Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Challenge of Designing Special Events With and For Students

We can't let this define us, but instead we need to work
towards dynamic, holistic schools. 
As I read Emdin's book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . .and multiple other texts, I am reminded of the rich learning that takes place wth hands-on, student-centered, experienced-based learning. I am a big fan of embedding the standards and other worthy learning points into these kinds of rich learning endeavors. Yet, I must tell you, the challenge of planning such events is HUGE in the schoolhouse. So many administrators fear the impact special events will have on standardized tests. They worry that if I have an expert visitor, plan an innovative unit, visit a museum, or go to the nature preserve with children, that those children will not perform as well on the year's standardized test. Hence, rather than a conversation where a teacher proposes a well-researched event and an administrator says, "Yes, let's try it," teachers are often met with multiple questions, permission protocols, funding needs, long conversations, and in the worst of circumstances, disapproval. I am aware of the pressure that administrators and educators are under with regard to test scores as everyone likes good scores, but in some cases these scores don't necessarily indicate inspiring, engaging, and deep learning--the kind of learning that support a students' long range investment and success. It's important to achieve a good balance in this regard.

I've seen reports lately that field trips are dwindling, and this is happening more often in urban settings. Then as I read Emdin's book which is all about deep, rich, experiential, culturally proficient, and student-centered pedagogy, and I clearly see the mismatch in the desire to get good test scores and eliminating rich, deep, hands-on learning experiences. I have actually heard teachers say, "My students can't learn that way and they can't go on trips like your students do." I've actually heard administrators question the value of hands-on learning, field experiences, and utilizing the rich, and often free, resources that the community offers to enrich learning.  I have to work double time on my own just to justify bringing students out to the field, working with wonderful community members, planning field trips, and more because more often than not there is little to no support for this kind of learning in the typical school environment. I am continually surprised by this because if you think about the world our students will move into--it's a multi-modal, experiential, flexible world of learning. Also if you consider where children's passions and success are born, it's typically not sitting at their desk doing a worksheet. It's more often a rich, deep, integrated learning event--something that moves them. Yet I realize that we have to strike a good balance between a strong foundation of essential skills, knowledge, and concept and rich, deep meaningful learning experiences.

As I think of pushing forward to continue to create a varied, multi-modal, in-school-out-of-school learning environment, and the use of community experts and experiences, I have to go back to the image of a challenged student that I taught last year. This child's will to learn and interest in learning was extraordinary despite many personal and experiential challenges he faced. When he went on our outdoor adventure into a beautiful nature preserve, one supported by local grant money, he commented about how wonderful the event was. He found peace and interest in that beautiful place in nature, and I won't be surprised to see him replicate that experience in his future, and let that experience possibly lead him to his future livelihood or career.

I had a similar inspiring experience as a young Girl Scout when I visited a farm. That visit inspired me to garden, bring my students to farms, work for a CSA, and support my son's path to horticulture and agriculture.

No test has ever inspired my future choices or efforts. No test has ever made me who I am. Instead it's the energy, connections, experiences, and learning I gain from real world experiences and the study those experience inspire that have moved me and others forward.

As I write, I implore all citizens to support hands-on, experiential learning events for students. Yes, I like to be standards-centered, but I like to embed those standards into empowering, engaging, multi-modal learning experiences that result in enthusiastic, bright, flexible, and creative students. Please don't let schools limit experiences like this, but instead prompt your school systems to embrace these experiences and support educators who want to research and plan these events. Choreographing a wonderful mix of learning experiences that range from quiet reading to project based STEAM to the field study is the way to go. Broadly assessing that choreography throughout the year will help you to determine the program's future movement as well.

I've already decided to work double time to see if I can truly teach the kind of teaching/learning program I believe in. I don't think teachers should have to work double time to do a good job, but with the way most systems work today, that's the only way we're able to really create and implement the rich paths possible.

You can help educators who want to foster rich learning by asking school administrators how they support educators who want to be innovative, child-centered, creative, and experiential with regard to teaching children well? You can look carefully at systematic structure, roles, and routines to determine the kind of support that exists for teacher voice and choice? You can ask parents and students what they like about school and what they want more of? You can analyze what makes a school experience inspiring versus what makes it tedious and boring, and you can work with school systems to figure out what role tests will play. Are we going to eliminate all rich experiences to raise test scores by a few percentage points, or are we going to decide what's good enough when it comes to test results in favor of teaching in more holistic, inclusive, engaging ways?

The new ESSA legislation invites voices from all school stakeholders to get involved in school decisions. This new law gives voice to the parents, teachers, paraeducators, and others who have day-to-day contact and responsibility for children. ESSA supports distributive leadership that maximizes the "collective genius" of an organization.

I believe that we can do a better job in schools, and I believe that better jobs lie at the potential good systems and process hold for inclusive voice and choice of all stakeholders when it comes to teaching well. It's important that all stakeholders learn about ESSA and advocate for their role and potential with this new law. It's similarly important that we all find ways to work together, listen to each other, and collaborate around the holistic needs students have and the potential they hold.

We are fortunate to have public schools. We are lucky to have an institution that educates the populous--an institution that holds great potential to be a strong, innovative "nation builder," child advocate, and human resource. Let's not narrow what schools can be, but instead work towards the incredible potential and promise education holds for the lives of every child, communities, our nation, and planet. Don't give up and please support teachers :)