Mike Fellin

Good Choices; Student Voices

By Michael Fellin, Headmaster of Crescent School
In life, we are often faced with big choices. Where will I attend school? What will I study? Who will I love? How will my life’s work align with my values? Schools, too, face tough choices when they enter into strategic planning. Choices have consequences. They are often hard, especially when choosing between good options.
One of our best choices from our Strategic Priorities 2020-2024 was to expand the research programs of the School by founding a Centre for Boys’ Education (CCBE). We aspired then to create a research-based professional development space in service of boys’ education, while augmenting our standing as a global leader to continually discover and share evidence-based practices on how boys learn best. Two-plus years into this work, and with the leadership of our highly dedicated CCBE team, notably Dr. Sandra Boyes, Ms. Trish Cislak, and Mr. Rob Messenger, we are not looking back.

This past weekend, I was delighted to make my first international trip in over two years. I joined 14 Crescent students, Ms. Cislak and Mr. Messenger at the University of Pennsylvania to attend the annual roundtable of SPARC — the School Participatory Action Research Collaborative. As the sole Canadian school, Crescent works with other leading independent schools from across North America to engage students in research that explores gender, relationships, and identity. The mission of this collaboration is to systematically mobilize student insights and voices to improve school culture, policy, and practice.

This year, the participating boys’, girls’, and co-educational schools presented their research to one another on a host of topics, including racial and ethnic relations, wellness and academic success, LGBTQ student experience and school inclusion, and effects of social media on school culture, to name a few. Crescent’s two student projects centred on the impact of student-teacher relationships on academic success, and addressing loneliness and the experience of belonging. I was enthralled by the quality and range of this youth participatory action research (YPAR), which gives students an opportunity to explore issues that impact their communities and matter to them, while simultaneously building content knowledge, critical thinking skills, and character strengths for citizenship.

As we look ahead to greater normalcy in schools, I think it is important that we reconsider the stance often taken in having schools conduct research about students versus having students lead research about schools. By doing so, we have the opportunity to elevate and bring into the foreground student perspective on school life. Why? Because schools can’t fulfill their missions without striving to know what students know. After all, YPAR helps people like me, administrators, educators, and professional researchers approach school betterment from the vantage point of those most impacted by school policies: students. 

Part of the Crescent Way is to have our boys interrogate three fundamental questions: Who am I? How do I lead? What is my legacy? By attending to and examining this journey of self-discovery, vocation, and social impact, we will not only ensure our school remains relevant in this increasingly complex world, we will also engage our students in the very effort to champion the change the world so deeply needs. I left Toronto last week deeply curious about what I would learn; I returned home more committed than ever to our boys of promise.

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