My Guide to Leading Enthusiastic Student Groups

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student groupsDuring the majority of my career I have been on the fringe of creating a student leadership group at the elementary level. The idea in my mind was that this group would consist of 12-15 students and we would meet to come up with projects that would benefit the school population as well as the members of the group. While the idea was appealing and intriguing to me, I kept coming back to the potential obstacles.

  • How would I meet with students during the day when I rarely have time to eat lunch?
  • If I could find the time, how would I convince classroom teachers that time spent on this project would be worth it?
  • How would I choose when so many students might potentially want to become involved? How could I get parent support?
  • What if the group was challenging to manage?
  • What projects would we do?
  • Where would we come up with resources to carry out the projects?

The questions kept coming but the answers did not, so for many years I was in a state of indecision. Then, I had the opportunity to attend an event run by Fuel Up to Play 60 and saw groups of students enjoying the experience with their teachers and with each other. I attended this event with a colleague who is a classroom teacher and has always supported our efforts to teach students to make healthy choices. Together we decided then and there that we would take the plunge and start a group the following fall.

My colleague’s perspective as a classroom teacher provided balance and insight, which was exactly what I needed to move forward with this project. I was happy to change the “I” in each question to “We” as my colleague Joan and I set about tackling each question and coming up with answers that we knew might change as the year progressed. Allowing ourselves the freedom to change and adapt as we moved forward was key and we gave ourselves permission to do so at the outset. 

Logistics
The logistics of any project can be challenging but as Joan and I met to discuss the project the idea of the Fuel Up to Play 60 Student Ambassador group was beginning to take shape. First and foremost we had to make the decision to commit to a yearlong project knowing that there would be challenges. This first step was hard, but we were determined to make it work! We quickly agreed that meeting during the school day was not a realistic option and decided that meeting once a month before school would be best. While we knew that transportation would be an issue for some students, this challenge would most likely be the same whether the meetings were held before or after school since many students participate in afterschool activities.

After getting permission from our administration to create the group and use the building, the next step was choosing which students to invite. This was a difficult step because choosing the students to invite was based on our knowledge of the students, whether or not we felt that they would be interested, and whether we thought that they had the potential to be good leaders. Our school has so many wonderful students it was hard to choose. We decided on asking students in grades 3-5 to participate and as we went through the class rosters we chose at least two and sometimes three students from each class. We did not expect that every invited student would be interested or would be able to accept. Confident in our choices, we created invitations, sent these invitations home, and waited with eager anticipation for their responses. We were so delighted when almost all (19/22) of the students accepted and were indeed excited about the opportunity! Of course, they all wanted to know what the group was about and what they would be doing. We certainly had an idea of what our goals would be but we also told the students that it was our first time with a group like this so and that would likely all learn and grow together as the year went on. Fortunately that is exactly what happened!

Projects
Coming up with goals and projects for any group helps to guide the work of the group. My advice to any group starting out would be to create your mission statement or group purpose and then let those goals guide your work. We consulted guidelines from Fuel Up to Play 60 and learned that, among other things, in order for our students to become FUTP 60 Student Ambassadors and for our school to become a “Touchdown” school, we needed to complete a project that would increase physical activity and one that would increase healthy eating. We started with a large goal but quickly realized that our goal was a bit too lofty and decided to start with a simpler project. We ended up with three projects for the year which consisted of a brain break week using Go Noodle, a Veggie Taste Test Day for students in grades 3-5, and a “Canstruction Wheel” project which involved our entire school collecting and donating food for those in need. This last project came from a group of students who were reading about the idea of creating structures with cans and approached some of our ambassadors with the idea! The enthusiasm of our group for this project led them to get approval from our principal and then pitch the idea to the larger ambassador group. We were so proud of our students and we could see then that they were definitely becoming leaders!

student groups

Successes/Benefits
When we met to discuss year one of our student group project, we realized that students, adults, and our school as a whole benefitted from this project. Student ambassadors became leaders and their peers learned that healthy choices and change can happen when students, not necessarily or always adults, initiate those changes. In addition, students who were not ambassadors wanted to become part of the group. Adults in our school were proud of the student ambassadors and the projects that were completed. Families were proud of the accomplishments and leadership ability of their children and were supportive in ways that we had not anticipated. Initially, we were concerned that classroom teachers might feel that the group’s projects were a distraction. However, that did not turn out to be the case at all. In fact, classroom teachers and our administration supported each and every project and many teachers still use Go Noodle on a daily basis because they learned about it from our student ambassador group. Our school became a FUTP 60 “Touchdown” School once again and continues to work hard to be a good example of healthy choices to others.

Lessons Learned
The fact that everything did not go smoothly or as initially planned was actually a good thing although I may not have agreed with that assessment at the time. We learned that small projects create greater success, flexibility is vital, parameters change, very often things need to be done more than once (or twice), and mistakes help you move forward. One example of this is our initial parent permission slip request. While we thought we had all of the information we needed, FUTP 60 required an additional step the first year and all of our paperwork had to be completed again!

Conclusion / Recommendations
As the end of the school year was winding down last year in June we began to look forward to year two of the group. The questions that plagued the early stages of the project were all answered in due time and we judged the year to be a success. Using what we learned we already had ideas in mind for future projects and we were hoping that the students would want to continue as well. We were so excited with the enthusiastic responses of our ambassadors! Many asked if they would be invited again and also knew of friends that were already asking to join the group for the following year. We are just beginning our meetings for this year but our group has gone from 19 students last year to 31 this year! Are you thinking of creating a leadership group at the elementary level? I would encourage you wholeheartedly to do so! However, remember to be flexible, find a colleague and ask for help, know that the logistics can be a challenge, embrace the mistakes because you will all learn more that way, listen to the students because they have amazing ideas, learn and grow together, and celebrate the successes!

About the Author: Margaret Robelee is a PE teacher at North Park Elementary School in Hyde Park, NY. She has a blog called The Best Part of My Week and has been teaching for more than 30 years. She is an advocate for quality Physical Education and loves technology!

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