In every classroom there is diversity. It's tangible in what we see and must impact the way we teach. Engaging each child in a meaningful way requires relationships, flexibility, and a willingness to empower those who aren't often used to being in charge of their own learning.
Something happens when we offer students the opportunity to be in control of what and how they learn. When teachers provide choice and collaboration in curriculum development, students naturally become more interested and invested. And ultimately, the more buy-in we get from our kids, the better the mutual learning becomes.
With this fundamental shift in how education happens, teachers need to hard look at their current practices and begin to implement a shift. When we speak at students, expecting them to passively take in that which we impart, we rob them of the essential opportunity to question, explore, and challenge their own beliefs about the world.
As teachers, we have an obligation to put new, relevant, and thought-provoking content before our students and then communicate with a dialogue where each has the opportunity to speak and listen to what the other is saying. We must put our students into the world to see how things work and to test what they see in different environments, synthesizing their own conclusions to demonstrate understanding.
Science classes naturally involve discovery through the scientific method and students are led to different elements through hands-on experiments that teach both skills and content at once. Working with a lab partner, they collaborate to understand and uncover the mysteries of the physical and chemical worlds.
These experiences don't have to be limited to STEM classes. ELA and history classes also have the potential to fully immerse students in three-dimensional learning. Whether through movement-based synthesis projects where students mold their bodies into tableau scenes from literature or perform scenes from novels with their own twists or reenact moments from history that bring the past to the present.
Imagine asking a student to reimagine a piece of history as it would happen in today's context. What updates could be done to show their understanding but also challenge their creativity? In ELA, they can write movies, perform and film them, and then share them with their peers on social media.
Math classes can also be more meaningful if we spend time on relevance. Students need to understand why they are learning what they are and how it will impact their lives in the future. "Because it's on the test," is NOT an acceptable reason to learn something. A student will not be taking that test for more than one 3 hour period of his or her life, so we have to do better. Where in the natural world does this math happen? Where can it be applied to their futures? Use sports or gaming or other analytical tools to show kids the math in their everyday lives.
Technology is another tool that all disciplines can and should use to work with students to get them where they are. Why fight the trend? Show them how these tools that they use for "fun" can also be used to aid them in valuable learning experiences. Harness the power of social media and gaming to explore deeper communication and strategic problem-solving skills.
Consider how students use games like Minecraft to explore the world. Building virtual environments that take into account real-world happenings inside of a computer space. Children spend hours, by choice, developing these worlds. What if we used this interest in our spaces to get more students engaged? Why not use Words with Friends to build vocabulary or Twitter to enhance classroom conversation and backchannel or curate during class discussions.
Students become producers of their creations when we put a smartphone in their hands. They can film movies, edit them, and literally show what they know content-wise and technological skill-wise. As we prepare them for the 21st-century world they are graduating into, we need to help them become adept with the many operating systems, platforms, and technologies available. Why not integrate them seamlessly into the learning that is already happening?
But it isn't only about tools or awesome classroom activities. If we truly want to engage all learners, we need to figure out what gets kids excited. Yes, we have content to deliver, but if students aren't taking it in, it doesn't matter how much of it we share. If we take the time to learn the tools kids are using, the books they are reading, what they do in their free time, we're better able to bring those elements into class, showing them that we are invested in them, the way we want them to be invested in learning.
Building relationships with students is the single most effective way to help them learn. We may need to be unconventional in our approach once we have the information, but we must remember why we do what we do. It isn't to merely get through a body of information using a broad set of skills, it's to enhance the children before us to ready them for the world they live in. Existing isn't enough. We have to provide the tools for them to truly succeed and push the boundaries of what has already be done.
With all of the changes happening in education, we can't lose sight of the children and what they are actually making a part of their learning toolboxes. We can no longer teach in isolation, telling kids to learn "because we said so." Instead, we need to make partners of children and break down the walls in our classrooms. Invite new people in to share ideas and connect the learning in our separate spaces to what is happening outside of the school and collectively within it.
What strategies do you employ as a teacher leader to champion for every student in your classes? Please share
This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in October 2015