As 2016 draws to a close, I think I have figured out the motto of the year:
"What just happened?"
It has definitely been quite a year. Upheavals in a variety of political realms and the seemingly unending stream of shocking celebrity deaths alone have left my head spinning. As a child of the 80's, I have seen an unprecedented number of childhood heroes (and villains) as well as inspiring artists pass away.
This summer, Brexit had me curious at the new shape of Europe. Like the media and large portions of the world, I watched as Donald Trump became president- despite all evidence seeming to indicate Hillary Clinton would win.
And my Texas A&M Aggies went from earning a spot in the playoff to a lackluster 8-5 season.
I like to reflect this time of year. Sort out the good and the bad, engage in a bit of nostalgia and a healthy dose of "good riddance." As I was reflecting, trying to make sense of things and thinking "What just happened?" I realized something profound about the state of education.
It is is our job as educators to help our students try to make sense of things.
Sometimes, we have to try to make sense of long division, or syllables, or scientific method, or 1984. Students get this new material, and many look around bewildered, wondering "What just happened?" We think of this as what we teach, but I bet we don't often think of the importance of these skills with the same weight we think of "real life" issues. But for our students, these things are "real life" issues. They may not carry the emotional impact of learning that Alan Rickman- our Severus Snape- has died, but struggling with those concepts has an impact. It is our job to show our students how and WHY these academic issues are powerful.
Other times, we help our students make sense of current events. I couldn't wait to talk about Brexit with one of my students who is quite an Anglophile- to get his perspective. The day after the election, I had students in tears because Trump won. Others were excited at the new possibilities. I had to help both sets of students make sense of the new reality. Because if they could not figure out "What just happened?" they were never going to be in the head space to learn academics.
In the same way, students are often blindsided by life- and loss. As I write this, the world is still reacting to the loss of Carrie Fisher and a day later her mother Debbie Reynolds. Both were shocking, and I cannot imagine what their family feels right now. Statistics show that it is highly likely you will have at least one student experience the death of a loved one this year. While our students are navigating new waters of academia, they get blindsided with a loss that leaves them asking "What just happened?" We don't have a teacher's edition for this, with the answers clearly defined, but we must make ourselves available for our students who are, for lack of a better word, attacked by life.
Our job job as educators is to help make sense of life. And life is political upheaval, loss and geometry. We don't understand politics or loss- and it's ok if we don't always get geometry or Shakespeare. If we let our students see that we too sometimes look around and ask "What just happened?" we might just learn how to connect with the students who feel lost in life. And together with our students, maybe we can make sense of some of the politics and loss and even physics. That's what learning is. A collaborative effort, leaning on each other to understand this world together.
2016, you have been a pretty crazy year.
But thanks for for teaching me this lesson.
Today was the first day my students got to celebrate their progress towards or completion of the goals they set out at the beginning of the semester. These goals were written on Starbucks cups, and I have kept them in a cabinet all semester.
The students got their coffee, and found their seats around the room. One by one, they shared thier goal- for the first time- with the rest of the class. Some goals were met, some had changed, some were completely forgotten. Some had come more true than students had thought possible. One shared their goal had been to make 4 new friends this year- to which one classmate responded- "And you got ALL of us!"
This is why I shared this today.
My goal, as seen on the cup at the top, was to create a coffee house class.
I got so much more.
My goal was about a physical class space, but what happened was a culture shift. I realized it was happening early in the year, but I thought it might just be me. Today, as students said goodbye (we did this a week earlier than planned because one student is moving this weekend) they made comments that struck me. Deeply.
Students expressed that they truly know each other in this class- that there is a real connection. That this class allowed them to see and appreciate different perspectives. That they could respect different opinions. One student said that because I had taken the chance to try this classroom experiment, they saw teachers differently. They saw what school could be.
I have always said I wanted to teach to make a difference, to do something that matters. I have seen glimpses of this coming true over the last few years- spots here and there.
Today was different.
It was not a lesson, or a joke, or personality trait I had. Today it was an idea that I took a risk on. And it was culture and climate and relationships and perspectives all rolled into one. It was not about them liking me as a teacher because I am fun or nice or even qualified.
Today was about celebrating a way of teaching that instantly makes lessons relevant and real. It was about seeing that student voice is more than about politics or opinions or even inquiry.
It is about building connections and relationships- which change the way we do all those things above.
One student said at the close of class- "I have never seen a teacher that cares more about what students think than you."
When I proposed the idea of creating a dream classroom to my sociology students, I had no idea what I would get. They absolutely dreamed big- Virtual Reality, classes of 12, four teachers for a classroom to aid students at different paces- but nothing they dreamed up is completely unbelievable. I want to take a look at some of the stand-out (and maybe surprising) ideas that just might work in your class today. Or at least, maybe someday soon.
Not surprisingly, my students took to the idea of different seating quickly. I have it in my class, but they took it to another level.
Sunken floors. Stadium seating in the round. Bean bag chairs. Chairs with magnets that allow students who need motion to feel they are moving while still seated. A stage in English classes to act out Shakespeare and other plays. Open floorplans for easy motion around the room. Larger classrooms for fewer students.
At the heart of all these ideas was this: student comfort and student needs for learning. They recognized that students have a variety of learning styles, and should be able to choose how they sit, and move, and interact with content.
A couple classes also offered ideas of multi-floored classes. One had a loft and another had an "observation deck" for students in sociology to observe people performing tasks. There are some issues with ADA compliance that needed to be addressed, but there is some value in the idea.
Lots of ideas about 1 to 1 devices. The students spoke about the importance, especially students who do not have their own device or their device was not as up to date. I think providing devices, while costly, does create an equality for all students. It is worth considering. One teacher suggested that the devices could also eliminate any instructional need for cell phones, so that could help reduce misuse of devices.
Several groups talked of the use of Virtual Reality. Now, they went all out and had VR rooms and walls, but I think VR is a conversation schools should have. Already, apps like Aurasma are already being used by teachers. If you are not familiar- think Pokemon Go! with educational application. Check out their site www.aurasma.com/. I have not used it personally, but one of the Biology teachers on my campus uses it, and it is awesome. I would not be surprised to see VR, even VR goggles, become more of a presence in classes in the near future. The application for teaching biology at a molecular level, or history/geography by simulating being in the actual location. Tons of possibilities.
The use of live feed video came up as well. Shooting video of the teacher who was preparing an experiment or going through it, then projecting it on screens so students can see the details. Also mentioned was videoing the lecture and immediately uploading it directly to student devices for playback. You Tube Live essentially provides this, and I would LOVE to do it, but, alas, my classroom is a wi-fi dead zone. Still.
One group suggested having an artifact time line, with actual artifacts for students to work with. Now, obviously, they must be replicas, but the value of the physical object to interact with is huge. Another group proposed a red "help" button that could be pressed discreetly that would alert the teacher on their laptop that a student needed help.
Finally, all classes pointed to interaction with each other and teachers as being the ultimate goal. Student led conversations, student designed project rubrics, students and teachers working together on the class "menu" and schedule, and project based learning were highlights.
I have shared images below of the various physical structures, and I would love feedback on the ideas. I also welcome any questions you have!
Three friends travel to a foreign land, and none of them speak the language. For the first few days, they get along by using gestures, and trying to understand what exactly the native speakers of their host country are saying. They use translation books, but often find the conversation moves too fast to effectively utilize them. They begin to experience great difficulty navigating the finer points of survival in this foreign (to them) land. Their hosts begin to grow irritated that they are not communicating clearly enough, and often times leave thier questions about the location of certain site unanswered. Finally, one of the three friends begins to grasp the language, and starts to act more as an interpreter. Though not completely understanding the language, they can grasp enough to appease the host country inhabitants, who begin to meet them halfway in the language department. Because the third friend is able to understand the language, and still recall how hard it was to learn the language, they serve as an effective teacher for their friends.
Last week, in the midst of our project on student designed education, some students began to relate to me that often times, when they do not understand a concept, they sense frustration from their teachers at how slowly they are progressing. It made me think about my experience in Germany when I was in college. We did not understand the language well, but we had someone with us who had taken German. He acted as an interpreter, because he was a bridge- he knew German, and he knew English, and though it was not perfect, he was able to find us food and shelter. And really, that is all we needed.
I was a math lab assistant at an elementary school while I was getting certified to teach. I understand subtraction and long division- almost by nature now. But have you ever tried to teach these concepts to a 6 or 8 year old?
"I have three, I take away two, how many are left?"
"Three- its behind your back."
They spend years learning object permanence, only to rock their world with subtraction!
It is almost like we are speaking different languages.
Because, really, we are!
In our classes, we have students who are early adopters- they get it before everyone else. But do we really use this asset? They are a bridge between teachers (those who know the language) and the students (those who are visiting). Imagine letting these students design an equation, teach a formula, or lead a discussion where they are connecting the teacher's "foreign language" to the student "traveler's" level of understanding.
I have seen students explain the exact same concept I've gone over multiple times- but use their own words- and student get it. I love using student voice to interpret the standards I am trying to teach.
But what about when we the teachers are the traveler in the student's native land?
Our students are trying to tell us how they learn- and how they don't. Can we understand them? Do we need an interpreter?
That is at the heart of the student designed classroom project. I am attempting to create an opportunity for interpretation between student dreams of learning and teacher expectations of instruction. Students are actually attempting to learn the teacher language so as to communicate their ideas. They know teachers and administrators are coming to observe and ask questions. They are ready to share their student voice
They are ready to interpret and be effective teachers...for their teachers.