Entering a New Frontier

Envision learners jubilantly returning from winter break who are eager to connect with peers, staff, and to be empowered as learners. Excitedly they re-enter the learning space while having conversations and greeting others. It’s possible that many learners were still connected with one another, and their teacher through platforms such as Edmodo over break. Remaining connected maintains that sense of family, and keeps conversations flowing so that when reunited as a team they can readily begin to synergize.

How are you setting the stage for the new year with your students? What are your students anticipating returning to? As we enter the new year, consider one shift that you’ll make to ignite students’ passion to learn. Learning is a natural desire, yet when forced or if not engaging, students can shut down and lose their drive to learn. We need to be creating a sense of wonder within our students to foster deeper questioning which promotes innovative thinking. Who are we to teach today’s students, yesterday’s information? What’s comfortable for both teachers and students isn’t necessarily what’s best. In fact, I find that when I am in a place of struggle or discomfort that it’s a blessing because it signals that I’m in a place of growth. When we enter a new frontier it isn’t meant to feel convenient or safe. However, that’s where we need to be for continual improvement. As I consider the shifts I’ve made, I recognize that they’re some of the main reasons my students eagerly anticipate returning to school.
PBL
I’m wholeheartedly committed to flipping education to move beyond mandated programs. My goal is to immerse students into authentic, relevant, real-world problem solving, and empower students to own the direction of their learning. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been trained and to be provided with ongoing training in PBL by the Buck Institute for Education. Through my journey I’ve noticed that when students develop their own driving questions it propels their research, and they begin to crave learning including the next steps of their project. What I observed this fall exceeded my expectations. In all transparency, our class also hit rough patches. There were times when my students looked to me in search of direction or answers. Similarly, as educators we experienced moments where we had to go back to our training notes as we collaborated to reconsider our process. As a team we hit several moments of discomfort because it was so different than our classic ELA block. While we always utilize best instructional strategies and structures for learning, PBL definitely took us in a whole new direction. For me, it was refreshing. As for the students, it’s evident that they’re more cognitively engaged within PBL. During this winter break they’ve continued researching and posting links for their peers to respond to around their PBL focus on our Edmodo page. The depth of knowledge, success skills, and vocabulary that they have developed is incredible.

Makerspace
Our makerspace is still in the works, yet we have engaged in maker education within our own learning space. This was a completely new concept for students this year. When we started, students required reassurance that what they chose to design was their choice. They had to solve problems that arose along the way, but they knew that I was there to support them. Using inquiry as a driving force students worked through many issues. They’re constantly learning how to appropriately interact and converse with peers during challenging times. As our makerspace grows I am devoted to carving out time for students to wonder, explore, and create. Makerspaces provide opportunities for students to create, build prototypes, explore questions, fail and retry, develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, bounce ideas off one another and collaborate on building together. Innovative thinking blossoms in makerspaces.

Innovation Time
Last school year students had opportunities to explore their passions, and share their projects with peers through a variety of presentation methods. This school year I’ll be integrating innovation time more purposefully within the second half of the school year. Sure, students have a lot of choices in class. Within PBL students have ownership over their driving questions, method of presentation, and community contacts. However, I want to extend learning to be increasingly student centered. During the second half of this school year learners will have opportunities to identify and explore their passions with purpose. As I reflect on the first half of the year I feel that beginning with PBL and makerspace has set the stage for students to continue forward into innovation time. They all share a similar philosophy and compliment one another well.

Culture of a Growth Mindset Embedded in Relationships
Fostering and continuously nurturing a culture of a growth mindset embedded in relationships has been one of the biggest factors in allowing PBL, makerspace, and learning in general to be extremely successful. Growth mindset along with relationships is one of the pivotal components that serves as the foundation for all that I work towards. In our learning space you can visibly see and hear that we have a culture of a growth mindset. It’s developed through experiential learning, debriefing, and modeling as well as practicing how to emote through a variety of structures. We also consciously utilize the Habits of Mind and The Leader in Me. During math class students openly share when they’ve made a mistake in order to help their peers learn from what they’ve done. Their peers celebrate them by clapping and making genuine comments. This practice has encouraged students to share out often. Students also use a variety of talk moves to demonstrate that they were either thinking something similar, have something to add on, or new to contribute. All of these simple strategies not only maintain engagement, but also allow students to receive immediate feedback that others are truly listening to them and making connections. Student conversations have developed to be so purposeful that students clarify by asking their team members, “What do you mean by____?” or rephrase by saying, “In other words what you’re saying is_____.” The freedom to make mistakes, question one another, and clear up any misconceptions in a safe environment promotes deeper student learning as they become unguarded and open to risk taking to explore all areas of learning.

Tech as a Tool
Using tech as a tool to foster the four C’s is new for the students who enter my classroom each year, therefore it takes some time to integrate it. This school year students have been exposed to many different types of tech to enhance learning. The tech we’ve utilized has been scaffolded intentionally. We began using tech as formative assessment. Kahoot, Plickers, and Nearpod have been excellent to engage students while also providing quick and accurate feedback for reflection. At the beginning of the year it was messy. Students were unfamiliar with knowing how to login to websites and how to use basic functions on a keyboard. The experience provided me with a wealth of information, and I realized that I needed to back up the instruction more than I had expected. Taking the time to demonstrate, and allowing students opportunities to explore and ask questions made a difference. After working with formative assessment tools, we then picked up Edmodo as a communication and collaboration platform that also allows me to blend learning. Students are now creating and demonstrating their learning using Explain Everything, Prezi, and ThingLink. Once learners grasp how to use tech as a tool, they quickly find ways to integrate it independently and are prepared to choose the appropriate tool when necessary.

Coding
While all students participated in the Hour of Code, we as educators cannot just expose students to an hour of code. We need to examine what the needs are of today’s learners. Today’s learners are required to be literate in different ways than yesterday’s learners were expected to be.  Dr. Ryan B. Jackson proposes that coding is the new literacy. I, too, believe that all schools ought to address coding as a significant need in today’s schools.  It’s inspiring to listen to students problem solve as they code, communicate effectively with peers when they hit an obstacle, and the excitement they experience when they overcome barriers.  If you’re tempted to say that this is just one more thing being added in, we need to step back and look at the current job market and contemplate the fact that we don’t know which direction our future will head. Our students are going into a future where many jobs will be newly developed. As educators we need to reevaluate what the greatest needs in our students are, and how we can reshape schools with flexible scheduling and interdisciplinary learning to promote innovative practices.

Enter a New Frontier
As we move forward into the new year we need to support one another as educators, and be fearless in the pursuit of what’s best for students. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to take on new initiatives, but it’s exhilarating too. By crafting a clear vision with a focus that is student centered, you will surely find your footing. Consider how you will enter this new frontier as an advocate for learners. We are the change, together we make the difference.

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