Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mrs. Scott, Huck Finn and the 4 C's

My blog last week highlighted an example of producing beautiful, quality work for a wider audience. I was recently invited to Mrs. Luann Scott’s AP Language class at Windsor High School to see a student debate.  Students presented pro and con arguments for keeping The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as part of our schools’ curriculum.  The students were required to frame their presentations as though they were making their arguments to the school board.  This could have been done as a position paper, with students proving the case for either side. Instead, Mrs. Scott chose to make the assignment more meaningful—a presentation to the class.  Motivation and interest in doing a quality job increases exponentially when students have a wider audience for their assignments.  The project is no longer just about getting a grade with feedback only coming from the teacher.   It now opens up their work for judgement and critique from others. It would have been a significant step to just have the students present to their classmates.  However, Mrs. Scott added another layer of authenticity by expanding the audience.  Not only was I invited to listen to the presentations but so was School Board chairman Mrs. Julia Perkins.  

Mrs. Scott’s quick overview of the assignment revealed students were not given the option to pick their side of the issue.  They were designated by Mrs. Scott as whether they would be on the pro or con side of the argument.  This really made some students uncomfortable!  Mrs. Scott shared with the students that being able to provide a good defense for their position had nothing to do with what they believed but rather the ability to use effective written and oral communication skills.  

Mrs. Perkins and I were extremely impressed by the students.  Every student in the class was part of a collaborative team and members had a role in the final product.  Each student shared their thoughts as it pertained to the argument for or against keeping Huck Finn in the curriculum.  The power point slides and written papers strongly supported their position. It was obvious the students had done extensive research by the details included in their beautiful work.  They were poised, confident and convincing as they shared their arguments with their audience.  

After the presentations, I had a chance to address the students.  I explained to them that learning opportunities such as the one provided by Mrs. Scott would benefit them greatly in their future careers.  They demonstrated the 4 C’s: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.  Skills they will use to be successful inside and outside of the classroom.  Future employers will not look to see how students scored on an SOL test in eleventh grade in the hiring process.  It will be the ability to work with others, coming up with creative solutions to problems, and being able to communicate effectively.  I hope you will watch the video below of the presentation so you can see for yourself the excellent work of the students.

I want to thank Mrs. Scott and her students for inviting me to their classroom to be part of another excellent example of authentic learning.

Mrs. Scott's AP Language Students:  Debating Huck Finn

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Making Work Public: Follow up with Ms. Heide’s Government Class

In my December 17, 2015 blog, I highlighted Ms. Heide’s Government students who were writing children’s stories about Supreme Court cases.  This was an excellent example of a lesson implementing the four C’s:  collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. Not content with stopping there, Ms. Heide arranged for her students to share their stories with a group of eighth grade civics students from Smithfield Middle School.   

Using a roundtable format in the middle school library, groups of 8th graders rotated to tables with the high school students who shared their stories with them.  There was an exciting buzz throughout the room as seniors were running through their presentations, punctuated periodically by applause from the civics students.  There was also nervous energy from the seniors as they experienced a different sense of pressure and importance about the work they had created. It’s one thing to have created a story, but how would it be received by students not familiar with the case? As expected, the morning went great and both seniors and eighth graders enjoyed the experience. To see an updated video of the project, click on the link a the end of this blog.

Like many students, I had no audience while doing my work when I was a student, except for my teacher.  The routine was to turn in the work, get a grade, maybe a stray written comment or two from the teacher, and then start the process all over on the next assignment. The importance of the work to me was to please the teacher.  There was no relevance to my work and no connection that the work had a greater significance beyond a grade in the gradebook. 

Imagine a culture where every final draft a student completes is done for a wider audience. It may be for a group of twenty-five eighth graders, which was the case for Ms. Heide’s students, or for an even larger audience in the community. Technology allows the audience to even be on the global level now.  What if the role of the teacher was not to be sole judge of the work but to be more like a sports coach or a play director? Teachers guiding students and assisting them with the preparation necessary for displaying their work to the public.  The motivation for doing great work is that it will be judged by a wider audience, with authentic feedback, and no longer evaluated by just the teacher.

I’ve watched Mrs. Beatty-Riffle’s class at Windsor High School get ready for their production of Grease.  The students and teacher have put tremendous effort into producing an enjoyable, quality performance for their audience. This same effort can be put forth in all classes if we connect the work students do to a wider audience. Of course, not every assignment or project can have life importance. But when students know their creations will be displayed, presented, appreciated, or judged by the entire class, other classes, families, the community or even the world, then there is an entirely different purpose to the work.

As we look to build a culture of excellence around beautiful, quality products from our students, we must remember that punitive actions that impact a student’s grade will not produce change for students who are not doing quality work.  We need to give them a reason to care. The pressure of preparing for their work for display to a wider audience, and the daily focus on continuous review and modification until it is worthy of presentation to the community, will become the reason and the motivation for creating quality work.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"The Ultimate Gift"

Jane Lankford and Charlene Herrala‘s English 10 class sent me a wonderful gift just before the holidays.  I was observing classrooms at Windsor High School and their class was in the middle of a novel study on the book, The Ultimate Gift by Jim Stovall.  They asked me if I had read the book and I answered, “No; most of my reading lately has been about education.”  To my great surprise, right before the holiday I received a copy of the book from the class with comments and reflections written in the book from the teachers and students.  Mrs. Herrala wrote, “I hope you take a little time to read something for yourself, and enjoy and are touched by this book as much as I am.”  What a wonderful and caring thought to share.

I did take the opportunity to read the novel.  It was a brilliant story about a young man’s journey to discover the ultimate gift.  In particular, Chapter Six: The Gift of Learning, provided me the chance for much reflection on my own life, my children, and the opportunities we have to give as educators. Mrs. Lankford underlined, “Education is a lifelong journey,” and wrote, “Hopefully, our students will never stop learning!”

Learning is a process that does not end upon graduation.  The book discusses that commencement is when the process of learning begins and that all the years of schooling should have provided the tools and framework for the real lessons to come.  How true is this? As lifelong learners ourselves, what we need to remember is the tools and framework have changed over time.  Our students are using technology every day in so many different ways. The jobs that they will have are not even created. For example, jobs related to the Apple i-phone did not exist before 2007. The skills needed to succeed in this type of work environment are collaboration, communication (both oral and written), creativity, and critical thinking.

Unfortunately politicians, in an attempt to improve education, have imposed multiple choice SOL tests to hold students and schools accountable for learning.  The unintended consequence of these cookie-cutter tests has been the stifling of creativity of educators and children alike.   We must create an environment in which our students can learn the skills that will be utilized throughout their life and to allow our teachers to teach in such an environment.

I believe that together we can create a culture in which SOL tests are just something we do in June, and not something that consumes our thoughts and words every day in the classroom.  I believe that we can create an environment in which students collaborate together and discuss their thoughts on the topics being studied, communicate their ideas to others to demonstrate their learning, utilize their collective creativity to produce products or benefits for their community, and critically analyze information and make decisions for themselves.  These experiences and opportunities should be “The Ultimate Gift” we give to our students.