Make It Real, Relevant And Personal
Nothing fosters learning more than an internal passion for a topic. Once the fire has been lit and the engagement begins, there is no stopping the imagination nor the depth of understanding. It has never been our job, as teachers, to fill a child’s mind with information. Our ultimate goal should be to light the fire in each child’s soul and to create an endless thirst for truth. Our students come to us daily, hearts filled with hopes and dreams. We must do our very best to give them the opportunities they need to meet their goals. We need to give them ownership of their learning and the chance to succeed in ways that are unique to them.
In my intermediate classroom, the process of creating such an energetic learning environment begins as students gain an in-depth understanding of themselves as learners. If we want students to be responsible for their own learning, then we must help them understand how they learn. Very early in the school year, students explore their multiple intelligence, learning and decision-making styles. Understanding how they learn is as important to them as it is to their teachers. Throughout the school year, the students use this knowledge of their learning styles to help them gather information and to show their understanding. They also know the areas that they must work on to help them develop a more balanced learning style. Through the use of an e-portfolio the students are asked to write about themselves and to reflect on the way they learn. An e-portfolio or electronic portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work and their reflections saved in the computer. Many assignments, throughout the year, have a meta-cognitive component built in where the students continuously reflect on their thinking, their learning and their growth as a student and a person. By looking back in the e-portfolio, students can witness their own growth, not only as writers and reflectors, but also as learners.
The next step is to select an appropriate topic for an integrated project-based unit. This is critical to the success of an authentic learning environment. The topics must be real, relevant to students’ lives, controversial and capable of being integrated into many areas of the curriculum. The selected topic must provide the teacher with the opportunity to cover the essential learning and enduring understandings in the curriculum. We have explored such topics as the Environment, the Halifax Explosion, Social Injustice, Global Warming and Media and Technology. Each of these units were of great interest to our students and created the environment where curiosity and critical thinking could take place.
Once a topic has been selected, it is important to bring the topic home. The relevance of what is being explored must be felt locally in the students’ own community. For this reason, each unit is driven by one essential question. Everything that is discovered by the students is reflected back to the essential question. Since our school community is located on the St. Lawrence Seaway, in the case of this year’s Environmental unit, we asked how the St. Lawrence Seaway would be affected by Global Warming. We wanted the students to see that climate change has an impact on everyone, including them. When setting up the Halifax Explosion unit, we asked if our city could handle a disaster of this nature. Again, we wanted the students to look at their community in terms of the topic. The more we can connect a student to the topic, the greater the chance for engagement and a passion to learn more.
The first stage of learning around a topic begins with collecting information and data. As their learning coach, we need to guide students through this process. Our students each have different skill levels when gathering and assessing information. We must diagnose their level of competency and spend extra time with those requiring our assistance. The internet has become their first source of gathering information. This has become a problem and as a result we need to give the students the skills to evaluate the validity of the information presented to them. The students must formally assess the sites they are using as a resource and measure the value of the information gathered against suitable criteria.. Students need to be given the appropriate skills to become critical thinkers. To effectively answer the essential question, students must learn to suspend judgement until all of the facts are weighed in. Only then are they forming valid and justified opinions. For this reason, the essential question is reviewed throughout the unit and addressed formally at the conclusion of the unit.
Understanding increases dramatically when we can integrate the selected topic and essential question into other areas of our curriculum. The Environment unit involved data management and statistics from a variety of sources. The students used real numbers and data to explore the severity of climate change. They were given the opportunity to calculate their ecological footprints and to compare their results with others’. Ecosystems were explored in depth and a trip to a local stream reinforced the importance of our water systems. They met professionals in our community that work with the environment and were provided with first-hand experiences involving stream preservation. They wrote opinion pieces and letters to our Members of Parliament asking important environmental questions. The significance of the St. Lawrence Seaway was explored through a historical and economic context. This was linked to language arts and geography. As the integration increases, so too does understanding. The students get the opportunity to see how all of this fits together. Rather than thinking in separate disciplines, they think in connections.
As the students begin to develop some expertise in the topic, we give them the opportunity to explore areas of special interest that have come to light through their independent research. Often they come to us during the information gathering stage to ask questions about something that had caught their attention. Students are asked to explore this personal area of interest and make a formal presentation to the class at the conclusion of the unit. We do this in the form of a symposium. Again, the essential question must remain central to the topic. The specific format of the presentations are determined in consultation with us. They students are aware of their multiple intelligence and have had countless opportunities throughout the term to explore a variety of presentation formats such as Power Point, Inspiration, dramatic presentations, models, artistic displays, song writing, webcasts and so on. Each presentation has a minimum time limit of fifteen minutes, with a mandatory oral component. All students are responsible for creating their own evaluation rubrics which are used to evaluate their presentations. The skills for making presentations are formally taught, with several examples from previous years being used as exemplars. When students see how they were done in the past, they are often eager to surpass the standards.
The passion for learning starts with the teacher. Throughout this entire process, the teacher is the key component. Our interest and enthusiasm is contagious and our desire to learn must serve as a model for the students. The students must believe that what they are studying is of importance to all of us. They need to tap into our energy and our excitement. We need to be there to ask the important questions. We need to guide them to make inferences, predictions and interpretations. We need to give them the courage, opportunities and tools to be effective learners. We must give them an audience with whom to share their knowledge and we must truly care about what they say. We must recognize the role that technology plays in their lives and give them the skills to use this technology to their advantage. The more we tie into their world, the better the engagement, the deeper the understanding and the better the chance of developing of a passion for learning and for staying in school.
Jeff McMillan is a recently retired intermediate teacher from the UCDSB, and an Instructor at SUNY Potsdam. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org