Ravaged. Snarling. Hungry. The beast is on the prowl. Can you feel it approaching? Students sense it. So do teachers. I know what lies ahead. No one can escape. Anxiety levels rising. The end is near. The semester is coming to a close.
A dark cloud of reality disrupts the sunny skies of the fairy tale world in the secure, carefree (gradeless, gamified, personalized, fill-in-the edublank) classroom. All the talk about learning and growth, feedback and revision, fades into the past, like a story from our childhood. Once upon a time there was hope—exciting new worlds to explore, characters to encounter, paths to choose. With challenges and adventures at every turn, lessons were learned, progress made, and artifacts collected.
But now, with one turn of the page, the fable reaches a resolution. The moral of the story speaks truth. There is no more practice. No opportunity to reassess. Time has expired. Despite months of training, the report card reduces an entire body of work to a single letter grade with room for several prefabricated comments. Although learning will continue into the next term, the calendar says it’s time to report a grade. How can one letter grade narrate an entire story? No wonder the end of a mark period is as daunting as the evil figure from a child’s bedtime story.
As an educator, the semester grade haunts me as well, but I refuse to let it become the symbol of evil in this tale. However, in a predictable plot twist, I somehow become the bad guy, holding the fate of each student in my hands and delivering a final judgment. Why is the teacher always perceived as the Big Bad Wolf?
Fortunately for the learner, the final grade is not about how long it took to get to Grandmother’s house, nor how many points were collected on the way. Rather, each student, with my guidance, will do a thorough house inspection to provide an honest, accurate assessment of the structures they’ve built. Then, we will reread the learner’s story to determine a final grade together.
Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.
By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.
The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause? Continue reading
Heroes quest for knowledge and crave adventure. Their journeys consist of trials–tests of strength, skill, resourcefulness, and endurance. With each challenge, heroes are expected to be courageous, take calculated risks, and prove their worthiness. Fortunately, heroes find mentors–teachers who provide guidance, wisdom, and feedback during training, and help each hero recognize their unique gifts.
While heroes appear superhuman, they must face the truth: like all humans, heroes are flawed. The greatest adversity is self-doubt, a conflicted mind, the temptation to give up. Heroes must look inward to conquer their darkest fears. Only then may they return to impact society and leave a legacy.
When we replace hero with learner in the classroom, we witness the impact of personalized learning. When we empower learners, we unleash their super powers. Empowering learners to explore the unknown requires courage–for educators as well as learners. It is not easy for educators to unlearn what they know and what has traditionally been expected of them.
Accept the call to adventure. Join our hero’s journey on a quest to personalize learning. If you are unable to attend the 8th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning, follow the Twitter hashtag #PLconf17.
Want to “Foster Powerful Learners“? Unleash their superpowers!
We never know what our learners are thinking or capable of creating. When we provide time, tools, space, and opportunities to make their own connections, students will remove their masks and use their powers to answer questions educators would never consider asking.
Attendees of Not All Heroes are Created the Same: Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers will be treated to a session featuring the voices of my heroes. Four courageous students will reflect on a year’s worth of challenges, adventures, and personal transformation on their quest for understanding. They return from their journey to share their stories, guided by essential questions from the Epic Final Exam.
Stage 1: Separation from the Ordinary World
- What did you discover about yourself as a learner?
- What was your call to adventure? Did you initially accept or resist the call?
- How did crossing the threshold in this course force you out of your comfort zone?
Stage 2: Initiation – Trials and Challenges
- What was your most memorable adventure in this class?
- What was the most challenging obstacle for you this year?
- What academic risks did you take throughout the year?
- What was your greatest achievement?
Stage 3: Transformation – The Inward Journey
- How have you transformed throughout the year?
- What traditional habits and thinking did you have to unlearn in order to transform? Reflect on your growth and self-understanding.
Stage 4: The Return – Impact Society. Leave a Legacy
- What new knowledge about the world have you gained by studying the content of this course?
- Use the literature you’ve read to answer the essential question: “How may an individual impact society?”
- Discuss your contributions to society. What have you created that did not exist before?
Throughout each stage, participants will receive supernatural aid and tools to support their quest to personalize learning. Before the session ends, heroic educators will be well on the way to crafting the story of their next educational journey.
By the midpoint of first quarter, teachers are in tune with their new group of learners. They note tendencies and behaviors. They design instruction around interests. Teachers’ precise radars sense something off when a student acts out of character. Special relationships with an unspoken language develop throughout the school year. Teachers notice because they care.
Despite the established rapport, not all learners enjoy the same experience. What students project on the surface is often misleading—a protective camouflage for school survival. How well do we really know each learner? There are pages missing from the entire story. While respecting the personal background of every student, how can we make better use of what we know? Continue reading
For two decades, I have enjoyed the honor of coaching varsity baseball and teaching high school communication arts courses. As I continue to grow in both roles, I recognize the influence coaching and teaching have had on each other in shaping my craft. Although I provide instruction in both positions, I prefer that students consider me their coach—a lead learner who wears the same uniform and is committed to a common purpose—dedicated to create opportunities, plan practice, support, adjust, guide, and root for every learner’s success. I want my learners to play with the content. Challenge their abilities. Learn to persist. Create meaningful outcomes. Celebrate victories. Enjoy a rewarding experience.
Great teachers possess characteristics of the most effective coaches. They are selfless, compassionate, and dedicated to help learners grow. Unlike most jobs, coaching and teaching become a lifestyle with a special responsibility and commitment to serve others. The distinguishing quality of a coach is through the actions taken to educate—the impact and connotation of its verb form: “to coach.”
Effective coaches combine their passion for the game with a keen sense of knowing their personnel: they learn the strengths and struggles of individuals; they understand how to motivate each player; they make sure everyone understands their role in the team’s success; they design a plan to give individuals paths for improvement and provide the team with its greatest opportunity for success. Coaches offer advice or make suggestions for improvement, then provide (even prioritize) the time for practice—a period of adjustment, reinforcement, support, and celebration. Players need time to learn, to increase mental confidence and work through mechanical flaws. They must experience failure, be challenged beyond personal expectations, and feel success in their growth process. How would a similar approach impact our students in the classroom? Continue reading
Looking for an easy way to connect with students early in the school year and a fascinating cultural study? Initiate a conversation about music—best concert of the summer, new artists to watch, last song heard before school. When students have earbuds in, ask what song is playing. Every year, my students learn to have their favorite playlists available for reference (and should be added to their list of school supplies). Pop culture references to song titles, artists, and music lyrics are common in lessons. Favorite brain breaks involve students sharing what song they will play at their next opportunity to plug in. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and YouTube are some of the most used apps in room A15. Is this class led by a teacher or a DJ?
When Joy Kirr, author of Shift This (CH4: Learning Environment) asked, “How can I incorporate music into my lessons?” I could not resist creating a list of my favorite uses of music in the classroom. Tune in for ten ways to make your classes rock! Continue reading
The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?
In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.
Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.
Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.
So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?
With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.
The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).