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  • Writer's pictureTrish Dotts

How these 8th Graders are improving their whole student body.

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

DPMS Voices

In the previous post, I introduced our school’s model for reaching every student with Social Emotional learning through peer instruction.

Each semester a teacher the Principal, Tim Olietti and I hand-pick a cross-section of eighth graders to represent their peers. All year, I watch students as they interact in the lunchroom, the hallway, at assemblies and get classroom feedback from teachers. I look for students who are either very well connected in a peer group and a few students who have apparently small networks. Sometimes I find students who express some anxiety or even those with more overt behavioral challenges. Our school already has a class called “Leadership” The students who tend to choose that class are interested in leading the school through the ASB program. Many of our students consider the “leadership’ class to be filled with popular kids. Which is great, because, by definition, elected leaders tend to be popular.

The Voices students are different. While they do have a choice in participating, they do not get to choose the class as one of their electives. It is also different, because these students miss out on the social aspect of their lunchtime, once a week. Classtime is spent diving into research about the human brain, emotions, learning, and implications of communication theory. My students report “I spend more time learning science in this class than I have in three years of science class.”


As mentioned in the previous post, we meet every day for 45 minutes. Then besides building capacity in social-emotional learning theory, they also give their voice as we develop an interactive lesson they will teach to the entire student body. They inspire the content of the lesson as well as give clear feedback on how to make the lesson interactive.

The principal, Mr. Olietti, organized our school's academic schedule to accommodate a 20-minute homeroom-type class called Flex. The purpose of the Flex class is to ensure that each student is connected to one teacher in a class that is typically less than 20 students. Teachers use this time to support students executive function development by ensuring they can manage their assignments and build relationships with a smaller group of peers. The teachers also use this time to reinforce school-wide initiatives and expectations. Teachers were to teach one social-emotional learning lesson each week. But, there was a range of interest and fidelity in that model. So, now the Voices students take over each Wednesday.

Once in a while the Voices students organize large school-wide events such as our “Red-Ribbon Week kick off. The students called over 70 representatives from local law enforcement, mental health, and the medical field. They invited them to teach workshops to our students about the implications of decisions with drugs and alcohol. 480 students rotated to three sessions in the half-day event.

Each Wednesday, Voices leave their 4th-period class 10 minutes early, so the can grab their lunch and meet with each other while they go over last minute practice for their lessons.

Our Flex and lunch classes are in three shifts to accommodate the lunch room and rec time. So, the presenters teach three classes each Wednesday reaching all 480 students. The lessons are usually delivered through Google Slides with as many hands-on activities as possible in 20 minutes. We use the notes section in Slides as a script, but as they gain more experience presenting and expertise in the content, presenters rely less on the notes and more on presentation skills.

Just this year, we have covered and practice content related to:

  • building empathy,

  • recognizing the difference between rude, mean and bullying

  • communication practice

  • bystander effect

  • perseverance

  • diversity

  • gratitude

Lessons well received by peers.

The lessons are mostly received with enthusiasm. Students like to hear information about their own social development presented by presenters their own age. There are only a few complaints from students who needed to use that time to complete an assignment for another class. 35% of students in the classes also express discomfort when we have our monthly communication practice. We call the communication classes “Synergy’ lessons. Students are to practice starting conversations and develop them with follow-up questions. This way they can learn more about their peers and are often surprised to find the things they have in common

You’ll learn more about the Synergy Lessons in the next blog post.

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