Empowering Students With Clubs

Since my second year teaching, I’ve been advising clubs. Some have gone away, and some have grown to be very popular and effective. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, because you get to see students voluntarily give time and energy to something that is important to them. I have gotten to know some of my students very well through different clubs, which sometimes even wraps around to help us to do well together in math class. I have also learned a ton about managing goal-based organizations, which has been very useful to me outside of school.

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Obviously, it is best if the students accomplish as much as possible on their own. When the students are the ones making change, they are doing things that speak most truly to their and to other students’ needs. They also get the opportunity to learn a lot of very useful skills as they plan and execute fundraisers, events, or informational campaigns.

On the other hand, kids are kids. They haven’t lived for very long yet, so sometimes they’re not very good at things. I know that in some cases (but not all!), if I just do something myself, it will get done so much more efficiently. Sometimes this is important, if the goal is something that the wider school community could benefit from.

My goal is always that my students accomplish as much as possible, which sometimes requires me to lend my experience. A certain amount of failure and floundering is important for learning, but I don’t expect my students to always come up with effective tools from scratch. My M.O. is to share my knowledge, but to have the students be the ones to actually do as many things as possible, including planning, goal-setting, and making decisions.

Here are some guidelines that I have developed over the past few years:

  1. Elect leaders. Make sure they have well-defined responsibilities.
  2. Check in with the leaders from time to time to remind them of their responsibilities and to share tips about managing the other club members.
  3. Ensure that your group has a common goal or interest.
  4. Set up protocols and present them to your students. In the GSA that I co-advise, the grown-ups run the first few meetings of the year. We do so with the same simple template each time, which includes a check-in and having an agenda on the board. Now our president runs his meetings in the same way.
  5. Unless you feel absolutely certain that students will do this quickly on their own (note that I said *will* and not *can*), set up a simple way for club members to communicate. My students all have google accounts through the school, so I have found google groups to work nicely.
  6. When tasks are being discussed, make sure particular students take responsibility for particular tasks with specific deadlines.
  7. If you have a group without strong student leadership, come to conclusions by leading group brainstorms. I find that the think-pair-share model works very nicely in clubs, especially if you ask students to physically write things down. As a teacher, I will often add my own ideas to a brainstorm, but make sure that they don’t carry more weight than any other ideas.
  8. Don’t run a club if no students want it to exist. (There are definitely exceptions. Even if there were no students that wanted to have a Gay-Straight Alliance, I would probably still want to force it into existence.)

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I’ll probably go into detail about a few particular things that the students in the clubs that I work with have accomplished in future posts, because they do oftentimes wow me. The GSA just raised $200 for a homeless shelter for youth, the Feminist Coalition is putting together a zine, and the student director for the talent show was the only reason that we grown-ups were able to relax and enjoy the show.

Does anybody have any other tips about empowering students to take charge and make change in school-based clubs?

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