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Best Practice: Convent & Stuart Hall, SF

Audrey Stokes | March 3, 2011

Six best practices from Common Sense School of the Year 2008 Convent of the Sacred Heart and Stuart Hall for Boys, San Francisco, CA.

What do you get when you combine a school with a commitment to learning in an environment of “wise freedom,” a group of engaged parents, and a topic that interests and motivates everyone involved? If you’re Convent of the Sacred Heart and Stuart Hall for Boys in San Francisco, you get a thriving media education program that won recognition for their “commitment in action” at the 5th Annual Common Sense Media Awards in February.

Common Sense Schools talked with Sister Anne Wachter, RSCJ, Head of Convent of the Sacred Heart, and Jaime Dominguez, Head of Stuart Hall for Boys to find out what has made their media education program successful and to learn a few best practices to pass on to other educators. Here are six great lessons that we learned from their experience:

1. Involve parents in the planning process, and let them steer
The schools may have kicked off the media education program with a presentation from Common Sense Founder and CEO Jim Steyer, but it was a group of 12 engaged parents that formed the “media awareness group” that developed and directed the schools’ media education program, which has been going strong for more than 18 months.

Jaime Dominquez: “I think that was one of the keys of success to the group. It was very organic, we didn’t have a predetermined agenda as to what we wanted to do. All that we knew was that we had a group of people that were interested in this topic. … Sister Watcher and I both said, ‘Look, this is not our deal, we’ll help out here, but we’re not going to take charge. The leadership has to come from within.’ So by doing it that way, there was a lot of accountability and a lot of ownership over the process.”

2. Educate by age and grade
Convent and Stuart Hall’s media awareness group broke the school into small clusters by grouping together grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8, and then chose age-appropriate topics to discuss in each grade level.

Sister Anne Wachter: “[This was] to help parents understand what’s developmentally appropriate at various age levels, because we span nine grades, which is 10 different ages 5-14 years old, so what’s right for one is simplistic for another. So we need to chunk it down into those clusters or even smaller groups.”

3. Develop a program that serves your larger community goals
All schools have countless priorities to juggle, but Convent and Stuart Hall saw that their media education program could benefit their community in ways that made it a worthwhile endeavor.

AW: “We have goals that shape what we do at our schools. One of those goals is that we educate to personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom. And there’s no greater place to practice that than when you have a keyboard and a mouse in front of you — that place of wise freedom. So I think for parents this group has helped us to live that goal and has helped us to build community — which is another one of our goals. It really has helped us to support our parents, and therefore the children, in a wonderful way.”

4. Encourage peer-to-peer learning and family dialogue
Convent and Stuart Hall found that media is a great topic of interest among their parent community and that their program has encouraged parents to figure out “where they’re at” among their peers and determine what media choices are right for their individual families.

JD: “More than anything, it’s a way for people to realize that we’re not all in the same spot, and we never will be, but just to have a better grounding as to how parents of kids in their own grade feel about [media]. It’s little things, like how much time other families allow their kids to use media, understanding what parents are comfortable doing on a play date, and having the opportunity to have those discussions. I wouldn’t say it’s this big light bulb that went off for everybody, but just more of an elevated awareness.”

AW: “I think our parents have learned that it’s not a list of rules that the school or someone else is going to give them that’s going to work. There’s no magic bullet out there. They’ve learned that in being a good parent, they need to pay attention to the online lives of their kids and get involved. And that means talking to other parents, but it also means sitting in front of the screen with their kids. It means doing some homework on their own. It means going and spending time in that electronic playground that’s really — for a lot of us who are middle aged — not exactly where we want to go and spend our time, but you need to do it. And that they can make it fun. Jaime’s wife had a social evening where they all sat down with their laptops and learned about a social networking site. They can find ways that are consistent with what we like to do as adults.”

5. Get creative
Now that Convent and Stuart Hall have raised awareness among their parents and gotten their community engaged in talking about media issues, they’re thinking of new and creative ways to keep the conversation going. For example, they’re planning a “Media Festival” for the fall that will be a fun interactive event where parents and students can explore media together.

AW: “It will be a celebration of the good things that technology can do. We want to educate parents, and they’ll pick the booth topics. We’ll have a student panel of kids talking about what’s great about media, what are the pitfalls of it, and what they’ve learned. We’ll show parents great Web sites to go to… ‘What is Facebook all about? Here, let’s look at it with a screen in front of us.’ We want to build this out as a curricular area that’s as much an education for the parents as it is a sharing with the kids. We want to demystify some of the things that seem very scary. Media’s here to stay, it’s not a bad thing, but we need to incorporate it in our lives in a positive way, and this event is going to have a focus of ‘how do we do that?’”

6. Make the most of Common Sense resources
Convent and Stuart Hall partnered with Common Sense early on in the development of the Common Sense Schools program and have incorporated our online resources into all aspects of their program.

AW: “CSM helps all of us to navigate once-uncharted territory and to do it in a way that just makes sense! We partner with our parents for the sake of the children, and Common Sense Media helps us to do this really well. We use the online video segments during parent education sessions and now have parents teaching parents about media awareness and healthy/safe choices at home. Our faculty teaches units on positive body image and responsible media engagement — CSM resources have supported our teachers and students in many ways.”