Sunday, April 7, 2013

Real-life Learning - My Goal for Every Student

Back in 1993 (20 years ago!) I was one of the original teachers hired at Mililani Mauka Elementary School.  Prior to starting the school year, all of us newly-hired teachers were asked to read several articles about "thinking dispositions,"   I was overwhelmed and had no idea what the articles were talking about.  However, in time and after receiving training from David Perkins of Harvard's Project Zero, all of us teachers gained a greater understanding about thinking dispositions.  We then collaborated to design meaningful and relevant project-based units and to explicitly teach the thinking dispositions throughout the day,  When we taught these units, we saw how engaged our students were. Although we had our curriculum plan of what we wanted our students to learn and what resources we would use, teaching and learning were guided by the students' questions and their curiosity to find out more than what we had written into our plans. In fact,  learning often went way beyond what we originally envisioned.

When I became a principal ten years ago, one of my goals was for every grade level to collaborate on creating interdisciplinary units and to embed content standards to make learning more relevant for students. Today, every grade level has created units and review and revise them yearly.  However, with the emphasis on statewide assessments and making Adequate Yearly Progress, these units are sometimes set on the side in order to provide students with more time to practice reading and math skills.  Perhaps it was my fault in setting a goal every year to make AYP.  Perhaps I needed to rethink how we measure success for each student and to reflect on what is the real meaning of "quality education."

It was serendipitous that I was able to read this wonderful blog, "Deeper Learning:  Highlighting Student Work" and view the videos.  It brought me back to what I believe we need to focus on in education -- students doing meaningful and quality work with teachers coaching and guiding them.  The video on "Austin's Butterfly" is amazing; listen to the students' comments as they view each draft of Austin's drawing.  In order to get this kind of quality work, however, teachers need to guide students to understand how to give and receive specific feedback in order to improve a product.  This disposition needs to be nurtured from the time a student is young, and the work itself needs to be "important" with students applying what they've learned to a real-life situation.

Some of these kinds of projects are already happening at Hale Kula.  For example, after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in November 2012, our third graders brainstormed and decided to collect money to help families who were devastated by the super storm.  Our fifth grade Hope Garden is an example of sustainability, and students lead tours for the community during Earth Day activities.  Additionally, our sea urchin project is a great example of how our students are making a difference.  We know how excited students are about learning when they can participate in "real" learning, so this kind of learning needs to be the norm and not the exception.

As a youth soccer coach, I remember planning my practices to include working on skills and drills, oftentimes, the very ones the players had difficulty executing during the previous game.  Then we practiced those skills in controlled, game-like situations, and then hopefully, the players would be able to understand and use those skills during a real game.  Music, art, and foreign languages are similar in that students practice and then apply their skills in order to improve or showcase what they have learned.  The problem with school is that often, we teach and then have students practice skills, but they never have the opportunity to apply these skills to a real-life situation.

Engaging in quality, meaningful work, not just practicing skills -- that is my goal for every student at our school.  



14 comments:

  1. I agree with what you have to say. I think everyone will agree that sports, music, and art is where you see application of skills but not with academics. I also think many teachers want to teach application of language arts and math skills but don't know where to start. It's a big shift in thinking processes and trying to figure out HOW to make application of language arts and math skills a reality in our schools today.

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    1. Thank you for responding to my blog. The way to start, I believe, is to work together to come up with ideas on how to teach and practice skills and then to apply them in a meaningful way. I'm hoping that others will come up with ideas of how we might do that at our school in every grade level.

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  2. I also agree with what you have here. Making connections to the real world is a very important part of teaching today. As I read through this, I think about how huge an undertaking this seems to teachers, though with time for collaboration, it absolutely can be done. Teachers are, indeed, under a huge strain regarding standardized testing, and the task of applying these very minute skills to real-world tasks seems incredibly daunting, but again, with time to work together, and an attitude of openness and cooperation, I think it can be done. I think we need to start small, for example, what if we had students "help" with our grade-level budget, what do THEY think we need in the classrooms? This is a real-world application, and as a project gives students great insight into money matters, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and problem solving. Perhaps the kiddos could be divided into small groups within a classroom to decide on their own "budget" then create a presentation for why they think the money should be spent in certain ways. This adds the collaboration and argumentative essay aspect to the project, which again is a real-world issue.
    I think that we have such great examples of projects, such as the ones listed above, that teachers feel intimidated....like they cannot undertake such a huge task, but it doesn't have to be huge. Students can be actively engaged in many real-world scenarios, we just need to be creative (and have the time to be that way collaboratively) in thinking of ways to bring the world into the classroom.

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    1. I love your suggestion about presenting students with a problem such as determining how to allocate grade level funds. Having them use technology to present their ideas to the rest of the class may mean learning how to use programs such as spreadsheets or presentations. As you suggested, projects don't have to be overwhelming. This particular idea can incorporate so many math, language arts, and technology skills. Thank you for your suggestion.

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    2. Thank you for this insightful blog. I think we can all agree. As I was reading, two things come to mind: First, in giving and receiving specific feedback in a classroom setting, it is essential to create an environment where this can be done in a positive and non-threatening way. It needs to be nurtured by the teacher. The "climate" needs to be right for the students to freely give and take. How feedback is given in a peer interaction is very important and needs to be taught. The ability to receive feedback in a positive way also needs to be taught. The environment is important for this to take place in a natural, comfortable, and meaningful way.
      Second thing: skills to real life situations. In subject areas like Health and PE, this can be done with data gathered from the students, relating to themselves! For example, heart rates, running paces, distances walked/run, etc. The Math required for working with this data can be very relevant for the student, obviously, but also for the teacher. The added benefit is that the data gathered is directly in relation to the student. It's THEIR heartrate; it's THEIR running pace. The student him/herself becomes the Math problem! It's one simple way of bringing basic skills to real life.

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    3. I totally agree with you about giving and receiving feedback. This needs to be part of the class culture and the teacher needs to model how to give specific feedback that is non-threatening and helpful to the student. Too often we give generic comments such as, "Good job!" or "Nice work!" Did you hear the specific comments from the students? Perhaps students need to see that video, too, so they can understand and then practice giving and receiving feedback.

      You provided a very relevant example of integrating health, PE, and math through activities such as heart rates, keeping track of distances run/walked, etc. It's possible to add science (How does your body work? Does what you eat matter? etc.), language arts (reading about body systems, heart rate, great runners, etc.) or even technology (taking data using a spreadsheet, creating a slide show, etc.) Wow! Such a simple idea has suddenly taken on new meaning for the students!

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  3. I just viewed the Deeper Learning Blog and was truly amazed and impressed with the work of first grader Austin and the second graders "Snakes Were Born This Way". This type of meaningful learning experience and product development is definitely what I would like for my own children as well as my students. I think we would have increased attendance and decreased behavioral issues if we were able to engage students on this level.
    I am really concerned with the heavy reliance we are putting on test scores. Pre-post testing students on every math, science, and social studies unit as well as HSA 3x a year are placing too much focus on test scores. Students that do not test well are feeling very defeated. Completing an authentic quality project incorporates so many more learner strengths and is much more valuable and relevant to 21st century skills.
    I am not sure how we get there but I definitely want to try. I think viewing student work samples is a good start. Is there professional development and teacher training available?

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    1. I agree with you about the quality work that students can do when that is an expectation and they are guided through the improvement process.

      You bring up a very good point about testing. Data is important and knowing what students already know can help teachers decide what needs to be taught. Perhaps we need to look at other ways to gauge what students know prior to teaching a unit. Instead of a pre-test, perhaps we can have them generate a chart -- What do I know? What questions do I have? How will I find out? Why is this important? As students find out more information through individual or group research, they can fill in their chart. This kind of data may be more meaningful than a pre- and post-test.

      At first, I thought that taking the HSA 3x/year was a good thing and we'd see growth in students through the school year. Since then, though, I've changed my mind. There's too much stress on the students, and test scores are not as meaningful as a student-generated portfolio which the student self-selects to show evidence of growth through the school year. Do you agree?

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    2. I have a friend who is an education consultant/professor and she hhas offered to put together an inservice for free on no worksheets.
      As she states "I'm anti-worksheet!"

      As form myself, I do believe in sensory understanding. Singing
      out lessons, raps or cheers, marches, dances...the kinetic of movement. Somehow those synapses off deeper paths of undersetanding when the learning is mixed with fun! Appreications are bound to
      grow and community units in the classroom become caring and
      respectful, celebrating everyone.

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    3. Thank you for your suggestion. If teachers are interested in a "worksheet-free" workshop, we can ask your friend to assist.

      Sensory activities can be helpful for students who need to be active and they may assist students to remember helpful information as well.

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    4. Extraordinary. Those kindergarteners were much more aware and using much better vocabulary than I expected. I think the hardest part to teach, is the perseverance to edit, modify and re-draft. Most of my students come in with a "one and done" mentality. I did the work and now I can do something else. That desire for excellence needs to be fostered, as you say, "from an early age." That is not to say that it can't be implanted in 5th grade, it certainly can, but I would hope that it was already there by 5th grade. I think this comes from the way projects are assigned. Students are told to do 'something." They are not assigned to do 'something of excellence'. I know that I have not encouraged their best work at times because I don't have the confidence that they can critique each other in a constructive way and it is difficult for me to check 25 projects four or five or six times each. Setting up the collaborative groups idea early, and reinforcing to positive nature that is required, is key. You must let peer review happen first, and second, and third to encourage excellence before they come to the teacher with what they feel is a completed project. That feeling of trust needs to be nurtured as well at an early age.

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    5. Keith, I appreciate your comments. Yes, we see students with a "one and done" mentality that is so frustrating for us as teachers. We know they can do better if they only put in a little more effort. I think one way to approach this disconnect is to compare the project/assignment to what students can relate to most -- a sports team they're on, a dance class, a video game, etc. Do they learn something and are immediately good at it? Do they pass a level in their video game every time or do they have to try several times before moving on? We should be nurturing that same mentality in school -- that learning something is hard work and teammates (classmates) are there to help you improve and get better. A soccer team with one great player won't win over a team with 11 players who are always improving and working as a team. An orchestra can have a virtuoso violin player, but the rest of the members need to play well, too. Perhaps by relating schoolwork to students' interests outside of school, we can have a positive impact on how they approach schoolwork. And yes, we need to start from the beginning when students first enter school.

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  4. I think this highlights why collaboration and sharing of ideas amongst teachers is so important. As a first year teacher, I often spend a lot of time trying to design, research, or think of activities that students can do that are meaningful and allow them to practice new skills in relevant ways. When I first started out, I did not have files of resources from previous years, or a bank of go-to lessons, as most experienced teachers do. However, the teachers I work with have provided me with so many great ideas and resources, which is much more than I could come up with on my own in one year. I have recognized how sharing ideas and materials makes our students' learning experiences much more rich. We can also share how well a certain lesson worked or did not work, and what type of feedback students have given. Teamwork as teachers can help everyone involved be more successful in providing the types of learning that are important and meaningful.

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    1. Gregg, you highlight the importance of collaboration and sharing of ideas so students can benefit from rich experiences. I am happy to hear you say that you have gained much from other teachers. That is how it should be; teaching is not an isolated profession. You are gaining valuable ideas and resources from your colleagues, and I'm sure they're learning from you, too!

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