Changing the World

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I wrote last week about my Year Eight students and the mini project they were doing to end the year.  I am incredibly impressed and proud of what they have achieved, especially one group.

I have kids who are wrapping almost-new second-hand books and making cards which will be delivered to the children’s ward at the local hospital.  Others are making videos with a social justice theme and posting them YouTube. Still others are writing letters to encourage people to consider partnering with an aid agency to support impoverished people.  A couple of individuals are creating social-justice themes art work.

But the group that are impressing me most are those students who have created an awareness campaign and are promoting it through social media.  do a search for #Heart2Change in twitter or instagram, or look up Heart2Change of FaceBook to see what they are doing    It is such a simple but powerful concept.  The students are encouraging people to put the heart2change symbol (above) on their wrist as a way of engaging people in conversation; a way of explaining that they have a heart to change the world, that others can have a heart to change, and that, together, we can change hearts.  How great is that?  simple, effective, and a clear message.  A couple from this group were even interviewed on the local community radio station this morning.

I really hope this concept goes viral (like the ice bucket challenge) but if it doesn’t, I am still incredibly impressed with that these kids have achieved.  Their thinking and discovery and problem solving… and their passion… has been astounding.

Please check them out and join their movement to change the world.

I cannot imagine a more exciting place to be working than here at my school with my young adolescents and in this wonderful, collaborative environment.

 

Trying to be hands-off for creative tasks

 

To finish the year, I have my Year Eight students working in teams to engage with the ‘now what’ question that flowed quite naturally from the work we have been doing on social justice, third world countries and aid agencies. Effectively, I have given them free reign to complete a task of their choosing. This is not ‘academic’ work but it is definitely making use of higher-order thinking skills. This is not life-like learning. This is real-life, make-it-happen, dirt-under-the-fingernails learning.

It is challenging! Both for the students and for me. There is no planning I can do. There are no defined outcomes I can aim for. All of it is in the hands of the students. And it is stretching us all.

I have kids who want to use social media to promote a cause. Others are wanting to visit the local hospital to hand out toys to kids. Others are creating social justice themed art work. Still others want to tattoo symbols on wrists. (Seriously!)

Now, I tend to be a fairly hands-on teacher with clear plans and goals. You could see how this is definitely outside my comfort zone and why I’m feeling a degree of being out of control. (OK… I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to learning in my classroom…)

Basically, I need to be prepared for my students to (potentially) fail. But, as I’ve said many times, it is in those times and scenarios that the kids will learn. It’s a tightrope to walk for a teacher… How much do I input to ensure success, and how much do I let things run a natural course recognising the risk of failure. Is success needed? How do we define success anyway? How do I determine busy noise from distracted noise in the classroom? And does it matter? Does every kid need to demonstrate they are involved or, again, does that not really matter? Is the process seen as being as important as an end-result?

These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind, lesson by lesson, as we work through this process. I’m not sure I have too many of the answers at this time but I’m hoping I do in a week or so once we are finished.

But that’s just like life, isn’t it?

Hopefully, sometime soon, you’ll see some links on this blog to the work the kids are doing…

 

Community Connections

In her book Secrets of the Teenage Brain, Sheryl Feinstein comments on the value of, and need for, adolescents to experience activities that help develop a conscience. “Teenagers, as members of many communities, deserve schools that promote moral sensitivity and character… School and life experiences that support moral character foster individuals with high self-esteem who are capable and willing to give back to others.” (p157, Hawker Brownlow 2007)

Many schools provide curriculum content opportunities for such social and moral exploration but we know that most adolescents learn best in hands-on experiences. There are many schools that provide real-life experiences for their students in a whole variety of ways. In some cases it is even included as a mandatory extra-curricula learning element. My nieces in Western Australia, for example, were expected to log a minimum number of hours of community service during their senior years. One volunteered at a LifeLine Op Shop, another helped out at the RSPCA. What they learnt about themselves, about others and about their community was significant. I know they both developed an increased empathy during their volunteer hours as well.

Activities like these take students outside of their own realm of experience and are given the opportunity to give back to the community. They challenge the sometime-held belief that adolescents are self-centred. They help adolescents put their own life into perspective. And they engage that passionate advocacy part of an adolescents’ developing self.

In my school, we have established a strong link with a primary school that has quite a number of disadvantaged students in their population. For the past couple of years we have taken Year 9 students to that school to run a breakfast program, one day a week. The connections between the school have grown from there and I trust they might grow more.

I love the compassion, care and concern my students are developing as they prepare a simple toast-and-spreads breakfast and shoot a few hoops with these younger kids. I also love the broadening understanding of life that is developing in my students.

As Feinstein says, “…mature and sensitive people take into account the effect of their behaviour on others.”

I know you’re busy but… 10 ways to be present for your students

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I got pulled up recently by a passing comment from one of my students… “Mr Wilcox, I know you are really busy but could I come and talk with you about my work?”
For some reason (guilt?) the ‘really busy’ bit was the barb in her words.

Why did she perceive me as busy? In what ways am I communicating that to my students? Sure, there are always plenty of things going in my professional life, but the most important of them must always remain my ability to be present for my students and their learning.  Teaching is a very busy career but it is a profession  founded on the needs of the students.  We must never put the cart before the horse.

Here are some things I have observed that will likely communicate the wrong message to students about your availability. (Some I confess to, others are not ‘me’.)

1. Using technology
Technology is an important part of teaching and should be seamlessly integral to what we do. Sometimes, however, it can become a distraction and a time-drain. Be sure it never gets in the way of solid student relationship.

2. Tweeting, texting, emailing in class
Seriously?!
I am aware of people who will do this during a class they are teaching.  It’s time to disconnect from your online world and connect with the kids in front of you.

3. Getting stuck at your classroom desk
It can be easy to set a task that engages kids and then find yourself, as the teacher, working on something else. But consider how this looks to the students. Be 100% present in every element of your student’s learning, wandering and questioning and encouraging.

4. Frequently focusing on what you (or they) need to do by a deadline
Deadlines are real and necessary but an over-emphasis on them will communicate a one-dimensional approach to learning: the busier you are the more you are effective. Take care not to let your own deadline pressures to complete things or have kids complete tasks get in the way of quality time for engaging, relational learning.

5. Being late for class
This is obviously poor form and can easily communicate that something else is more important that your presence with your class.

6. Leaving class quickly
Very much like point 5, this yells ‘too busy’ to the students. Or, even less desiringly, ‘I’m done with this teaching stuff’. Frequently, the after-lesson time will be when students will hang back and chat about learning or life. Be present for them.

7. Turning up with a coffee or cookie in your hand
Personally, I hate it when teachers bring coffee or food to class. I know there will be times when you have duty and don’t get a chance to have a break, but let’s be sure that we don’t become so relaxed about our class setting that we lose a professional, attentive approach toward our kids. By all means, have a snack time with the kids if you want. But be careful not to inadvertently communicate that you are so busy you can’t even take a break during break times.

8. Brushing kids off
I guess this is the ultimate way of communicating you’re too busy to care. If you cannot speak with a student immediately, negotiate the soonest time possible to catch up. And then, don’t forget.

9. Not providing good eye contact and attention when speaking with students
This is akin to brushing kids off. Your body language is critical in communicating positive, healthy, connected communication with your students. If you can’t give them your full attention, don’t try to give them just part attention. Either stop what you are doing or negotiate another time when you can give all of your attention to the student’s needs.

10. Not being able to be found by your students
I can think of a few teachers I have worked with who did a very good job of disappearing during break times or spare lessons. Sometimes, these are the best times for students to access you and work through issues.

Let me finish by saying again: teaching is a very busy job. There is a lot that goes on and many things that demand our time. But I believe that, in reality, many of the tasks can wait so that our students remain our main focus.
What’s your opinion?

 

Begin with the End in Mind

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I was re-reading sections of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recently… particularly the part where he reminds teachers of the need to begin with the end; in other words, to ensure you have a firm understanding of where your lessons are going and to what purpose the teaching is being done before you plan your daily content.
While I wholeheartedly agree, I also started thinking about the need for this to happen with and for my students. They need to be able to see the reason for every lesson; for every activity. At no time should they be wondering why we are doing something. At no time should they feel any disconnect from the clearly identified themes are purposes of their learning.
For me, this will happen through constant conversation. We will start a unit of work by exploring metanarratives and global themes (I will however vehemently avoid putting any content in the context of ‘it’s in the curriculum’). I want my students to own the purpose of their learning. Maybe this is through real-life or life-like learning. Often it will be through topics that I know will be of interest to them, or ones we have negotiated. Once the big picture is established, I will work toward providing links to these purposes at the start of each lesson. I find this helps students to connect the daily learning with the whole unit; it helps to avoid students compartmentalising a lesson in isolation from the unit. Ultimately, it helps students keep their eye on the big picture and the purpose for all their learning.
We are coming toward the end of a whole-semester unit of work on asylum seekers and aid agencies. It would be easy for the students to become focused on the intricacies of tasks like writing orals and creating videos and building presentations spaces. I find, however, that as I remind them of the deep, over-aching reasons for their work, they maintain a more focused attitude toward their work.

6 things teens need to hear every day…

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Tomorrow
As in, “You were to have this completed today.  Let’s work toward tomorrow”.
Grace is needed with teen learners and sometimes there are very good reasons why something needs to be put off for a day or two. Teen’s lives are complex. The reason why the task is not complete today might be as varied as the sky and the earth. Listen to the reason, evaluate, then show grace when you can.  Give them until tomorrow if you can.  But then hold them to account.

 
However
As in, “You’ve done well here, here and here however what do you reckon about this part?”  Students crave balanced feedback on their work. Providing just the positives eliminates the need for improvement. Providing just the negatives is crushing. The balance of the two provides the goal and the improvement needed to get there.

 
I believe you can
Advocacy is invaluable.  Our positive encouragement is vital.  Helping teens see the pathway to further success is enlightening.

However, never should we leave them to flounder in finding that success.  Scaffolding is necessary and cushioning their failure-fall is imperative.  Which leads to…

 
You made a mistake
Mistakes are normal, needed and need to be noticed.  Celebrate the growth that comes from the discovery of a mistake. And make sure you show your mistakes and your growth too.

 
Yes
How often do we restrict learning because of our preconceptions.  We need to listen to suggestions from students and say yes more often. Creativity and thought are based on permission and exist beyond the boundaries of restriction.

 
In other words
Adolescents require explanations to be given in various way, as many times as needed. Don’t become frustrated by their lack of understanding. Be the adult. Be the teacher. Find new ways to explain. And this is not just about new words to use, but also new methods and process to demonstrate and engage in learning.

 

What would you add to this list?

 

A Fork in the Teacher’s Road

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I was made aware of a fork in my road yesterday and it is worth sharing.  It was one of those moments when you realise that, as a teacher, the little decisions can become significant beyond the immediacy of the moment.

It was after the bell for morning break.  I was pretty keen for my morning coffee (please don’t judge me too harshly) and ready to head for the door straight after the students.  One of the girls sitting right in front of me hesitated for just a moment then said, “My mum will be home from Alice Springs tomorrow”.

While I don’t believe I showed a hesitation to her, I had a distinct moment of debate in my head.  Do I respond with a brief but (to be honest) dismissive reply or do I ask the leading question that would open her up and give permission for her to share what was behind the question?

I trust you know me well enough to know which road I took at that particular juncture…  Yes, I asked her why mum had been away and why she was in Alice Springs.  And then came the wonderful intersection of time and opportunity and connectedness that makes all teachers et up in the morning.  She shared about the award her grandfather had received, the excitement in her family and her mother’s trip to be there for the ceremony.  it was genuinely interesting information and I’m so glad I asked.  And, of course more than that, I created a point of commonality and relationship with the student that is vital and lasting.

And I still got time for my coffee!

 

I trust my decision at that fork in the teacher’s road is not ever the road less travelled.

Have you a similar story to share?

 

 

Appreciate. Expect.

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This quote piqued my interest when I saw it on a post recently.  I’ve written about this sort of topic a couple of times before, but let me hone in on the two key words from this quote…

Appreciated.

I want my kids to know that they are appreciated: for who they are, for what they do, for how they contribute, for their very existence as a student in my class.  This is, obviously, the core of relationship.

So how do you do that?

Get to know your students in any way possible.  What sports do they play?  What hobbies or jobs do they like?  Where do they fit in their family’s dynamics (remember, birth order impacts many parts of life)?  What are their greatest struggles and fears?  All of these questions will help to shape our understanding of a student as an individual.

As you get to know your students, you will find ways to appreciate them using the language and methods that work for them, individually.

But appreciation goes deeper than just knowing a student.  Often it becomes and act of will.  Sometimes we need to be the adult and draw from our maturity to look beyond the behaviour and character to the deeper things of life-connection; to that place of ‘appreciating because ‘and not ‘appreciating for’.  ‘Appreciating because’ is about appreciation that is not driven by what a students does.  It is driven by the very fact that they are a fellow human being with wants and needs; that we as teachers have been given a huge responsibility to speak into this life for a period of time.

Expected.

What do you expect of your students?  I fear that with the tyranny of time teachers experience daily, we can easily slip into the mode of teaching that expects a little less than we might hope so that we know there will be a level of success.  The reality is that adolescents, especially, will have far more to offer than we expect.  Given the right opportunities and learning environment, adolescents can and will come up with wonderfully surprising outcomes.

Projects and open learning environments and discussion forums and real life learning and engagement with community programs will all provide a platform for exploration and growth.  I can assure you that, when I’ve run such activities, the outcomes have far exceeded what I expected.

I trust you will seek out new ways of blending your appreciate and your expectations of your students.

 

The infinite value of the multicultural classroom

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I am teaching a wonderful unit on multiculturalism, refugees, migrations and asylum seekers.  Here in Australia, this is a relevant and current issue and there is a lot to discover and explore.  What has made the teaching so much richer than I anticipated is the fact that, across the two class groups, I have seven students who have intimate experiences with migration.  Several are refugees and a couple have parents who migrated here.

I invited each student to share about their family’s experiences and I could not have planned the results if I had provided them with a script.  Completely unprompted, the students spoke about war and displacement, about waiting in a refugee camp for years, about abuse and poor education and family tensions, and about the release and relief that came with resettlement.
For a significant time, the rest of the class sat spellbound as their peers spoke.

There has been a lot said and written about the self-centeredness of adolescence and their inability to engage with non-bells-and-whistles didactic presentations.
I can assure you that engagement can happen in all sorts of ways.  The key is the passion of the presenter, especially when it is an adolescent’s peer.

And none of this would have happened without the fact that I am blessed with the richness of a multicultural class.

 

Engaging Lessons; Life Lessons

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I read a great article recently about the value of real life teaching.  I’d encourage you to check it out…

Obviously, it got me thinking about the degree to which I teach for real life and the ways in which I do it.  Sometimes I am like Teacher A but I strive to be more like Teacher B.  Let me give you a recent example of some life teaching that happened in my room.

Now, we know that young adolescents can be passionate beings, connecting on a deep level with injustices and offering creative solutions (though sometimes misguided or limited by their understanding).  To tap into this and to further their exploration of the issues facing people living in disadvantaged locations, I ran an introductory activity with the help of two of my students.  They were asked to role play with me but in secret.  They were my targets at which I threw every inappropriate teacher behaviour I could think up, disciplining them unjustly in front of their peers for half an hour.  The two kids did a great job of copping what I asked them to do, moving seats, standing up, being sent from the room, being told they were silly for not knowing something I felt they should know (even though the rest of the students didn’t know it either).  You get the idea.

At the end of the time, I called them both to the front of the class and we ‘confessed’ our role playing and allowed the rest of the class to discuss their feelings about what had happened.  Wow!  We certainly did a great job.  There were so many discussion-starter comments from the class about injustice, their feelings toward me during the activity, and their feelings toward the kids who were unfairly treated.  From there we looked at the UN Charter of Human Rights which, all of a sudden  became a living document to the class as they related what I had done to what happens in places around the world, and what we should do in response.

I’m convinced that what could have been a dry, stand-alone lesson on the Charter, had suddenly taken on new depth and meaning.

 

What activities do you do in your classroom to create real-life learning?