Friday, April 25, 2014

Taking Talent and Passion to a Professional Level

Young people are inspiring. That is a fact. I see students from all walks of life, with all kinds of talents, and with the kind of energy that is enviable to most adults. Whether they are in pre-school or on the cusp of graduating from high school, they are full of curiosity, creativity, opinions, and questions. The key for educators, mentors, and family members, is to help our young people harness all of these characteristics to lead them to success. Unfortunately, in many schools, our kids are not given this opportunity.

For far too long, interests in art, writing, music, design, performance, gaming, and many similar pursuits have been labeled as alternative paths in life. Sure, most people enjoy seeing students involved in these categories and funding has even been provided for many of these areas. However, the problem with this stance is it gives students the impression that these interests are not worthy of pursuing in terms of post secondary education or as careers. Let's face it, when people hear that a student is going to art school or interested in design, most family members frown on the notion. We have to break this mold and come to the understanding that these passions, are not only worth pursuing, but are incredibly advantageous to our student's futures as professionals.

The United States is the land of innovation. Our future relies on our ability to be adaptable, creative, collaborative, and driven to overcome obstacles and challenges that face us. So, why would we discourage our students from pursuing their passions.? Instead, we should teach them to harness these creative talents and passions to become professionals.

I was inspired yet again last night as I sat through scholarship interviews at our school. We have worked hard to foster creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking at our school through our project based learning environment. We have used our one to one laptop and iPad format to teach students how to become professionals. As I sat and observed students who have designed their own websites, worked with professionals on meaningful projects, and used their talents to become professionals themselves, I realized that our mission has not been in vain.

I have been inspired by our students in the fact that they have leveraged their creative talents to shatter old norms. Rather than just being a talented art student, the students I observed used their art to create logos for business, digital posters for community events, websites to benefit non-profit organizations, videos to educate the public on meaningful causes and much more. In essence, our students have become professionals without even knowing it. Our students have become well rounded citizens who rather than being convinced that their interests were futile, have harnessed the power of their passions to set themselves up for success. In other words, whether they become teachers, doctors, contractors, social workers, or business owners, they will know that passion, drive, ambition, and creativity will make them successful no matter what.

Our school is not perfect and not all students fully capture this magic, but it is happening at a higher level and more frequently than ever. This is what we should pursue with our students. This is why our job is so important. Our young people are looking to us to guide them. Successful people find their passion and their talents and make a life out of them. If we give our students the technological skills, learning skills, and life skills that are relevant to their generation, their pursuits will shine through. We need to take their talent and passion and turn it into professionalism long before they leave our schools. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Dynamic Teacher

This is a call for dynamic teachers. Dynamic is defined as something or someone that is characterized by constant change, activity, or progress. As I hope we all know, the idea that you would be a practitioner of a practice simply because it had been done that way for years does not work in education. Like I have said many times before, there are tried and true educational practices and learning processes that are timeless. However, in an age of exponentially growing innovation, the idea that you would not be willing to change or progress in order to become more effective in education is simply obsolete. We need dynamic teachers.

If you read carefully, you will notice that I did not say dynamic speakers. I have seen some amazing speakers in my time and I have received great motivation and ideas from these speakers over time. However, it is much different when you spend as much time as a teacher does with her students. Dynamic speaking only lasts so long before it become more about the speaker than the audience. We need our teachers to have engaging personalities, make jokes, relate to students, give proper direction, and inspire the students on a regular basis. We need their presence to be felt in class and when the teacher speaks, we want our students to truly feel that what they are saying is important. But there is much more to a dynamic teacher.

A dynamic teacher demonstrates the characteristics of a great speaker but that should always lead into activity. We need teachers who introduce topics, skills, and projects in an engaging and understandable way, but we need teachers who understand that the students, should be active as well. A dynamic teacher understands this and spend time designing lessons that will engage, challenge, and inspire students to be creative while also allowing for collaboration. The dynamic teacher is able to seamlessly make the transition from being an engaging speaker to helpful facilitator. In essence, the dynamic teacher maintains her presence through all of these transitions.

The dynamic teacher understands the value of communication and feedback. Students feel comfortable in asking questions and know that their work will always be reviewed and edited by their teacher. The class is in constant workshop and improvement mode. After all, almost every successful business in the world is operated this way. The students feel good about their work because their is a process in getting to their end goal rather than simply turning something in and never hearing back from their teacher. Imaging spending a significant amount of time on a project for work and then never getting any feedback on how you did or how you can improve. You would soon become jaded.

The dynamic teacher works at being this way over time. She takes risks and never makes the same mistake twice. The dynamic teacher is the ultimate model because she is a lifelong learner and pushes herself to improve each and every day. The minute that you set foot in the room of a dynamic teacher, you will know. There is nothing like it.

The dynamic teacher understands the power behind her position. The dynamic teacher can make positive change in our families, communities, and our world. This is not an easy task. It is not for the faint of heart. But the dynamic teacher thrives on this idea. We need more dynamic teachers! Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Work Smarter Not Harder: Rigor Reimagined

The age old American vision of academics is fairly vivid in most of our heads. Student in a quiet library, with her nose in the books, meticulously writing notes for hours. A student pulling an "all nighter" reading their textbook and studying flashcards a three in the morning. I know that there were times in college for me, that were spent exactly this way. However, somewhere along the way, these images became what American society has used to measure how rigorous or challenging learning is at a school. Don't get me wrong, reading books by insightful and highly qualified authors is an important practice that I make sure to engage in on a regular basis. But is that age old college study session, what we should be using to gauge what learning looks like?

I was a history major in college. I read so many books during that time, that I think I acquired an addiction through the process. I spent time pouring over these books so that I could retain the information necessary to pass a written test or write a paper on my findings. I sat through hours of lecture from some incredibly knowledgeable professors. However, when I think about the elements of my education that have lasted long term, it has nothing to do with any of this. I remember the subjects I was most interested in. I remember my senior paper that I spent three months working on. I remember, when I had to present in front of a class of critics. I remember group work that required me to communicate and collaborate with people outside of my comfort zone. But most of all, I have retained and understood the most after teaching. After designing lesson plans, collaborating with peers, engaging with students, designing guides to help them in project creation, I feel I have learned more about history than ever.

We have to move beyond this idea that students need piles of homework in order to call their learning experience rigorous. If a student is passively sitting in class taking notes, or filling out a worksheet or something that is not challenging them on an intellectual level, this process is not rigorous no matter how much homework you give. What if we required our students to provide their own thoughts? What if we forced them to work with others, design projects that pushed them to their creative limits, and developed courses that forced them to step outside of the "old school" comfort zone. That is rigorous.

We recently had a student complete his Senior Legacy Experience through music. He is a motivated up and coming musician. So he chose to put on the full version of Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon." He had to promote the event online and in person, he had to recruit several different musicians (if you have heard the album you know how diverse that is), he had to plan and execute rehearsal, he had to keep track of ticket sales, and he brought in professional lighting equipment personnel to make it happen. It was a huge success. Now, can you tell me that it is more rigorous to write a five page essay about Pink Floyd or do what this student did. This is a rhetorical question. Our students want to be challenged intellectually and creatively.

We need to move away from this idea that homework drill and kill is rigorous. The truth is, the Dark Side of the Moon, student will be successful no matter if he is in college, working or pursuing a music career. Because he has been inspired and he has completed meaningful work. We are in a world where communication, collaboration, adaptability, quick response, and technology skills are the keys to success. We need to create these environments in our classroom rather forcing them into piles of work that are not significant to anyone but the teacher. We need to rethink what rigor means to us in education. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ultimate Model

In teaching, one of the key words that always comes up in instructional strategies is modeling. Teachers should demonstrate what it looks like so that the students have a reference point to be successful. In writing, a teacher would provide an example of a sound thesis statement. In Physical Education, the teacher would teach the students how to stretch properly by showing them what it looks like rather than simply giving them verbal instruction. This is obviously sound teaching and in addition to showing the students how to carry out tasks, it gives them confidence to begin. This really is teaching 101.

However, I would like to propose that modeling is much more than that. We as committed educators, parents, and communicators want to be the ultimate models. We strive to inspire our students to be risk takers, ambitious leaders, innovative thinkers, and creative producers of high quality products. So we have to strive to do more than just model the task at hand. We have to be models of several things.

Think about this scenario. A teacher is in front of the class giving instructions on a writing assignment that the students will do about a foreign country. She provides an example of an introductory paragraph with a solid thesis, and a conclusion based on supporting evidence. After providing this, she tells the students what country they will be researching and then tells them to begin. She walks to her desk, sits down, and begins grading papers from another. class. This is a regular part of her routine and other than leaving right at the bell everyday, the students don't much at all about their teacher.

Sure the teacher modeled the assignment. And of course she has the right to grade papers. However, this is the old form of modeling we have to shatter. We have to inspire our students to explore the amazing culture and history of other countries. We have to share our experience of travel with students no matter what that may consist of. We have to go participate in things that challenge us professionally and come to our classrooms invigorated with what we learned. We have to be life long learners and people who demonstrate a love for teaching and for students.

The ultimate model is the teacher you still remember and love from high school. The ultimate model inspires not just quality work but curiosity and creativity. Our lives should be models of success, passion and love to our students. We need to be ultimate models. Leading is Teaching.