Monday, June 18, 2012

What Motivates Students Today?

Do you ever have the feeling that although you are speaking up, somehow your voice isn't heard? Those of you who follow my blog know that one of the issues close to my heart is the power of student-driven learning (see In Defense of Student-Directed Learning). I've attended several conferences and workshops lately where when I made a comment about putting the power of learning into our students' hands; people looked at me like I had three heads (could you imagine the hair styling time for three heads?). That's not going to change what I know to be true. Students want to learn, but what motivates them is not extrinsic rewards. It is our job to guide them in pursuing how they learn, what they learn, and how they share their learning with the world while not just mastering standards, but far exceeding them.

Enter Alan November, the keynote speaker for the Alabama Educational Technology Conference. This man has been providing students with the opportunity to apply what they are learning to solve real-world problems since the mid-1980's. His students find a need and they design a solution. His TED talk is very close to what his keynote was. He shared student ' stories that illustrated that what students really want is purpose, authenticity, a global voice, and time for mastery.

Throughout his keynote, I found myself wanting to stand and cheer. Here is a man who had his students living this over twenty years's nothing new. The stories he shared inspired me to try new things, really let my 5th graders have more freedom. I hope that you enjoy his talk as much as I did and I'd love to hear your thoughts on student-directed learning. And if you are in San Diego next week attending ISTE12, be sure to come by and hear my students tell you all about the power of student-directed learning.

 photo credit: . Entrer dans le rĂªve via photo pin cc

Friday, June 8, 2012

Professional Development: One Size Does Not Fit All

For many of us, one of the busiest times of the year is upon us.Yes, it's summer, but for most educators that means a summer filled with a myriad of opportunities to learn and connect with others. I have colleagues who think I'm crazy to spend my summer travelling to speak at a host of conferences. I had one teacher say to me, "I'm professionally developed enough. I've been teaching for 22 years. I think I know what I'm doing." I didn't quite know how to respond to her comment in that moment, but as I've had time to reflect, I think she embodies the perception that many teachers have. They have been forced to go through some workshop or training regardless of whether they need it or not. They view it as something they have to suffer through so that they can get back to what they want to do with their students in the classrooms.

Perhaps the problem isn't these mandatory training sessions, but the fact that many have lost sight that each teacher is an individual with a different background of experiences, different interests, and different talents. These need to be taken into consideration when pursuing professional growth. Aren't these the qualities that we seek out in our students so that we can best meet their needs?

People seem surprised by how many sessions I attend at the conferences where I present. I'm often asked how I choose which sessions to attend when there are so many from which to choose. Here are some of the factors that I take into consideration when selecting professional development for myself.

In what area do I need to grow professionally? My natural inclination is to gravitate towards presentations that include technology, differentiated instruction, or literacy. However, those are the areas that I present on myself. Is that what I really need? Although I do attend some of these sessions, lately, I've been seeking out opportunities to learn about teacher leadership, math (because I've just started teaching it), innovation, and strategies for (further) promoting student-directed learning. Like our students, we all know the areas in which we don't feel as strong as educators. This is an opportunity to strengthen those areas and make connections with other educators.

Who is the presenter? How many of us have gotten into a session and been "sold" a program or tool for the hour long session? It's rotten because often we know our school doesn't have the money to purchase the program. One of the first things that I consider is whether this person is in the classroom like me. I don't want to hear theory about how something could work in a  classroom. I want to see how it's used. I want real examples from real students. I want a practitioner, not a theorist. Do they actually practice what they preach or are they just good a research? Once you start looking, I think you'll be amazed at how this narrows down which opportunities you pursue.

Is this worth my time? Not every session is for every person. Just because someone is a renowned speaker that everyone wants to attend, it doesn't mean that it's what you need. Sometimes in spite of narrowing down the choices of sessions for ourselves, we might still find ourselves in a session where the speaker isn't offering any content that we need. If you get into a session and the presentation isn't what was portrayed in the program, it's okay to move on to another session. If a presenter rolls out a "death by PowerPoint" and reads every word on all slides, it tells me that they didn't value my time enough to be prepared for their presentation. Here's a novel idea: Get up and leave. Your time is valuable. Find something else from which you can glean something.

Although most of my examples involve attending a large conference, the same principles hold true for other professional development whether you are building a PLN through Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Second Life or you are attending virtual discussions and webinars. Your learning is personal. You are in charge of your own growth. Take a few minutes to consider if this is the learning that YOU need because ultimately, your students will be the ones to reap the benefits.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Education is NOT Broken

It's all around us: the negativity about what's wrong with education, what must be repaired. I've written several blogs explaining some of the practices that my students and I have put into place because there are things that need to be re-evaluated. However, in the last month I've had the great fortune to hear stories from some of the most amazing educators in Alabama. Many of them working in difficult, high-need schools across the state. The resiliency and creativity of educators and their students abound in spite of the challenges that many of us face day to day. I know these educators and students are all over the world, often fighting to overcome what may seem insurmountable obstacles to find success. They are the unsung heroes that we should be hearing about regularly. I'd like to share a few of the stories here to remind all of us what is right in classrooms and schools everywhere.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard about Green Ribbon Schools. Green Ribbon Schools (GRS) is an award program that recognizes schools participating in activities that promote and encourage a healthy and environmentally friendly learning environment. It's a program where students can learn to better use their resources and addresses the issue of childhood obesity by promoting health and fitness. Munford Elementary School in Talledega County partnered with the park rangers in the Talledega National Forest to create environmentally sustainable learning spaces, to protect health and foster wellness for Alabama students while saving energy and reducing costs. They also integrated forestry, conservation, and environmental education themes throughout the curriculum through "theme immersion." For their hard work and dedication, Munford Elementary School was a National Winner for the United States  Department of Education Green Ribbon School Award.

One of the must heart touching stories that I heard was from Kim Beaty who teaches at Hope Academy in the Eufaula City School System. Hope Academy is not your average public school. It's an alternative school for students who have personally (or through their families) experienced truly horrific things. No student should ever have to live through the violence, abuse, or, or crimes that they have endured. Most people would write these kids off as a "lost cause." But not Kim and her fellow teachers.  These teachers dedicate their time to helping these students become a powerful voice for change instead of just letting them coast until they drop out of  school. These teachers see the potential in every student and, in spite of obstacles, many of these students do successful earn their diplomas and enter the work force as successful members of society. 

Often we hear that students today are not interested in the world around them. This story proves that statement unequivocally incorrect. Here's the story of a teacher, Brian Copes, at Calera High School who challenged his students to build a basic utility vehicle that could be used in developing countries. Their challenge was to create these out of donated parts that could easily be found in these countries. The students not only created a vehicle that survive the remotest terrain, but they also built variations: a school bus, an ambulance, a drill for wells, and a plow. Additionally, after hearing from an area specialist that there are many people in these countries who are amputees, but cannot afford the $2000+ prosthetic, he let the students experiment and investigate with the prosthetic. Then they build replicas that could do the same job for under $100. These amazing students and their teacher are travelling to the Honduran Cloud Forest this summer to deliver one vehicle, help them construct a second vehicle, and fit amputees with their prosthetic.(Watch their amazing story here.) And did I mention, these are kids who haven't even graduated high school yet? They are confident, knowledgeable, and have a clear understanding of how math, science, and engineering directly impact the lives of people. (Yes, they've won multiple awards against university students, but that's not what drives these students.)

I hope that these stories encourage all of you to take a few minutes to see the trees in the giant forest of education. There are some real stories of triumph and student empowerment all around us. Yes, there is no doubt that there needs to be some change in education, but these are stories that must not be overlooked. If you've got a story of an unsung hero, I'd love for you to share it here. We would all benefit from celebrating these successes.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photo pin cc