Yesterday, I was able to have lunch with two of my former students who I miss very much. It was so wonderful to talk to them and hear their enthusiasm for life – what they’ve been working on over the summer, how excited they are to move into their new dorms/apartments and how they thirst for the learning that will happen at their respective universities. They have plans, goals and dreams, most of which were born out of their passions, rather than what they gleaned from high school courses.
One of the two students, Hannah, asked me if she could take pictures of my apartment and us during the visit. She laughed and said that she needed to capture this moment on her blog! A year ago, when she was about to begin her freshman year of college, she and I met for lunch and talked about her fears and hopes. She is slightly introverted and was worried that she would have a hard time meeting new people, leaving her family behind and just making sense of all of the “new” things that she was experiencing. In an attempt to give her advice, I suggested that she start a blog and capture her journey in a way that would give her the opportunity to tell her story and reflect on her experiences. I emailed her links to some awesome lifestyle blogs that I read everyday, gave her some information on platforms to use and told her that I’d subscribe and read every entry.
And guess what…she did it! Hannah started a blog that she’s kept up for the past year! She loves blogging, first and foremost for herself because it helps her grow, it gives her a voice. While her journey isn’t one that I would’ve ever expected she’d go on, I love reading her entries! She has also begun to think about blogging in an entrepreneurial sense. She wants to grow this into something more, possibly into a career or part of her career in communications and public relations.
After this visit, I just couldn’t help thinking, “The test score is never the end result.” Our students are people, actual humans who have hopes, goals, dreams, wishes. At some point, even though our evaluations are directly tied to their success on tests, we have to stop only reducing them to data and test scores. I know that you might be thinking that this is easy for me to say, since I’m a librarian and I have no Standard 6 (standard directly tied to students’ performance on state testing), but I am totally invested in my students and my school and our ability as educators to help students realize and reach their goals, fulfill their potential and find ways to turn their dreams into their reality.
The sum of the learning that students do must be so much more than performance on a test. We introduce them to so much knowledge, but what are they doing with that knowledge? Are they simply reducing it to multiple choice answers, or are they using it to discover, design, create, and ultimately, change the world around them? This should be the product of their learning. We should be teaching students how to be change agents – how to make the real world a much better place than it is now.
So, how do we do this? I don’t even pretend to have all of the answers, but there are a few things I hope to continue to do to help change the product of my students’ experiences with public education.
- Give them a voice.
Many students feel very powerless at school. Learning consists of sit and get, pair and share and make a product that the teacher grades. Where’s the power in this type of learning experience? Students need to be given a voice for an audience larger than only the peers and teachers they are accustomed to. Let them blog and tell their stories for a global audience. Seek out partnerships so that the blog posts your students write actually get read. Collaborate with classrooms across the district or state through Google Hangouts. Let students talk to each other about what they’re reading and learning. Give them opportunities to work, virtually with other students to create products. When assigning projects, imagine how the end result could effect change in the community. Give students the chance to apply what they’re learning in school to real world situations with real world audiences. And don’t stop there…help them to figure out how to make this change happen. It’s a magical thing when students see an actual change based on their design and creativity.
- Give them time to discover their passions.
Genius hour, 20% time, passion driven learning…all of these refer to the idea that we give students time, during the normal school day to pick interests and topics that they want to learn about and let them just learn. If given the time, students can discover passions and talents that they might have never believed existed. And this type of learning experience doesn’t just stop at benefiting the student, it can be turned into amazing things that benefit people all over the world. Ask students to create ways to better problems that they feel are serious or relevant to society. Have them create an app to help with something. What about a fundraiser to raise both awareness and money for an issue that is near and dear to their hearts? School is the perfect time for them to test drive their passions and to find out what they feel is important. Allowing students this freedom transforms them from merely students into scientists, mathematicians, writers, coders, builders, designers, philanthropists. In addition to giving them more direction for the future, it shows them that we (educators) are invested in them on a personal, human level.
- Give them choice.
Students need choice, even if it seems to scare them. They need to be given ownership over their learning so that they become more invested in it. Having teachers tell you everything is easy. Not having to think about making, doing, creating is easy. Avoiding decisions about how to structure your own learning or the product of that learning is easy. But, what does giving students the easy way out accomplish? It certainly doesn’t make them value education and it definitely doesn’t promote the idea that school doesn’t equal test scores. I know that we have to live in reality and that standards, tests, bureaucracy all exist. We can’t escape the politics of education. However, we don’t have to make students’ experiences with learning revolve around those politics. Giving students choice can be simple. Maybe you ditch the class novel and begin to allow students to read whatever they choose. Instead of requiring that the final product of research be a formal paper, allow students to create multigenre projects that include various modes and platforms to display their learning. If you’ve always made students follow specific guidelines for how they structure notebooks in your class, try giving students time to design their own form of notebook that will be more conducive to their personal learning style. Rethink assessments and allow students to show mastery of Math and Science concepts through coding or building. We don’t all learn the same way, therefore, we need choice – choice in not only how we learn, but in how we show what we’ve learned.
The struggle is real and we (educators) are all a part of it. It’s time that we stop blaming the politics of education for education’s shortfalls, and start taking matters into our own hands. We can control how our students perceive school, by giving them the opportunity to take ownership of and become more invested in their own learning. We might not change the direction of education in a day, but it takes less than a day to change a kid’s life.