Running Your First Course Fair
Emulating Effective Practices
Something I have always been boggled by is how we, educators, often don’t utilize the tools, techniques and processes that many other industries have mastered and dump tons of money into because they have realized their value. I have talked about it with the idea of branding and marketing many times, in fact. However, another thing that I think we can tap into comes from the University world and the HR domain – the idea of information fairs. If you work or have worked in admissions or as a high school counselor – there is a high probability that you have attended, tabled at or put on a college fair. Colleges are also hosts of massive recruiting and job fairs throughout the year. At NTHS and in TTUSD – we put on several fair events each year having to do with job options for high school students and CTE/STEAM programs. So, many of us are aware of an information fair – but we often don’t use them.
We tried something new this year
I like to fancy myself a fan of efficiency, and I am constantly working on tweaking our processes at North Tahoe High School. One of my less favorite roles at work has to do with scheduling (yes…other duties as assigned…working on it). Each year I reflect on our process, and we tweak things to make it easier for us, easier for students, more clear and helping align the correct students with the correct course plans. We’ve got a lot of great things going, but one of the things we haven’t been able to master is our students getting a clear idea of what the various courses are all about and how much time they actually need to allocate to each of them.
This causes many, many schedule changes (uggghhh…) in the late spring and start of school because kids signed up for classes, and they were too hard (or simply gave too much work), they didn’t really know what it meant, or some other reason. It takes a ton of time, ends up causing issues with class sizes and more. So I brainstormed how to help solve this problem and I thought back to our information fairs. I decided I wanted to give what I dubbed The Course Fair a go (I will go through the specifics below). I ran the idea by my co-counselor and admin team and our teacher leaders – and they were on board with a pilot fair to see how it went. This was mid-December. Our scheduling requests take place in February. So I had about 3.5 weeks to figure it out and make it happen…in a school counselor’s ample free time. A bit daunting but I got to work.
A bit of context
I am always a bit of a skeptic when reading articles and blogs and wonder if that really can be done at our school. So I want to give you a quick look at North Tahoe High School so you can see how it worked for us. You would likely need to make adjustments based on size, population, climate, etc. Perhaps a whole school thing isn’t feasible – maybe try one of your key grade levels that you find having the hardest time scheduling?
North Tahoe is about 430 students in grades 9-12 — about 100 per grade level. So we are small. We also have a 2x weekly, 30-minute advisory period that I often push into with core curriculum lessons and content. Our admin team and teaching staff are usually up for most anything I want to try (I have to persuade or bribe from time to time – but they are usually onboard with trying new things). I wanted you to have that tidbit to help you understand the description of the event itself below and be able to scale it for your school if you wished.
The Prep Work
Like I mentioned – I had about 3.5 weeks to prepare from brainchild to event happening (in the midst of finals, new term, holiday craziness, etc.). I wanted to model the event like a college fair, but instead of students meandering around and talking to college reps – they get to spend some time learning about their future courses, asking potential teacher questions about the classes, understanding more about the expectations, and making an initial connection with that adult they may spend the next year with.
After I was able to find a day towards the end of January that would work for our school and got the okay to extend our advisory period by 15 minutes (30 minutes is too short) – I hopped on Google Drawings via Drive and mapped out our gym with the layout of tables and teachers. Google Drawings is a great blank canvas tool you can use for lots of things. It was easy to create a map on it for this purpose.
Creating Organizational Media
After that plan – I got to work on my go-to digital design too, Canva, and designed large signs for each of our teachers. We have a large plotter that can print poster sized documents and these wayfinding posters helped students know who each teacher was. I organized the area as best I could by subject matter to help students find their appropriate teachers too.
One of the additional goals I had for the event came not only from my experiences, but also feedback from different student groups and parents. I wanted students to leave with a better idea of the time committment and their overall load they are taking on. I will cover more of this a little later, but a good number of our students (probably like many of yours) over schedule themselves with academics, sports, work, family commitments, etc. and leave little to no time for other, unexpected things that come up. Or important things like sleep or *GASP* fun.
The Teacher Prep
One of the big things I aimed for to help this be successful is to minimize the teacher prep work to all but zero. Apart from asking them for the average time outside of class students need to work in each of their courses – teachers could show up with no prep and have conversations with students. I did offer and suggest that anyone that wanted to prep, bring samples or demos or otherwise market their program was welcome and encouraged to, but it was not required. Being our first go – a few teachers did bring some items to show off their course, but most did not. And that was fine. The biggest thing was the buy in from them and the students.
Prepping the Kids
Once I was moving in the right direction – I also got myself (and my co-counselor who works with our 9th graders) scheduled into advisory periods earlier in January. We spent the time talking very briefly about course requests, but the majority of the time was spent on a lesson on Finding Balance where we explored the ideas of eustress and distress, what their loads and limits are, and how to live life with margins. To make sense of this blog post, a book, or just about anything – having empty white space is essential. Otherwise it is a jumbled mess. So we discussed how they ensure margins exsist in their lives to account for those unexpected projects, bad days, getting sick, etc. that can fill all their available time.
This all related to our course fair because a part of the fair that they were tasked with was creating a timeline of a typical week in their life and where their time goes. I asked each teacher to provide me with the average weekly outside of school workload for each course they teach and added that to the posters with the teachers courses and name. The student were asked to go to each class they were considering and tally up their time on the sheet you can see below. I also put a sample of the teacher sign below.
I wanted to avoid having kids stand around talking to their friends and not engaging with the teachers. So I took a trick from my running CASC conferences and created a bingo card. You can see that below too – very simple – but they were able to have teachers sign off once they had asked a good question or had a conversation and once filled up – could enter a drawing for some NTHS swag. We got many, many back.
The Day Of
The day of the course fair has arrived. In our school – that means it happened from 10:15 to 11:00 during our school day. I had tables set up the night before and the posters and handouts printed the week prior to be read/hand out to kids. That morning – I hung the teacher signs and made some slight adjustments to the room layout, but generally the set up on the day of was minimal.
At 10:15, our classes started to roll in. Because students were reporting to their advisory classes (attendance still had to get taken), the teachers were also arriving with them. Ideally – they would have been there already, but after about 5 minutes of everyone arriving – people were where they needed to be. At the beginning of the event – students were not 100% confident in what they were doing. We had never done something like this. So myself and a few other staff walked around and engaged students looking lost or unengaged. We suggested teachers to go speak with and guided them into conversations with teachers they may not have considered. As I walked around – I also got approached my numerous students who had questions they developed after talking to teachers. From looking at the overall load of the courses to which math class made sense next – it sparked conversation that wasn’t typically there before. Below are some photos I took during the event to see a little bit in action. I wish I had taken more, but I had a hard time because of the questions and guiding taking place.
After the event – the feedback from both students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers felt that they had a chance to share the key pieces of their classes with prospective students, the students got a better idea of their courses they are interested in and as we are now into the scheduling process – I am seeing a large decrease in inappropriate loads and course requests (i.e. I got a D in chem but I am going to take AP chem next year).
Teachers said that they liked getting info about AP courses out to kids before they are making scheduling choices, that they hoped we do it again, and students came back with an idea already what they would like to take and were excited about the classes. Our academic foundations (students who are most at promise but not quite there yet) gave it a thumbs up.
Some of the constructive thoughts we had about growing the event in the future include that both students and teachers actually wanted more time, they wanted some prep time in our advisory classes to practice with our younger students, and creating little info sheets about each class with tidbits of readable info should the teacher be having a conversation already.
Overall – I felt that this event went about as well as it could have gone for our first try. Our students were engaged – from our highest achievers to some of our most in need of support – and they left with a better idea of their goals and next steps as we started to enter our course request process for the upcoming school year.
Do you do an event like our course fair? Many schools may do arena scheduling – which this is very loosely connected to. How have you done your course fair? What should I add that you found helpful? Leave a comment below or reach out on social media. I would love to hear from you.