The Pillars Remain - Advisory is not a Place

When you build a structure that is designed to withstand pressure tests, it shouldn't come as a surprise that its pillars remain standing once disaster strikes. The foundations of Big Picture Learning, built upon student interests and the premise that learning can happen anywhere and everywhere, while looking a bit different these days, still work in a COVID enforced, distance-learning world. This week we're featuring how schools and educators have taken some of the tried and true practices of the Big Picture Learning way of doing things, and successfully made them part of their remote efforts. Today we're featuring how Lenny Oppedisano (2019 Advisor of the Year) of Lafayette Big Picture explains how advisory was never a place.
 Advisory is at the center of Big Picture Learning. In our school, advisory is all things: a group of individuals, a time and a location. It is the family that -- in most cases -- you'll spend four years with. Advisories learn, play, fight and work things out. We watch each other’s exhibitions, compete against other advisories at the overnight and somehow pull it together for the lip sync battle. One 401 -- a student in their fourth year of advisory -- put it best when she said, “There are a lot of times when we can’t stand each other. But we’re gonna bawl our eyes out at graduation.”
So what happens to this unit and its dynamics when we are forced apart, isolated and physically disconnected? What does distance learning for advisory look like?
On Monday, March 16th, our district was told we would not be returning to school for at least two weeks. Our staff scrambled to get the technology needed to keep connected into the hands of students before they left. In some cases, deliveries were made to students' houses that afternoon. By Tuesday morning, every 401 in my advisory had received an invite to a Google meet via school email. Advisory would some form.
For our school, distance learning advisory meets four days a week, each weekday with the exception of Thursday. We had decided that Thursday would be a break of sorts for students. They still set goals, but there are not structured ‘meets’ to attend and students can work independently and get assistance from staff throughout the day. On Monday, we have a school-wide meet so we can gather for a Peek Me Up and shout outs. 401 advisory directly follows at 8:00 AM.
I often like to start off by displaying a “blast from the past” picture of our advisory members from their 101 or 201 year. It’s always good for a laugh. Meanwhile, my TA Erin and I check on goal completion from the previous day. Then I display the agenda on google classroom and we sort out any questions or concerns there may be with assignments, requirements, deadlines etc. Meanwhile, Erin is calling and texting any 401 who isn't online. Our goal is 100 percent attendance everyday.
One of our successes during distance advisory has been reading. First we read Elie Wiesel's Night. It's heavy stuff, but the book is so fast paced and compelling. There was no time to catch a breath and we tore through it. We also read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl. We recently began The Tragedy of MacBeth and though dark, it is also laced with humor. Reading works because I can display the text and choose an advisory member to read aloud. We stop and clarify events, respond to questions or add perspective. We talk or respond using the chat feature.
We also use advisory as a time to meet each other's pets, check out a ridiculous hairstyle or color someone will soon regret, or overhear siblings and parents carrying on in the background.  We learn about what we are doing to meet our PE requirements or what new dish someone has tried cooking.
We close advisory by setting goals for the day. When Erin or I deem the goal a SMART goal, we say goodbye and the 401s logs off one by one.
But, at its heart, advisory doesn’t end there. Advisory as a time may, but not as a support system. Erin and I work with students throughout the day. We text, call and email them and they us. Maybe half the time this has to do with academics. The other half is spent encountering any number of struggles that many students are facing.
Fear, uncertainty, confusion, isolation, depression, lack of motivation, sleep deprivation, technology overload, issues with family and friends, financial stress, and food insecurity, and a deep sense of loss. Loss of an internship, a school trip, a dance, maybe even graduation.
Advisory as a structure may provide a way to continue instruction and support academic growth. But Advisory is also the glue keeping us connected. Since every student has an advisory, there is no way to slip between the cracks. Everyone is accounted for and everyone has a means by which to stay connected. This isn’t without effort. Students are sometimes absent from advisory. But it’s not only the advisor who reaches out a hand. It’s other advisors, our principal and - of course - other their advisory peers.
I’ve seen many inspirational signs during this pandemic that remind us to stick together and that we are stronger together. This challenges our notion of what together really means. And when we are not physically together, those connections that bond us emotionally to others are all the more vital. Every student in our school has that connection to keep them accountable and to remind them that they belong.
That is advisory.