Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Aha!" - Words to Live By

Another month has come and gone and I again find myself a bit (read: extremely) behind with my post. This theme felt like a big request, partly because I kept thinking that a "Eureka!" needed to be something that once mystified me then suddenly became clear, and I think partly because I had so many amazing "Eureka!"- feeling moments this year. After a while I began to realize that maybe it is hard to see much of what we do as sudden "Aha!" moments because a lot of the most exciting learning happens gradually over time. There are acquired skills we're proud to have learned, and finite moments in time that excite us during a learning experience, but isn't it the frustrating, messy experience that we often learn the most from? Those challenging, sometimes frustrating situations are the experiences I want to help create for my kiddos because they are extending the learning far beyond content knowledge, which I think is one of the most important takeaways in (personalized) learning.

At the beginning of each year instead of making a list of rules - "We will do this, we won't do that" - my students pick their Words to Live By. We talk extensively about Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, discussing what motivates our behaviors and why we make certain choices, and we determine what our own personal code of behavior is. Through establishing this code for ourselves we acknowledge that each member of our classroom community is unique and comes through the door with different strengths and challenges for us to embrace together throughout the year. We come to realize that no two people in our community are the same, and that means our code and motivations are different. We talk about how fair is not always equal, and that our neighbors sometimes need our guidance to stick to their personal code or to push themselves towards higher stages of our Kohlberg "mountain" (the visualization we use for the 6 stages). I remind the kids that getting to the top of the mountain alone is not the most important thing ("What if you had the stove but your neighbor had the food?") and they have a choice as to whether they are helping each other up the mountain or pulling each other down. This is how I've approached behavior and classroom management since I started teaching, and though it manifests itself differently depending on the school culture, population, and group of kiddos it always brings us together and creates a strong community of learners who support and challenge each other.

This year was slightly different, though. With our technology enabled classroom of 1:1 Chromebooks I witnessed some of the most powerful student experiences of my career. This year my kids truly embraced our Words to Live By and learned not just what those words meant, but what they felt like every day. Perseverance, honesty, kindness, leadership, generosity, bravery... These concepts are not easy to grasp, especially at the age of 9, but having the ability to personalize the learning for each student meant they were able to find their learning "sweet spot" and take ownership over process and product. They attempted academic material that was matched to their ability and, therefore, felt ridiculously hard at times. When we started using TenMarks, for example, most of the kids were overwhelmed by the intensity of the CCSS aligned math problems because they required a great deal of critical thinking and problem solving. I became concerned about the gap between their math (and technology) skills and what was being asked of them, wondering if this hurdle could be overcome or if the data would only continue to show their deficits.

But then one morning my sweet S brought me one of the most memorable moments of my career. She had struggled since the first weeks of school to attempt even the lowest level of tasks without shutting down and refusing to do anything but give up, cry, and exclaim, "I can't do this! I am dumb. I don't get it and I can't learn it." After working diligently that morning on 10 problems in an algebraic thinking standard, headphones in and whiteboard being filled and erased in a frenzy of math work, she raised her hand to share her score with me. Beaming ear to ear she looked up as she pointed at the screen: "100%". Without thinking twice I pulled her up from the carpet, stood her on the table, and announced her triumph to the class. "Guess what?! S just got a 100!!" I didn't tell them to clap, I had never had a class discussion about what to do when celebrating a classmate, but without hesitation the class burst into cheers and claps and comments of congratulations. S had persevered, shown humility to accept help and leadership all morning from her classmates when she struggled with tech and math alike, and she took risks and showed bravery in attempting something that felt unattainable. Her classmates had lived that struggle alongside her, not just that morning but since the first day of school, and they felt so invested in her success that they knew this was an accomplishment to be proud of. I wish I could capture the energy in the room at that moment - to bottle it up and share with passionate educators and naysayers alike. Why personalized learning? Why technology-enabled classrooms? Why students empowered with so much choice and ownership of learning? That is why - that moment, multiplied by classrooms full of students and day after day of other, similar moments which all lead to independent learners being prepared for their future.

Blended and personalized learning isn't all about the technology. It isn't kids sitting behind computer screens and plugging along without interacting with the kids sitting right next to them. It certainly isn't easy for teachers who have to spend hours crafting impeccable, data-informed lessons and precise classroom routines while being ready to relinquish control to students in a moment's notice to adjust and go down a path they could never have anticipated. At its best it is the complete opposite of these things. It is taking a strong philosophy, pedagogy, classroom culture and enhancing it with technology tools. It is being willing to put students in the driver's seat and embrace the structured chaos and confusion along the way. When my kiddos started 4th grade some were tentative, waiting for the learning to be provided to them and trying to provide the "right" response only when prompted. Now they go after learning, asking the questions and not waiting for permission to go find the answers. There isn't 1 teacher who they go to for help, there are 29, and every voice is valued equally. My students are learning to embrace the struggle and frustration, recognizing that taking risks and continuing to try and try again often provides much greater rewards than staying in the comfortable place where we know we can succeed fairly easily. +Ben Wilkoff often says, "Learning isn't an event, it is something that happens over time", and I think my kids have started to understand this for themselves because we had the tools they needed to take control of their experience. Jumping in with blended and personalized learning hasn't been easy, and it certainly hasn't always been pretty. But through the frequent mess and frustration it has been a privilege to learn alongside these brilliant young people and to watch them experience their own "Eureka!" moments every day. I'm extremely proud of their flexibility, perseverance, and excitement this year and cannot wait to see how they continue to grow and share their learning and expertise with the world.

1 comment:

  1. I loved your blogpost. It resonates with my journey of moving towards more personalized learning and creating a community of intrinsic learners. Thanks for sharing your thinking!
    Meg Jones


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