence in her neighborhood.

Natasha began missing days of school. She began to miss days at her internship. When she did come in she was quiet and withdrawn, easily overwhelmed. Although my heart went out to her, and I longed to tell her everything would be all right, it wasn’t. I wasn’t trained as a counselor; I wasn’t able to offer all of the support that she needed. Through the school, we arranged grief counseling and made additional accommodations during the school day. Even with these supports, Natasha was having great difficulty coming to school. With heavy hearts, the Principal and I reluctantly wrote a formal letter indicating that Natasha would likely not graduate on time.  

At this point, Natasha’s classmates and mentors sprung into action and offered her the most effective support. They called her every morning, urging her to come to school, at times crying with her for her loss, pushing her not to give up on her long term goals.

Collectively, the advisory was there for each other at times of need. And ultimately, for every moment of sadness and consolation, there were moments of celebration.

The conclusion of this story warrants a more detailed telling, but I proudly share now that Natasha not only graduated on time from high school and went on to college, she’s now trained and certified in medical billing and is employed at the very same Miriam Hospital in Providence where she had her high school internship.

So, what were the enabling conditions? Simply put: a pedagogical approach that prioritizes student voice. A school design with structures that support the formation of deep relationships. A learning ecosystem where it is possible for educators to collaborate with students, families, professional mentors, and community members to design and implement rigorous individualized personal learning plans.

In a more conventional school students, might be exposed to more broad “inch deep and mile wide” curriculum. However, research indicates that developing technical knowledge absent from context does not result in lasting memory, nor it provide the ability to apply skills and knowledge in the world beyond the classroom.

We are living in an era of unparalleled attention to the need to improve the pubic education system in the United States. Lamentably, however, the majority of resources applied to education innovation have not served to help develop tools to support students. Despite an explosion in education technology since 2006 when Natasha graduated, there seems to have been very little focused on helping students to develop social capital. That’s what we focus on at Big Picture Learning.

Last year I received a surprise face-time request from Natasha from the hospital where one of her advisory mates had just given birth to her first child. Two other advisory mates were present as well. Although our advisory is now geographically spread out across the US, we still gather regularly for dinners. We have kept in close touch with each other since they graduated in 2006. The first wedding that my own children attended was of one of my advisees. It is gratifying to see the strong positive adults that they have become; productive members of society stepping into leadership roles. Our children run around together and our conversations focus on what the best local schools are, and what we can do to help support our children’s learning. I have as much to learn from them as they do from me…as it has always been.