Upgrading Your Advisory Program to Fit the Unique Needs of Your Learners

Voices from the Field   05 May 2021
By Breanna Morsadi, Headrush Learning


Advisors should be willing and supported to connect students with other individuals who can offer valuable insights, resources, or even community-based learning opportunities.

Breanna Morsadi
Director of Communities & Practice, Headrush Learning

The pandemic has changed how we connect with students. With the recent mass-movement toward hybrid learning and respective opportunity gaps in access, there is an amplified need to connect more authentically with the young people we serve. 

More schools are embracing this moral imperative and highlighting advisory programs as a key, enabling centerpiece to drive equitable transformation in education. When implemented effectively, an advisory-based model can deepen student connectivity and transform schools into thriving learning communities.

Advisories help students navigate the challenges that often interfere with their development and well-being by offering an intimate network of support—designed to provide valuable guidance and encouragement. And, while advisories most often consist of a small group of peers and an advisor who meet regularly over multiple years, advisories work best when contextualized and adapted to fit the unique needs of a learning environment and each individual learner.

In my work as a former advisor and current work with schools that lead, embrace, and benefit from more dynamic advisory models, I’ve noticed that there are a set of practices that organically emerge in schools that create advisories that directly serve their student’s needs. Cultivated with intention, these game-changing elements can inspire our own reform efforts to meet the needs of our students and communities. They include designing learning environments that:

  • Foster “Whole Person” Advising
  • Fuel the Fire (interest + agency)
  • Support Opportunity Connections 
  • Build Community
  • Nurture a Growth Mindset

Below are examples of advisory models that effectively employ at least one of these game-changing elements. 

“Whole Person” Advising

Whole person advising, as a developmental process, takes into consideration all the complexities of a person. Writer and activist Audre Lorde says, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Advising for academics alone doesn’t cut it; we must consider intersectionalities to meet student needs, such as family dynamics, individual passions, and post-secondary aspirations. 

So, what does this look like in schools today? THINK Global School (TGS), the world’s first traveling high school, prepares high school students by combining project-based learning with immersive travel experiences. TGS is recognized for their holistic Inside-Out advisory program in which students are encouraged to set personal wellness goals to be the best version of themselves for others and the outside world. 

TGS student Zwe Wai Yan, Class of 2019, shares, “You get the care and attention from the staff members here that you don’t get at other schools. The advisory really stands out, including regular check-ins for projects [or topics] that aren’t necessarily limited to academics. It covers the entire spectrum.” At TGS, advisors also serve as a “connection to home,” often seen as an extension of the family while students transition through life (and high school) abroad. 

Big Picture Learning (BPL) is an organization that fosters whole person advising through Connections, Consistency, and Care. Jeff Palladino, Principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, reminds us of the energy we should pour into our learning communities. “The third side of the equilateral triangle of a school community is our families,” Palladino states. “Our families trust us with their most precious commodities, their children. So, our connections to them must be strong and deep.” 

When New York City was quickly adapting to COVID-19 life, advisors reached out to homes in the first few weeks to check in with students and parents. “Is the computer working?” “Is your child able to sign on to Google Classroom?” “Do you want to have a parent account on Google Classroom, so you can follow along?” “Is your Wi-Fi working well?” Having designated advisors who knew the students deeply and could make these important inquiries authentically allowed BPL to build a sense of community that helped students and families not feel like they had to navigate this new reality alone. 

Fuel the Fire (interest + agency)

How many students leave high school fueled with the skills and desire to use their interests to shape their life path? Not nearly enough. However, some positive deviants—learning communities pushing the envelope to reimagine education—stand out as shining examples of the type of environments that have brought the power of advisory to bear in encouraging students to seek out the unique experiences and interests that inspire them. 

Project Wayfinder partners with educators to build a generation of healthy, self-aware, purposeful students empowered to solve our greatest challenges. Founded at the Stanford Institute of Design, Project Wayfinder is a culturally responsive SEL + mental health curriculum designed, among other things, to train educators to offer empathetic mentorship that helps students, as lifelong learners, make meaning of the world and their unique place in it. Project Wayfinder makes the development of a student’s sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging integral to supporting school-work-life performance. 

High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), otherwise recognized as Hip Hop High, is a charter high school that pioneered the concept of connecting with “at-risk” students through a hip-hop music program. 

Student Alia states, “I’ve dreamt of being an international artist since the age of five, so naturally, I strayed from the passion for school. I’ve been to multiple schools, and each year, I gave up on education more and more; mostly because I have struggled to find a school where I was more than just a number. That is until I was introduced to High School For Recording Arts. At HSRA, advisors help students realize their full potential by nurturing their interest in music and the music industry.” Student Desean shares, “HSRA has not only given me a great education, but a family, and a future.”

Support Opportunity Connections

With our ever-connected global landscape, there are endless opportunities to invite mentors from every corner of our local communities (not to mention who we might access virtually) to contribute to the learning experiences of the young people we serve. An advisor shouldn’t be seen as the only adult qualified to act as a mentor or offer support throughout a student’s learning journey. 

Instead, advisors should be willing and supported to connect students with other individuals who can offer valuable insights, resources, or even community-based learning opportunities. This will give students the confidence to seek out multiple mentors along their journey, as they explore unique career paths, build life skills, fulfill social-emotional needs, and follow their interests. 

Advisors can also help identify alternative learning pathways for students to meet their holistic and evolving needs. Whether connecting students to external programs, micro-credential offerings, or personalized applications, advisors can serve as community connectors.

As an example, Headrush, a learner-centered management system, empowers students to design their own personal and academic experiences, while tracking their learning journey. With Headrush, students can map their own curriculum, opportunities for connection, and projects on custom task boards. The system also gives advisors and learners the ability to invite outside audiences to provide feedback and, in real-time, assess them on their work. 

External audiences heighten the authenticity of learning and provide community members—including local allies (such as local businesses, parent associations, or foundations), industry experts, or even peers—a role in enriching a student’s educational experience.

Build Community

Escuela Verde, a Milwaukee-based charter school, empowers students and advisors to run the school. They embody a holistic, democratic community where students are expected to help design the learning community. Students have a strong voice in governance and participate in decision-making along with educational advisors who are not only experts in their fields but also passionate about urban education, social justice, and sustainability. 

Cynthia Gonzalez, advisor and administrator, states, “Not only is it critical to build a strong relationship with our families and students, but [also] to continue to foster community relationships. With increased support after the pandemic, local, state, and [national] collaborators are coming to the table to aid in our students’ project-based learning. Our students have big dreams; the ability to connect our students with experts in their [professional field of interest] allows them to envision themselves in those spaces.” 

Escuela Verde continues to build community partnerships as the pandemic slowdown has given rise to more interest, access, and engagement. One way Escuela Verde keeps their community connections strong is by hosting weekly “Future Fridays” sessions, where different professionals, representing a diversity of races, cultures, and lived experiences, are invited to share insights they’ve gained along their career path. 

“Future Fridays have a powerful impact on our learning community,” states Cynthia. “Speakers are 100% willing and able to help students in their area of expertise—this comes directly from them. Genuine mentorships result where speakers remain in contact with students and advise if and when a project comes along the way that matches their area of expertise.”

They’ve also partnered with Dr. Alison Efford from Marquette University for students to explore and document their lives as part of a Public History exhibition. And, they have even established a culture exchange with a project-based school in Prague, Czech Republic. 

“Students are currently collaborating with many different community members to start a coffee shop, run and operated by students, as a school-based enterprise. That has been a lot of fun,” Cynthia states, “It gives students the opportunity to apply concepts to a real life project in the middle of a pandemic. Having access to community members who are willing to share their knowledge with our students has always been key to the success of our curriculum.” 

“This is a call to adults,” Cynthia exclaims, “Reach out to your community schools!” Escuela Verde even relies on a Community Advisory Council for advice and counsel, where all members are selected from the community and anyone can request to join. 

The Why Not You Academy surrounds students with “a web of support, from caring teachers, success-focused peers, experienced school leaders, mentors from the professional community, and internships focused on real-world applications of their classroom learning.” 

Home visits and family engagement are an integral part of the Academy’s promise to be deeply entrenched in and supportive of their small community. They believe students reach their highest potential when advisors meet them where they are and nurture their well-being. 

Nurture a Growth Skillset

Growth mindset often stops soon after awareness. The introduction of a growth skillset concept shifts our thinking to a more active state. As an example, in advisories in the schools we work with there often are other SEL and wayfinding skills being cultivated that are not ordinarily associated with growth mindset. 

We must nurture a growth skillset in learners that inspires a love of learning and cultivates resilience. When learners understand their potential can be discovered and pursued through exploration and the determination to keep going in the face of challenges or setbacks during their learning journey, anything becomes possible. This skillset can positively impact a learner’s quality of life and have them see endless opportunities for their future. 

Nurturing a growth skillset is more often an invisible iceberg that lingers under the surface of advisory content, activities, discussions, and events. But, what if we shifted our mindset to more intentionally reinforcing it in learners? 

Whether surfacing student interests, teaching frameworks of collaboration and conflict resolution, introducing social-emotional learning, or engaging students in personality frameworks (i.e. Clifton Strengths, DISC, Myers Briggs, Enneagram), all learning journeys should be seen as a starting point for developing a growth skillset. 

The evolution lies in a student’s capacity to continue to learn, develop, and practice such content. How do we scaffold self-direction so students naturally crave it, whether in their advisory practices, the classroom, or their communities? 

One idea might be to guide students through mapping out their own advisory practice, wherein students choose their learning targets (or competencies) they are interested in evolving and select resources to facilitate their learning and practice. Through this, students drive their own outcomes and growth, while advisory mentors take a back seat and play a supportive role.

Design An Advisory Tailored to Your Learning Community’s Needs

Every school has their own idea of how to best organize their advisory programs—as they should. There is no one-size-fits-all advisory curriculum or structure—just like there’s no one-size-fits-all learning journey.

Recognizing the considerable need to support social emotional learning after this past year, many educators and schools are realizing that building relationships takes more than content tending and that liberating young people to learn powerfully must be done with intention. This requires inspiring agency and a burning desire to learn in young people; wrapping a network of support around them; building a sense of community at every turn; and helping young people discover that growth is perpetual. 

Can the game changing advisory model introduce all of these elements? That’s a question you must answer based on where you are in your evolution as a learning community. 

Regardless, advisory programs should be met with intention, center strong relationships, transform student potential into student action, and always create space for open dialogue and powerful shared learning experiences.

For more information, or to contribute to this topic, follow Headrush Learning @headrushapp or contact us at www.headrushlearning.com. For more information regarding Big Picture Learning advisory cards, contact lbp@bigpicturelearning.org.

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