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'Mom, You Don't Get It. They Only Do Stuff for the Grade.'

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Today's guest post is written by Melissa Weatherwax, a K-12 technology coach in the Averill Park Central School District (Averill Park, NY). 

Recently, I took a leap of faith and, after twenty years, locked my classroom door and pushed it shut for the last time. Adventures were lying before me, as I'd now be able to collaborate with colleagues district wide.  If there was ever a time to push myself it was now. 

Dylan Wiliam's words resounded in my head, "If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve."   

I knew it was my time. 

This year I created an opportunity to work with high schoolers on an independent study. Inspired by George Couros' book, The Innovator's Mindset, I wrote the course using NYS Common Core standards and planned it to be project oriented, student driven and personally relevant. This elective would be inquiry based, embed research, require networking and perseverance, and include a final outcome of choice, all with opportunity for student innovation and ownership. My intention was to be their guide and partner. 

Couros encourages schools to move "away from a culture of compliance to create engagement and, ultimately, empower (students) in our schools" and that was my intention.  The first "pitch" was to my most critical audience; my own children. They not only approved and gave me advice, but also told me how much they wished they had had an experience like this.

The students and I met to discuss the course and the provided guidelines. By week two they were uneasy and frustrated. Questions came pouring in:

  • "Do you have a list of topics I can pick from?"
  • "How many words do you want?"
  • "How will you grade this?"
  • "How many lines should it be?"
  • "What should I cover?"
  • "Do you have people we contact?"
  • "What format should I use?"
  • "How do I start this?"
  • "Will there be a final exam?"

I did what any reasonable, twenty year veteran would do. I called my college-aged daughter asking what was happening. She lovingly pointed out, "Mom, you don't get it.  They only do stuff for the grade."

She went on to explain that it was likely they knew how to respond to essays, what day homework would be assigned, how many videos they would watch in a certain class, which teacher liked answers a specific way. They already mastered which chapter they'd read next and how to answer the questions that followed.  She was pretty sure they had figured out which teacher would lecture the entire class, which pages of a packet they'd have to do, and exactly what to study for weekly tests. 

As the conversation went on she told me that every day from the first bell in Kindergarten to last minute of high school teachers planned everything for her and she was pretty sure it was planned for them too.  We recalled a summer conversation with a neighbor comparing education to a game of Ping-Pong; teacher serves the assignment, students complete it and return the serve, teacher serves another and students complete and return that too, the game continues and points are acquired. 

As we reflected on the Ping-Pong metaphor we realized how true it was.  My girl had mastered our system and reminded me that my students had 11-12 years of getting good at the "sport" of school and I was changing the rules. 

My brain spun for days. It was time to ask students what they were thinking about their learning.  I chose several students reassuring them that I was looking for their candor.  Simply asking for their opinion got some wild looks, but their insight was revealing.  One answered, "I've never been asked what interests I have or how they could be part of my education." Still another offered, "We are just here to get information and answers from the teachers."  A third assured me he had been working hard, but was frustrated that he couldn't come up with a "right answer." He paused then said,  "You can't even believe how many nights I can't sleep trying to solve this thing.  I can't stop thinking about this project and it's driving me crazy."  Quietly celebrating,  I asked him when the last time was that he couldn't sleep over something he was learning in school.  He smirked and said,  "I don't think I have. I guess that's why this is so hard".   

We had a thoughtful conversation about learning and the power of this experience. I assured him he was proving how hard he was working, how much he was learning and that I realized how different this experience was for him.  He and the others were good at school and it quickly became clear why they panicked with what I believed was a great opportunity.  Clearly there are standards, building background, and required skills and those need to be addressed, but Couros challenges our thinking on traditional ideologies about school:

  • "School promotes starting by looking for answers.  Learning promotes starting with questions. 
  • School is about consuming.  Learning is about creating. 
  • School is about compliance.  Learning is about challenging perceived norms. 
  • School is about surface level thinking.  Learning is about deep exploration.
  • School teaches us to obtain information from certain people.  Learning promotes that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner."    

More often than not, classrooms look and sound exactly as they have for the past several decades.   I truly believe we are stuck in an outdated education system.  Our world has changed and with that our schools must change to prepare students to enter a vastly different world than we did.   Students will not be going into a standardized world and they can no longer be denied the opportunity to make decisions, to make global connections, to be creative in how they demonstrate their understanding, to have a voice in their learning, and to become innovative.  Where do you start?  Put down the Ping-Pong paddle and jump. 

Take just one step.  Don't wait.

  • If you don't feel supported find someone who will support you; don't stop until you find your person. 
  • Find a colleague to join you; collaboration is better for the brain and positive energy is contagious! 
  • Open a book or webpage and learn more.  
  • Use social media to find colleagues; ask questions, share strategies and build a personal learning network.
  • Within an existing lesson can you alter it to be student directed?
  • Or, at the end of a lesson would you allow students to choose their evidence of learning?  
  • Could you allow students to ask questions and find their own answers within the framework of your unit? 
  • Consciously ask students guiding, not directed, questions. 
  • Make one decision that makes you nervous - the risk will be worth it. 
  • Are you willing to allow student networking, collaboration, or creation?  
  • Put the traditional homework aside and offer students a challenge instead. 

Don't be distracted by doubt.  

However you choose to move, stay focused on the potential of your students; empower them and advocate for them.  In an interview (found here) Yong Zhao states, "We need to advocate for what makes a good education for children, educate our students and the public about the true value of education, and act to provide an education agenda that serves all children and helps them to realize their own potential."   

It is going to take strong educators to put aside their comfortable habits and traditions and allow our students to be empowered in their learning. 

Until we do, school will just be another game of Ping-Pong.

Connect with Melissa Weatherwax on Twitter

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