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I think we sometimes take for granted the skill it takes to take part in good discussion. In a world inundated with technology, distractions, Pokemon Go, odd presidential campaigns, and all of the things that modern society has created to take our attention and divert it to bright screens in the palm of our hands, good discussion can be rare. And while these technologies are not necessarily a negative aspect of our world (except maybe the campaign), they do not always facilitate rich conversation; spirited debates; intellectually stimulating discussion- some of the best defining features of what it means to be human.
Many of the high school students who enter my class obviously know how to talk and communicate, but are not always equipped to exchange ideas, or allow a differing opinion to shape their current beliefs. Every school year, the first times that I try to facilitate good discussion about contentious topics, the discussion usually turns into a debate, and those involved in the class discussion develop a single motive to “win” or convince the other side to share their same belief (It’s like internet-comment boards in real life). The loudest student in the room is heard the most, feelings can sometimes be hurt, and the timid students usually shrink into the corners of the room and add nothing to the conversation. Emotion dominates the time together, and actual discussion does not occur.
I expect this at the beginning of the year, because I know that many of the students in my room do not know how to discuss. They’ve been trained by a digital culture that is all about anonymity and one-way online conversations. Many have also been cultivated by a school culture that values compliance and silence, allowing rare speaking opportunities that only serve to demonstrate correct answers. We are not born with an innate ability to listen to other’s ideas, and consider them as valid if they differ from our own. This is a skill that must be taught.
From the earliest of the years in school sitting in a circle in kindergarten, to lectures halls at a university, I don’t think it is ever too late for students to undergo conversation-training. It starts with practice in listening.
One of my favorite discussion methods in my classroom is called a Samoan Circle. It is a great method for students to learn the skills needed to listen and discuss. This is how it works:
Place 4 chairs in the middle of your classroom, and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion (about whatever topic you’d like), but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the 4 chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for four students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.
Every time I do a Samoan Circle, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Samoan Circles are a great, controlled way for students to start developing excellent discussion skills.
There are many other great practices to facilitate rich discussion, and I would recommend experimenting with as many as you can. Even the quietest and most reserved student can learn the art of conversation, and your intentionality can help them attain these skills that they will use the rest of their lives.
Twenty percent of Americans will not graduate high school this year.
They are quitting.
And I think the primary reason is because to far more than twenty percent of Americans, the system that consumes over eight hours of a student’s day, is the primary source of stress and effort, the place that consumes the bulk of one’s childhood- does not include tangible purpose.
Stephen Pressfield writes in his book, The War of Art:
“In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.”
This importance can be found by introducing real and authentic conflict into our classrooms. Not the kind of conflict where fighting ensues or feelings get hurt. The conflict where the regular patterns of life are disrupted. The regular girl becomes a hero. The student within a bubble, who thinks the world revolves around their habits, their music, their friends, their life- finds out not all is well in the world, and there is something she can do about it.
The work students are doing in the classroom needs real conflict. In order for the material we present in our classroom to grasp a student’s attention long enough for them engage with it, it needs problems for them to solve. We live in a big world with big problems, and sometimes the issues students tackle are big. Chances are, there are people in your community who deal with hunger on a daily basis. Racism probably exists within your city or town. Homeless people probably live underneath an overpass near you. Believe it or not, slavery still exists, and the slaves are young women who are trafficked in every major city in the United States.
These are big problems that your students can tackle in math class, and in English, and science, and any other subject in school.
There are also conflicts of lesser global importance for your students to engage in, and those belong just as much in your epic classroom, because they are engaging students in learning so they can be prepared to tackle big stuff later on. Conflicts like debating about the meaning of justice, interpreting how something a poet said 200 years ago relates to the present, or creating a piece of art that lasts- conflicts do not have to leave the walls of the school to impact and engage students.
Conflict can be huge, and conflict can be intimate. But regardless of its size and scope, it must be in the stories in your classroom.
There is a community of frogs who have lived in the same pond for centuries. For most of this community's existence, the life of the frogs has been fairly simple:
They start off life as tadpoles, spending most of their time in the shallows with brothers and sisters, playing games like tag and hide-and-go-seek, having little celebrations each time someone grows a new limb, and scurrying behind mom when a bass swims by looking for lunch. The frog parents wanted to make sure their tadpoles enjoyed their short childhoods, but also needed to make sure they were prepared to be frogs. So for a couple hours each day, the moms and dads would swim their tadpoles around and show them the ins and outs of life in a pond: how to find food, how to hide, and how to croak. The tadpoles were excellent learners, and always listened to the lessons their parents taught them.
Eventually, the tadpoles transform into frogs who carry more responsibility, but whose lives are just as simple and basic. They would spend about four hours each day looking for flies to eat or maybe a nice fat juicy worm that fell off the bank into the water. These were the frogs' favorite, but worms didn't float by too often. Then they would take a break from hunting and jump around in the cool mud along the bank. Then the frogs would hunt some more in the afternoon, often breaking to jump in the mud.
After work, the frogs gathered with the ones they love on a muddy bank or sometimes on a group of thick lily pads. And they'd sing. For hours the frogs would sing melodies that broke the stillness of the pond, igniting the air with sounds of romance, passion, and excitement.
Then they would go to bed, and wake up the next day to do it all over again.
Then one day a fat toad showed up to the pond with a mouth full of worms. This fat toad could dig, and could collect worms much easier than the frogs. But because of how often he ate them, the fat toad no longer had a taste for worms, and desired flies.
He met a group of frogs hunting along the bank and made them a proposition. In his deep toad voice he croaked, "I will offer any frog a worm for every 100 flies he brings me."
Most of the frogs licked their lips upon hearing this delicious offer from the strange visitor, but one frog spoke up, "100 flies! That's ridiculous. It would take hours to catch that many."
"That's my offer," croaked the toad, "Take it or leave it."
Almost all of the frogs jumped into the pond with excitement, swimming to their favorite spots to catch flies.
That night, the singing only lasted for 2 hours, as most frogs hunted well into the night to catch their hundred flies. At midnight, all of the frogs lined up in front of the fat toad to deposit their flies and receive their worm. When the worms ran out, arguments would break out and the hungry frogs would storm home to eat their stale flies, no longer in the mood to sing on the banks.
The next day, the frogs got up extra early to begin the hunt. The work was tireless, but the prospect of juicy worms in their stomachs was enticing, and the frogs began to skip their midday lunches and afternoon mud breaks. Nighttime singing became a thing of the past.
Soon, more toads moved near the pond and started selling worms at competing rates. Prices started to rise for worms as the toads colluded and fixed the prices, and they started demanding as much as 150 flies for a single worm. The frogs were forced to work harder and harder for their beloved worms, and they eventually forgot that they could simply eat the flies they were catching.
Working for worms became the new way of life. A few ambitious frogs staked out certain areas of the pond and claimed it as their own. Other frogs were allowed to hunt in these areas, but always had to pay a price. The ambitious frogs received a percentage for flies caught in their territory. To enforce this, they would hire wasps to sting any trespassers who took flies that were not theirs. Sometimes, the ambitious frogs wanted to grow their territories, and there would be fighting and even death as the need for more flies and worms grew.
Many frogs did not want to take part in the violence, and did their hunting in the more peaceful parts of the pond. The hunting was not as fruitful, but enough for a frog and his family to catch a decent amount of flies and have a worm a day. Many of the frogs in this area would save up many flies over the course of a year, and then cash them out in July for two weeks worth of worms. Then these frogs would take a break from hunting, and would spend their vacation time swimming with their tadpoles, jumping around in the cool mud, and singing at night with their friends.
But after 2 weeks, the frogs went back to work for the year, and the singing once again stopped.
And the toads grew fatter and fatter.
Have you ever stood at the front of your class and felt a vibration, an energy pulsing through the room that made you stop thinking about assessments, or parents, or lesson planning, or Language Arts, or anything else that comes with being a teacher, but instead just watched what was happening with wonder?
Every now and then, when my students are working on a project that moves them beyond the walls of my classroom and school, and into a place they haven't been before; a place that has a problem needing to be solved, I get to feel this vibration. I'm talking about when students don't need their teacher to work, or grades to make them sweat. They don't need the fear of punishment to stay on task, because staying on task means getting closer to solving this problem.
I love watching a group of students' eyes light up when a group member has a great idea. I also love watching a group of students get into a heated argument, and they figure out themselves how to cool it down. I love when I go to tell a kid to quit texting in class, and he shows me his cell phone, and on it is the phone number of a manufacturer he is trying to contact for the project.
I love hearing kids tell me they could not fall asleep the night before because they couldn't stop thinking about how they want to edit their documentary about WW2 veterans. Or when my principal comes into my room because she hears a lot of noise, and finds kids huddled around laptops and poster board deep in discussion.
I love that a group of my students impressed a local company so much during a project they worked on with them, that this group of students were offered paid internships at this company.
I love that I don't have to lecture all day everyday, and print out hundreds of worksheets to bore my students with. And I love how my students aren't confined to my classroom during class, and that they can be trusted to work hard in the hallway or outside.
I love that I teach at a school that is a choice for students to go to, and my school starts at 6:55 in the morning, and yet I hardly hear a word of complaint from students who wake up at 5am to catch the bus.
I love having chairs that roll in my room, and I love seeing a kid who was scared to death to speak in front of 5 of his peers in September, but has no problem giving a speech in front of 400 in May.
I love that teaching is way different than I thought it was going to be. And I love that I love my job, and this is due in large part because I teach in an environment that embraces project based learning.
Authenticity is key in a successful project-based learning environment, and even a traditional learning environment for that matter, and I could write a book about that fact (I actually am working on that book, keep an eye out for it).
But this post is about finding that authentic audience or authentic element for your projects and lessons. I have found that teaching in a new and fresh way means that my planning time can look very different as well. I spend a significant amount of time during the planning stages of projects brainstorming potential organizations, people, and communities who might want to partner with my class on projects. I'm going to spend the rest of the time in this post describing what that looks like.
1. I figure out what the project is roughly going to be about.
Do any themes emerge from my content standards that helps the standards relate with each other in some way? Once I identify a solid theme within a group of standards, I ask the question(s): What can we do that is important that will help students understand these standards? Is there a problem my students can help solve that relates to this theme? Who can I contact to partner up with me and my class?
2. Once I've got my basic idea, I do some research.
Nothing complicated here. Just get on Google and start searching for organizations or businesses in the area that are doing something that relates to your project idea. I had a project idea that involved refugees. So I simply Googled: Refugees Grand Rapids, MI
Here's the thing though: you do not have to limit who you work with based on your original idea. I find that some of the best project ideas come from brainstorming with non-education professionals. I knew I wanted to do something with refugees, but did not know exactly what. After sitting down with a social worker for an hour, who knows far more about the story and the plight of refugees arriving in America, we had an awesome task and problem for my students to help solve. So be open to who you contact during the research phase of this process.
3. Lastly, it's time to COLD CALL.
Cold calling, meaning contacting someone you do not know at all, can be scary. I think it can be scary because it can be so unfamiliar for us, especially if we have been working in a teaching environment that has never required it before. The idea of calling professionals to provide an authentic audience for my students was never once mentioned in my education program in college. And to me, that is travesty, because cold calling is what has brought some of the greatest success and motivation to my classroom. Here's some things to keep in mind while cold calling:
- The phone is better than email. Don't get me wrong, email is fine sometimes and for some it's the best way of communicating, but I have had so much more success getting a hold of people and arranging professionals to come work with my class by picking up the phone rather than emailing. It's personal, it's intentional, and shows the person you are contacting that are serious about them working with your students. Not to mention, emails get lost or buried in inboxes. If someone gets a voicemail from you, and then does not respond, they almost always will get back to you after getting another voicemail. Sometime you have to be a squeaky wheel to get the oil (I sound like my grandpa). But it is worth being squeaky if you can bring your classroom to the next level!
- You get more yes' than no's. I worked in business development prior to teaching and I heard the word NO 9 times out of 10 when calling on businesses. But it is far different with teaching. I find that businesses and nonprofits WANT to be a part of schools; they want to be a part of the community. Especially if you are offering to help solve a problem for them. When I called the refugee social work agency and told the social worker that I wanted my class to get to know some refugees in Grand Rapids, hear their stories, and find ways to help out; do you think she said NO? Of course not! She said, "Oh that is awesome! We'd love to work with you guys. Can I come to your school and talk with you about it?" I've heard this enthusiastic YES over and over again. From retirement homes, books stores, microfinance banks in Africa, and even TEDx, people want to be a part of what we are doing as teachers.
- And if they say NO, so what? Seriously, if someone doesn't want to work with your class, find someone else. The word NO does not hurt that bad, and it means you reached out and asked. You will not get something if you do not ask.
Be bold in what you want for your classroom! There is so much out there for our kids to explore, be exposed to, and serve, and I think it should be one of our primary tasks as teachers to help create those opportunities for them.
We did a new project this year in my World History/ELA class.
And it was glorious.
But first a little background.
In 1856, the country of Germany began invading a very small kingdom in East Africa called Burundi. They started a century of pillaging the land, harsh violence, political upheaval, and outright stealing of Burundi’s natural resources. They took over this land with overwhelming force, and caused enemy tribes who had very clear boundaries with each other to share space.
It’s called imperialism, and it’s in my state standards for high school World History.
When Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, it looked very much as it does today: locked in civil war and in a constant state of poverty. A direct result of imperialism.
This happened all over Africa, and it is a contributing factor as to why many African nations are impoverished. And when nations like the United States sends money, food, and unpurchased clothing from thrift stores- a small Band Aid is applied to a large gash.
As a teacher in a project based learning school, I wanted to find a way for my students to learn this history content in a way that is more real and authentic than me telling this story or having them read it on Wikipedia.
I had a woman named Trace, who spent the past several years working in Burundi, come and speak to my class about what she did there. She worked for a bank called Turami that gives micro loans to citizens of Burundi. Groups of up to 30 people come together asking for a loan, say 15,000 dollars, and the money is divided equally among the group, each person receiving 500 dollars a piece. But the kicker is, they pay back the loan together rather than individually. If someone is short one month, the rest of the group pitches in and helps with the payment.
This money is used to start small businesses: goat farming, brick making, clothing companies, etc.. And 90 percent of the loans are paid back in full. This is not a band aid for the poverty in Burundi, this could be what heals the wound caused by imperialism.
And when my students heard Trace’s story, they wanted to be a part of it. And so when Trace left that morning, the class did some brainstorming. And my principal ended up loaning me 300 dollars. My students got into groups of four, and I loaned each group 10 dollars. Their goal was to multiply that money into as much money as possible. And at the end of the unit, they would pay the loan back, and we would take the profits and invest it in an actual group of villagers in Burundi applying for a micro loan through this really cool website called KIVA.ORG.
After signing and notarizing loan agreements (by an actual notary public), the students formed companies, and began holding bake sales, selling soda and lattes in the hallway, making bracelets, knitting scarves, buying chocolate and selling it on the weekends at local bowling alleys, and they spent a portion of their earnings on more supplies to generate more income.
I had one group that took their 10 dollars and bought a bag of paintballs. This group went door to door in their neighborhoods telling neighbors that they could shoot them with the paintball gun for every 5 dollars they donated.
They made 70 bucks! You can’t make this stuff up!
At the end of the unit, the whole group (the class) paid back the loan in full, and we had a profit of over 700 dollars.
700 dollars made by 14 year old freshmen. Now this is some history class.
And using KIVA, we loaned that money to a group in Burundi. And when it gets paid back, we are going to loan it to another group of people.
My students are thinking outside themselves. They weren't sacrificing their break times in between classes, or their evenings and weekends so they could earn a grade. I actually didn't grade this at all. They worked hard because they wanted to be a part of Burundi. They had a deeper understanding of imperialism than most textbooks can give, and they wanted to do something with this knowledge. This project gave them an opportunity to empathize and act.
That is part of the beauty of project based learning. The subject content is still there, but it is absorbed rather than reflected. It's felt rather than just heard.
Oh, and it's a lot of fun.