Check-in and Change-up

note: this is part of an ongoing series that I’m writing about the meetings we have at ALC. Check back for more, and I’ll link to them here when they’re written.

Intentions for the Meeting

Check-in and Change-up are the two culture-setting meetings at ALC, and one of the cornerstones of the model. By culture-setting, I mean they are the place where we talk explicitly about what kind of school culture we currently have and how that fits into the vision of the school culture that we want. Check-in and Change-up hold space for us as a community to come together and discuss about what’s working and not working for us, problem-solve how to get everyone’s needs met, and make sure that we’re providing maximum support with minimum interference.

At ALC, we don’t have rules but we do have Agreements, so-called because you agree to them as a condition of being a part of this community. Each child signs a formal Student Agreement at the beginning of each school year, which consists of 6 fundamental, non-negotiable parts: Respect yourself and  others, respect shared materials, participate in meetings, share your learning, clean up after yourself, and respect community agreements.

Check-in and Change-up are the vehicle and structure for forming community agreements, which are intended to clarify and hash out the details on the deliberately abstract Student Agreements. Every year I’ve been at ALC-NYC, we’ve made agreements about food messes and clean-up jobs and not cursing at others and telling an adult before you leave the space; often we’ve discussed hoarding shared materials, caring for friends with nut allergies, and how to make our other meetings go more smoothly. Community agreements are powerful because they are formed by the kids who show up in collaboration with the adults who hold the space. If you don’t agree, you have the power to change them – through these meetings.

I’m referring to Check-in and Change-up together (and sometimes interchangeably) because at ALC-NYC they are inextricably linked, though they are technically two separate meetings. I’ll go into more detail in a moment, but as an overview: Check-in is a mandatory, all-school meeting where we go over the Awarenesses from the week and create an agenda. Then, we adjourn Check-in and anyone who wants to can leave. After, we immediately start Change-up, where those who have opted in stay to work down the agenda in an informal conversational setting, creating new community agreements, tweaking the ones we already have, or coming up with alternative, creative, artistic solutions in response to the awarenesses we discussed in Check-in.

So: they’re distinct but intertwined meetings, with an open and iterative structure, intended to support community members in collaborating to create a school culture that nourishes our mutual sense of safety, dignity, and belonging.

Let’s get into the details.

When It Happens

At ALC-NYC, we do Check-in/Change-up every Friday morning, immediately following morning Spawn. They day is less important than the frequency and consistency: since we have school 5 days a week, once a week feels like a reasonable amount of time to check in on how everyone is doing. I like the rhythm of ending the week in collective reflection and starting next week with something new. Lots of ALCs do it differently – you’ll be able to feel out how frequently your community needs to change things up.

Tools We Use

For this meeting we use something called a Community Mastery Board (or CMB) which is simply a whiteboard divided into several columns: Awareness, Testing, Practicing, Mastered, and Archive.

A whiteboard divided into 5 columns labeled "Awarenesses" "testing" "practicing" "mastered" and "archive". There are colorful post-it notes in the last three columns. The board is labeled with a sign that says "community mastery board"
The Community Mastery Board we use at ALC-NYC, complete with end-of-year post-it agreements. Click to zoom.

Unsurprisingly, we use post-it notes to interact with this tool. We also use a second whiteboard for creating the agenda and taking notes on it.

change-up notes from 2/15/19. They include a reminder of a new practicing agreement (No devices in all-school meetings), a reminder of an old agreement an ALF wanted to draw attention to (Graffiti only on bathroom stalls + only chill things [no swears/porn]), a request to bring back an agreement from last school year (which we opted not to), a reminder to take care of shared materials, and some notes about taking care of our school hamster… Notes from Check-in are in black and notes from Change-up are in blue.

How It Usually Goes at ALC-NYC

Throughout the week, any community member can add an Awareness to the CMB. Awarenesses are observations, things that we notice that are or are not working for us. Sometimes they arise out of conflict: one kid gets mad at another because they’re hoarding Lego and puts up the awareness “hoarding legos isn’t cool.” Sometimes they’re clarifying something we’re already doing: the awareness “people are graffiti-ing on the bathroom stalls.” Sometimes they’re a question for the community: “can we get a hamster?”

Friday, the whole school crowds into the Red Room and starts Check-in. The facilitator (sometimes an ALF, sometimes a kid) pulls a sticky off the CMB and reads it aloud, asks if the writer of the sticky would like to speak more about their awareness, and hands the sticky to the scribe, who puts it on the whiteboard and adds some notes to create the Change-up agenda. Sometimes discussion breaks out about one awareness or another, and the facilitator reminds the group that if you’d like to talk more about this you can come to Change-up, then redirects attention back to the next awareness. When all the awarenesses have been read, we adjourn Check-in and then immediately begin Change-up.

We split the meetings a few years ago because the school had grown to the point where it was more of a drain to get everyone to participate in Change-up than it was productive and supportive to the health of the community. It’s worth noting that the majority of students leave at this point – those who stay are a self-selecting group that we informally refer to as culture-keepers. These are the people who are showing that they’re invested in creating and maintaining a healthy culture at the school. I try and talk less than the kids do because I’ve learned that if I don’t fill the vacuum, they often surprise me with their brilliance. It’s hard to trust kids and it’s also fundamental.

At Change-up we work back down the agenda (using a different color marker to make notes) and decide for each item – was this just an announcement? Should we make a new agreement? Should we do something else (like write a rap about food messes, or create a sign to clarify microwave use, or convene a culture committee to talk to the people involved) instead?

If we decide to make a new agreement, then we try and collaborate together on something everyone in the room is willing to try out for a week. We call this Testing, and all of our new agreements go through this phase. We don’t vote on new agreements. Instead we talk about wording and usage and enforceability until the folks in the room are satisfied that we can try it for a week and see how it goes.

The next week, we’ll announce the testing agreement at Set-the-week on Monday morning so the whole community knows, and then let it flow. The following Friday, we’ll ask in Check-in how everyone felt about it – thumbs up if we should keep it, thumbs down to rework it. If we get a clear yes, we’ll add the agreement to Practicing, where it will live with the other agreements we’re actively practicing as a community (and maybe one day all the way to Mastered, which is where we put agreements that we’re practicing without even having to think about!). If there’s ambivalence, we’ll add the testing agreement back to the Change-up agenda to talk about again.

a yellow post-it note that reads "we're not doing and good job of cleaning up cook noob -Chuck"
an awareness…
two post-it notes, one yellow and one blue, that read "Cook Noob: if you commit to cook noob, you also commit to CLEAN. Announcement half hour before cook noob so people can prep lunches. People can be asked to leave if they're disruptive."
…that led to a new agreement!

The iterative nature of creating agreements is intentional and fundamental. In practical terms, it streamlines the meetings because it eliminates the need to speculate on every “what-if” situation when creating an agreement – if we add a new testing agreement, and something unforeseen comes up while we’re testing it, then we can easily adjust and test something else. More abstractly, it’s aligned with our philosophical roots: “learning happens in cycles of intention, action, reflection, and sharing.” The meeting often feels both focused and informal, and our notes reflect it – they’re messy, full of doodles, written in shorthand and inside jokes. Change-up is a powerful weekly that reminds us we are in community with each other, and trying to care for one another as best we can.

Once we finish going through all the agenda items, we adjourn Change-up and we’re done (for this week)!

Final Notes

I’m often asked what the difference is between ALCs and Sudbury/democratic free schools, and the way we go about creating community agreements is certainly one of the primary differences. My understanding is that at those other schools, rule-making is often done by a body (like a Judiciary Committee) that requires mandatory service from all the students on a rotating basis, rules are voted into effect by a majority, and rules created in that setting carry over from school-year to school-year. All of this is also intended to give kids a chance to practice the democratic process.

At ALC, Check-in is attended by everyone in the school and done quickly, while only the students who care to attend Change-up to brainstorm solutions – as I often remind kids, decisions are made by those who show up. We don’t vote. Instead, we look for solutions that will satisfy everyone in the room enough to cross the threshold are you willing to try this for a week and see how it goes? They’re deliberately nonherirarchical – in Change-up particularly, we don’t raise our hands to be called on by a presiding officer but speak informally with one another. There is a facilitator to keep everyone focused, but that facilitator doesn’t have to be an adult. The agenda is created out of our shared intentions for the week, which are added to a whiteboard that everyone has access to at all times in the space. The process is iterative, the agreements fluid. At the end of the year, we clear out all of the agreements that we’ve created, trusting that if the need arises, we’ll re-create them next year (or iterate something better, or find a way to support each other informally so we don’t need to create a formal agreement, or…).

Sometimes people asks me how this could possibly work and I offer this analogy: you’re going out to dinner with your friends, and trying to decide which restaurant to go to. I’m gluten free, so we can’t eat Italian, but you’re vegan, so no sushi, and another friend doesn’t want to travel far because they’re exhausted and we need a place that’s wheelchair accessible and… we account for all those things. We choose an accessible taco place that’s nearby our tired friends’ house where I can have corn tortillas and you can have soy tacos and everyone gets to eat together, which is the thing we really wanted. Check-in and Change-up are tools for making explicit what happens implicitly in that decision-making process. They’re tools for taking care of each other.

Which leads me to my final note: probably your Check-in and Change-up won’t look like the one I’ve just described and that’s great. How frequently you meet, where, which tools you use, the specific language about agreements and awarenesses, the timing of the meeting, who facilitates it, how you take notes – all of these things (and more!) are changeable. It is only ever my intention to tell you what we practice because it works for us, and to invite you to change up what needs changing up so that these meetings work for you too.