“When students have the chance to do work that matters, and to present that work to people who matter to them, it makes students believe that they matter.” Mari Jones
For some of us, school learning comes fairly easily and we don’t have to work too hard to come up with reasons for doing our homework, studying for a test, or reading a book. This was certainly the case for me in school. I loved good grades and pleasing the teacher and I did what I needed to make those things happen.
But for many others that is not the case. In my own middle school classroom, I had many students who could not come up with a reason for engaging in school work. For whatever reason…grades…pleasing me…learning…that wasn’t enough. In the beginning, I had no idea what to do with that.
In the beginning, I blamed the students.
How could they not care about grades? Didn’t they know that the grades they got in middle school would impact what they could accomplish in high school? Didn’t they want to go to college? Didn’t they want to learn?
I tried getting them more invested in their futures as a strategy for getting them to engage in doing the work. I admit it. I tried lecturing them.
It didn’t work.
Then I blamed the school.
It was an inner-city school (one of the schools used by Linda Darling-Hammond as an example of how schools in America were failing students of color) and to say that the school had a dysfunctional school climate is an understatement. Violence on campus was prevalent. Academic achievement was very low. I had to keep my whiteboard markers on my person or my students would abscond with them to write graffiti in the halls. We had bomb threats on a weekly basis and often couldn’t use the computers because the students stole the balls from the computer mice. I quit eating lunch with other teachers because they mostly just complained about the principal or the students. I found that environment toxic.
I didn’t know what to do with any of that really. I was a new teacher and just trying to find my way in the classroom. But that experience started me on my journey of trying to understand how to shift school cultures and how to get students engaged in the learning process.
At this point in my development, I’m not even interested in “getting students engaged.”
I am not interested in getting them to care about grades.
Or even getting into college.
I’m interested in empowering students to own their own learning.
I’m interested in accelerating the shift that is having teachers, schools, and districts own their own learning in figuring out how to create school structures and cultures that allow learners to create their own reasons for investing their time, energy, and focus into the sometimes hard work of learning.
And one of the best ways to do that… give students work that matters and have them share that work in the real world.
I knew that that was what I wanted to do way back when I was a second year teacher.
Give them something real to do. If we want kids to care about what they are learning, make it real so they can see it and feel it and do it and share it.
But I did not know how to make that happen.
I dreamt about starting my own school. I imagined getting kids out exploring the world of work and doing internships.
But I didn’t know how to start a school and I didn’t know of any examples of people who were doing the things I imagined doing. At least not in public schools in 2006.
But I didn’t quit dreaming.
And I didn’t quit looking for examples.
And now there are many.
Many, many, many other educators are recognizing that learning works best if it is real and not just an abstraction or an exercise from a book.
Here are a few that inspire me and give me great hope for the future of education.
“Learning through music is a simple way to present the model at HSRA, but that wouldn’t do it justice. Music is but one small doorway into an immense world of possibility. The personalized, relevant, and contextualized nature of HSRA’s approach to learning allows every learner to find strength and confidence within their life story and use it to connect with the real world. When learners are ready, they are able to launch themselves into open-walled opportunities that connect their passion for music and other emerging interests with community needs.”
High Tech Elementary Explorer, San Diego, CA
““I hate my life.” Valeria had written these words on her art journal when tasked with designing the cover. This reflected her perception of school, her life, and herself when she entered my class two years ago. Truth be told, her life was hard. She had been living in a homeless shelter in second grade when she came to High Tech Elementary Explorer, a project-based, social-emotional charter school in San Diego. When she came to my class in fourth grade, she and her family had found a home, but she still had to take two buses and a trolley to get to school, and she struggled with depression and a learning disability. She was always sleepy, and never wanted to participate in the learning in our classroom. She often lay her head on the table saying, “I can’t do it.” She did not see herself as a learner. I knew that my work lay in helping her rewrite the narrative she had written for herself.
My interventions for Valeria came in the form of supports for her academic, as well as social-emotional, development. Mostly, I wanted to change her negative self-talk, and convince her that she was a learner whose work mattered to others. Regular exhibitions throughout the year gave Valeria the opportunity to share her learning with a larger audience of peers, family, and the community. Knowing she would publicly present her work provided the motivation to produce high quality work. Continuous reflection throughout the process allowed her to notice the ways in which she was growing as a learner and as a person. One of her artist statements revealed the beginnings of her transformation, “I think I have grown as an artist, because I know how to handle more responsibility.” In doing work that mattered, Valeria was beginning to see that she mattered too.”
“Spark brings together schools, businesses and individuals to create career exploration and self-discovery experiences for middle school students. Three progressive offerings bring possibilities to life for students on the path to successful completion of high school and beyond.”
School 21, London, England
“School 21 — a public, urban school in London, U.K. — focuses on teaching 21st-century skills to prepare their students for today’s world. They achieve this through interweaving three pedagogies into their curriculum: wellbeing, the ability to speak well (or “oracy” as School 21 calls it), and project-based learning.”
These educators and students are finding ways to making learning real and make learning matter. And I believe that is one of the key ways to make learning equitable.
We cannot expect that all or even most students will be like me and motivated enough by the prospect of pleasing others to “do the work” of school.
Nor should we aim for that.
Much as I loved school, it is becoming increasingly obvious to me, that I was not really an avid and empowered learner.
I did the work.
I earned the grades.
But I did not push myself or step outside my comfort zones. I did not seek mentors or explore new passions. I did not own my own learning.
Not until I started learning how to be a teacher. In my passion for pushing others to own their own learning, I am busy pushing myself.
By the way, I am always looking for other examples. Please feel free to send me links to others that are engaged in this learning journey.