Our third listening session was a bit larger than the first two. 24 teachers filled this session, representing all grades and multiple disciplines. I altered the structure of this meeting slightly, tweaking questions to better fit this crowd; I also only had two hours, so I had to keep things clipping along. The teachers teased me for being such a strict timekeeper!
In these sessions, I encourage participants to identify the aspects and elements of the current educational structure. This can include their physical environment, the way the day is run, the hierarchy of supervision and accountability, the subjects and methods used in class – in short, all the influences that guide the way they experience school. Once participants identify these descriptors, I invite them to put them aside for the duration of the session. I emphasize that there is no judgment being placed on what we know of school; letting these conceptions go temporarily is only offered as an opportunity to view our everyday actions with fresh eyes and to consider possibilities that might have previously seemed impossible.
During the opening portion, I asked broad questions to get us in the mindset for some serious brainstorming. I’m going to list the questions, followed by their responses.
In what ways should children benefit from their school experience?
The first comment – the one that has been universal in the sessions so far – was to gain skills to be a functioning adult. After that was mentioned, the teachers offered that they believed children should: learn how to find information and analyze it for accuracy, become empowered to be free thinkers, learn self-advocacy, learn to be creative, learn to be accepting of different opinions, to ask questions, and to do collaborative work, gain problem solving and critical thinking skills, learn to take risks/think outside the box, learn how to develop a passion and then be excited about it, gain a love of learning, learn to think big, learn how to be content in the midst of struggle, and learn the value of perseverance.
An interesting note here is that several times during the session, several teachers kept referring back to this first question and their responses. They wanted to emphasize how important it was for teachers to experience all these benefits as well.
Give the current accepted definition of a successful student. Now imagine you were given the opportunity to define what makes a successful student. How would you define what that is?
Teachers’ descriptions of the accepted definition of a successful student were mixed. Some of them could be be interpreted as positive aspects: being responsible and respectful, having supportive parents, bringing their own background experiences to the table, being an active participant. Some were offered with a tone of dissatisfaction – the participants seemed to stuck with some of the expectations like: not questioning, “sits and gets,” coloring in the lines, following rules, and not challenging the status quo. Scoring well on tests was also mentioned, as was getting work done on time and having few absences and tardies.
When the participants turned to create their definition of a successful student, they offered these descriptions: empowered, mutually respectful, self-motivated, self-advocating, engaged, one who empowers others and thinks globally, eager and passionate about learning and involved in their own project planning and standard setting, able to have their diverse needs met, able to demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways beyond simply testing, able to think and do things in multiple ways (emphasis on project based, applied learning), identify real-world applications and make connections across the curricula, empowered to teach the class and the teacher, even outsmarting the teacher (especially in the use of technology), able to make choices.
These comments are the teachers’ almost word for word. The teachers noted the similarities in their definition to that which is accepted, but they also discussed the many differences they saw as I wrote up all their comments.
We held two small group break-outs; in the first, I challenged the participants to dream in the abstract. I offered them these questions to get them thinking, but invited them to stray from them as needed to encourage their own conversation.
- Think about yourself, your own children, your students
- Without any influence of principals, superintendents, parents, federal standards, etc., – you are accountable only to the students – how would you transform education?
- What excites your students? What do they want to do and learn about?
- Do you see a difference in helping them grow up to become what and/or who they want to be and helping them be the best kid they can be now (is education always planning for the future, or is some of it simply beneficial for students’ present?)
- In your experience, how do kids learn best? What types of activities engage them the most?
- How do you learn and create at home?
The responses were numerous. If you are interested in reading the full report once the sessions are over, let me know and I’ll be happy to share! But in the name of blogging brevity, I’ll offer a summary. First off, I was struck by the similarities of the teacher’s responses to those of both the elementary and high school participants. They talked of prioritizing foreign language offerings, field trips, hands-on, project-based learning, opportunities for movement and brain breaks throughout the day, more flexibility in the day’s schedule, individualized learning plans, connecting with the community, and technology. Lots of talk about technology. What to use, how to use it, the importance of professional development, the issues of full student access, the possibility of using student-owned personal devices, and the possibility of blended online classes where content and/or contact is available all the time.
Teachers emphasized the need for interest based learning, identifying possibilities such as increased electives even for elementary kids, and offerings such as pop culture analysis. They talked of flipping classrooms and emphasizing experimentation – let’s take things apart! Many of their comments considered the unique needs of each child – besides individualized learning plans and interest based learning, they mentioned teaching to kids’ strengths, and several talked of their desire to blur or dispose of grade levels, and allow flexibility of grouping so that teachers could teach more effectively. They also wanted increased collaboration, so they could work with each other and with the community to better serve the students.
From Abstract to Concrete
After all that sharing, we held one more small group session, where teachers discussed moving from their abstract goals to more concrete applications. Here are some of the questions I offered to get them talking:
- What does the physical space look like? What tools are students using? How does the day flow? What types of learning are being experienced each day? What methods are you using? What types of collaboration are going on? In short, what is the child’s experience? What is yours? How do you measure success? How do you establish student goals? What is your mission statement for your school? What are its values? Move from the abstract to the concrete.
Again, the responses were numerous. As for physical space, teachers wanted space and a lot of it. They wanted it to be flexible with nooks and small places to have break-outs; they wanted movable walls and furniture, tables vs. desks, and plenty of space for research/discovery centers. They wanted plenty of natural light and personal space for students so they could store their belongings. They talked of the desire to have more teacher autonomy over the day’s schedule, and wished for more traditional pull-out services to be provided in the classroom in order to limit disruption.
For technology, teachers wanted it to be consistent between classrooms to improve collaboration. They mentioned flip cameras, personal devices, and had lots of talk about making sure all students had access. They talked of ebooks instead of textbooks, and wanted to use social media as a tool for students to reflect learning instead of more traditional worksheets. Activboards and microphones were mentioned, as was the need for professional development to ensure that teachers knew how best to use the technology they were given.
The teachers also discussed structure and mode of learning. They really emphasized student involvement here, suggesting that kids should have input in schedule and goal-setting, and even in the subjects they studied. They emphasized inter-grade and inter-subject teaching, and wished to increase collaboration by co-teaching these groups. One teacher emphasized collaboration with an oft-overlooked resource: the librarians in each school facility, who can offer assistance to teachers in language, technology, social media and more. They wanted students to be able to stand up if they preferred, have access to hands-on manipulatives, and educational gaming. They suggested that extended day offerings (after-school programs) should connect with the community and be meaningful and fun, with offerings such as foreign language and cooking classes.
In short, teachers wanted to create an atmosphere for both students and teachers in which risk-taking and trying new things is encouraged, where being wrong is safe and viewed as opportunity, where both teachers and students felt more empowered to set their own goals and evaluate their own success, and that they were part of something bigger than themselves – part of team of courageous, energetic thinkers from both the immediate school facility and the larger community.
The energy all afternoon was contagious and encouraging, and several teachers called out for more meetings like this. They wanted to further the collaborative relationships that had been nurtured in those short two hours. I was moved by their courage, their honesty, and their willingness to be vulnerable, compassionate, hopeful beings. I tip my hat to them.
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