April 27

What Have We Done?

Recently, I had a student ask me for a review pack for our upcoming state test.

“I’m not giving review packs this year,” I said confidently knowing my time spent gamifying their content would surely payoff.  My ego was quickly put in check by the student’s pale and unnerved face.

“Wait. What?! No review packet?! I WON’T PASS THE TEST!” And she meant business. Her world was crumbling around her.  Noticing the panic in her face, I attempted to bring a little levity to the situation.

“Except the big, thick one packet you are getting tomorrow for your Social Studies test!” I said with the absolute cheesiest smile I could muster.

“OH THANK GOD! We were all talking and we just don’t think we’re going to be ready without a packet!”  Her backpack slid down her arm as her expression of relief vibrated through to her finger tips.  She bounced down the hallway, everything right in her world but I was left standing, mouth gaping and dumbfounded.

What have we done?  Learning is everything.  It is the gentle flap of butterfly wings in your stomach when uncovering new information.  It is the power of curiosity to take one down uncharted paths.  It is a continuous lifelong adventure that winds and twists with excitement.

Our classrooms should be where these adventures begin: harbors where students stockpile supplies and head out on daring journeys but may always return for safety and comfort, to restock and head out again.

Instead of instilling a passion for learning, we have created a generation that successfully maneuvers packets.  This is certainly a 21st century skill that will propel them well into the future.   The depth at which my sarcasm is running need not be quantified here.

Is it too late to rectify this situation?  Identifying the problem is the first step.  Our schools need to be design labs, rich, interactive environments where students explore their passions and are guided by us on an unforgettable journey.  This journey must by make them life long learners, individuals who are willing to search out information for the simple benefit of learning more.

Setting out to create this environment can be challenging.  There are financial stumbling blocks and perhaps even administrative deterrents.  Before you begin, know your facts.  Research is important.  Industrialized learning spaces seems counterproductive to what needs to be accomplished therefore, learning space design was the best place to start.

Research into effective learning spaces yielded an enormous change in classroom atmosphere.  Students no longer equated our classroom with their negative connotation of school, rather, they called it home.  Comfortable seating in areas called “the living room” or “the genius bar” led to increased student interaction and many authentic learning experiences.

While student engagement had increased, pieces were still missing.  How do kids authentically learn?  They learn through play and exploration.  The completion of a photocopied worksheet allows for little play or exploration.  Games, however, offer a whole new world of both. Enter game-based learning and gamification.  How this has not been identified as the Holy Grail of teaching is unknown to me.  It is content, set into a meaningful and interactive context where students, through play and imagination, acquire the knowledge and skills they need.  Often, they have no idea it is even happening!

As we look at our classrooms, we must ask ourselves an important question: are we exotic ports of call or run down docks parading as marinas?  Be the harbor master and set your course, building a port they will always return to and be inspired by.  It’s not easy but it is certainly worth it!

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April 26

Full Steam Ahead: The End of the Year

Education is the place to be.  Where else does one have the ability to inspire a group of young, malleable minds to reach beyond their wildest dreams and mold a future that holds endless possibilities?  That is certainly a tall order for 180 days.

As the year winds down, how do we keep the shiny determination and resilience of the first day of school?  It seems like just yesterday the smell of wax permeated our nostrils as we excitedly sharpened a bouquet of bright yellow pencils.  Their shavings falling to the ground like confetti on a parade route.  Flash forward to today.  The wax is just as worn as our patience.  The fresh, flowery spring air activates a hormonal switch that now only knows one position: on.  In middle school winter pants have become spring bermudas (literally) and flip flops are all the rage because shoes do not fit anymore.  One last item: it’s testing season.  All pre-service teachers should complete a practicum entitled, “Hormonal Spring: The Dawn of the Teenage”.  Please, don’t confuse this with a horror movie, new graphic video game, or water training for the Navy Seals.  For those of us who have endured it for several years, learning to surf is your best option.

What do I mean by this?  Show up each day in your Volkswagen van (because that’s how they see us), throw the door open and put on the best show possible.  Fill it with excitement, energy, and fire.  Literally, fill it with fire.  Creating a fireball in class will have them eating out of your hands.  It also really gets their attention.  They like to stare at bright shiny things.  For those concerned about the fire code:  I get it.  The chief and I are on a first name basis.  Stick to your comfort zone and put on the best show your nerves will allow.

My point?  Bring your “A” game until the last day of school.  Take every moment you have to stretch their minds and push them out of their comfort zones.  Disney and Universal are not paying us to show their movies until the end of the year.  Invoke a little Genius Hour time or set up a Makerspace.  When students pursue their own interests, the results are often powerful.  Plan a mini field trip around your campus or turn your room into a tropical island.  Use devices to go on a virtual field trip or mystery Skype with another class.

As the year ends, make them not want to miss a single second with you.  Leave your footprint in their path so that they may look back on it forever.

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