Monday, March 11, 2019

How I empowered my students to love learning

Metal detectors, panic alarms, and active school shooter drills are often what comes to mind when the education community first thinks of school safety. However, addressing this issue reaches far beyond the secure doors of our schools, taking into consideration factors such as school and classroom climate, positive discipline measures, and wellness promotion, according to A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.

When we consider the studies showing the relationship between bullying, personal failure, and anger to school violence, we must pause and reflect on our own schools and classrooms. How can we make education a positive experience for all of our students? So many students who have acted out in violence were angry or bullied. And after violent acts occur, we hear stories about students who didn’t belong and missed that feeling of acceptance, making their school experience more than a little tough.

But what if...

What if they loved learning?

When was the last time you felt excited when you were learning something new? As adults, I think we take for granted this spark for learning. How many of our students feel excited to learn in our schools today? Most days, students walk through our doors and read the texts we have selected, participate in the activities we have planned, and complete the projects we have thought up. They comply and learn, but do they love it? Probably not.

In an effort to ignite a passion for learning, I took inspiration from John Spencer and AJ Juliani and implemented passion projects. Passion projects are akin to genius hour or Google’s 20% time. Essentially, students pursue topics they are interested in and develop their own projects to demonstrate their learning. As a teacher, I facilitate learning and provide just-in-time instruction for my students.

This year, my students chose to research topics including homelessness, modern slavery, home construction, and video game design. Projects ranged from writing songs and developing websites to creating artwork with poetry and coding video games. During these projects, I taught students nonfiction reading comprehension skills like summarizing, synthesizing across texts, and drawing conclusions.

Passion projects allow for a real purpose for learning, freedom for creativity, and opportunities to publish work for a large audience. My students showed a genuine interest in their research, they were invested in their own learning, and they made comments like, “Do we get to read more for our project today?” Toward the end of our unit, more than a few students came to school with huge smiles saying, “I can’t wait to do our project today!”

When students are excited to learn, a positive environment and culture forms. Learning doesn’t have to be boring, and challenges don’t have to lead to anger and frustration. If we can help students to realize their interests and develop their passions, they will want to learn. Empowered students have confidence and believe they can contribute to the school community in positive ways.

What if they loved their classroom community?

Building a positive classroom community where all children are accepted and included can be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching, yet it is essential for students to feel safe. Winning over students who feel compelled to pick on others for control and power is a critical first step. This kind of antisocial behavior hurts the individuals who are harassed and creates an environment where no one feels safe. All students need a sense of belonging, and they want to be accepted by teachers and, even more so, peers.

I initially gamified my classroom with Classcraft to increase engagement and motivation. What I didn’t expect was the impact it would have on our classroom community. Classcraft is a gamification platform that allows me to promote social-emotional learning skills by reinforcing positive and pro-social behaviors like teamwork, communication, kindness, and respecting others. The collaborative nature of Classcraft requires students to work together, thereby fostering relationships that might not have otherwise formed. Students are eager to help teammates with learning tasks, and friends celebrate together as they level up.

Just the other day I saw a student finish her independent learning task and immediately check in with a teammate who struggles with reading. I watched as they sat together, one student reading directions to the other and explaining the task. When they finished they gave one another a high five and then went about the rest of the day. Later on, I asked the early-finisher why she took the initiative to help her teammate and this is what she said, “Well, I know reading is hard for her. She’s really smart, and I want to help her level up. Soon we will be the same level and we can have matching outfits!” Talk about a positive class culture!

Gamifying my classroom has also helped me to build better relationships with my students. I have found that playing together breaks down barriers and builds trust. That trust goes a long way in helping my students to feel that they belong. Our classroom community is thriving, and students know they play a critical role in our success.

What if they loved themselves?

More and more students today are exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, and depression. As teachers, we know that students often have underlying issues we don’t know about, and emotional outbursts or anger can be a response to multiple contributing factors. Worry about relationships, grades, fitting in, and too much homework are just a few stressors students face at school. Coupled with family expectations, lack of sleep, and even trauma, many of today’s students are struggling to cope with difficult situations and manage their thoughts and emotions.

Mental health is becoming a popular topic for discussion in the education community. It’s not uncommon for some schools to practice mindfulness as part of their morning routine. This Boston school has replaced detention with meditation, and England is moving to include mindfulness as part of students’ regular instruction.

Students in my school have access to a student support room, where they can go to calm down and refocus before returning to class. They can do physical activity, sit calmly, talk to an adult, and even swing for sensory purposes. Some of my colleagues are taking a more direct approach by teaching their whole class mindfulness techniques using resources like Mind Yeti and Smiling Mind to guide meditations and support students’ mental health. Spark also has great resources for teachers and parents as they help their children navigate tough situations and build resilience.

Students can experience so many benefits from practicing mindfulness techniques including increasing attention, reducing worries, and regulating emotions. Less stress and better attention lead to more engaged learning, better grades, and confident students. When students learn to accept themselves for who they are, they are left feeling in control of their minds and bodies and are able to make positive choices.

Reimagining the Student Experience

We can empower students to take an active role in their learning, building confidence and ownership. Finding their passions and belonging to a supportive and positive community is a great first step in helping students to have a positive school experience, where bullying and antisocial behaviors are minimized and students are proud of their learning. When we teach students how to manage their emotions and deal with day-to-day stress, we are not only helping them build skills for life, but we are also working to create a safer school environment. The skills they learn related to personal care, collaboration, and taking part in a community will stay with them long after they leave our schools.

Note: This article was also published on eSchool News