Sunday, April 10, 2016

Reflections on "Reluctant Learners"

If we're not talking technology these days, we are talking about engagement and reluctant learners.  In a district twitter chat #byronedchat April 6, my colleague @nposh2117 challenged the group by asking us to define reluctant learners.  A great discussion ensued, but it left me thinking about those kids for the next few days.

I think education has fallen into a bad habit of trying to label a broad set of behaviors because people believe if you can label it, you can clearly "fix" it.  Several great colleagues chimed in offering their interpretations:  
@RockyChat3 aptly defined a reluctant learner as "someone who doesn't move thru a prescribed curriculum as expected...which is an awful def."
@JanelleGroehler offered "Ss who has difficulty or doesn't have confidence in their skills or knowledge in engaging in the curric."

The Twitter conversation moved to a more difficult conversation of our expectations, as teachers and as a system.  Real challenges were posed as to what role conformity plays in our perceptions of "reluctance" and if conformance is really the goal.  Do "good" students conform to our expectations and "bad" students not?  Or is our goal to help the students learn by meeting them where they are?

I responded that night, and still believe, that this term is applied to a wide variety of kids for a wide variety of reasons-too wide to "fix" with a single solution, even one as temptingly neat and tidy as to just "increase engagement."  I see kids who are "reluctant" for so many reasons that to label them all the same is a tragic dis-service.  In twenty years of teaching, I have seen "reluctance" in:
  • students with high intelligence
  • students with low self-esteem
  • students with learning disabilities
  • students with bad home situations
  • students with personal issues
  • students who cannot see their futures
  • students who hate school, the subject, me, or some combination thereof
  • students. period.
I believe in being proactive in all things, and reaching students is no different.  I don't want to respond to behaviors or performances after the fact and respond only to the symptom, not the cause.  I truly believe the key to reaching all learners is through relationships.  Once solid relationships are built, then keys to the real causes of a student's "reluctance" can be uncovered and only then can real solutions be sought.  It may be as simple as needing encouragement, a different why, a different presentation, or a whole new structure.  

We can't treat these kids all the same, there is no magic method, system, or technology to "cure" them, especially since many of them don't need "curing" at all.  They need teachers and administrators who care about students as individuals, who are willing to engage with students in dialogue about their learning, and who will take risks to ensure learning for every student.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Focus on Kids

My last couple blogs have been focused on my learning and struggles to improve my transparency and become connected.  This week, I'd like to shift back to kids (way more my comfort zone!) and update my genius hour project progress.

The project:
I am very proud and excited about this project.  I am teaching this course (Science Fiction elective) for the first time, and I completely reworked the curriculum this summer.  My project is two-fold.  After reading a few shorter selections of sci-fi, I had student choose an area of interest (passion) to research.  The only parameter is that it had to relate to sci-fi, but that really means anything since sci-fi has such broad applications and appeal.  After the research and presentations, students are going to write their own sci-fi short stories.  They can use their research in their stories or they can draw on the "experts" in the room to help with the “science” in their stories.

I had several checkpoints with students during the research process:  topic proposal, rough draft outline, 1-1 conferencing in the lab, and small group coaching on public speaking and visual aids.  I have had many moments of being very nervous about what will (or more will not) happen, but at each juncture, the students surprised me.  Their topics were diverse and interesting, and they were invested in the work.

I confess I wasn't sure on the "genius/passion" part of the project initially.  I felt maybe the kids had just picked topics just to pick them.  But, during the small group public speaking coaching sessions, I actually saw the "passion" moments happen.  Several students were clearly nervous and unprepared, but when I started to ask them about their slides and project, they would hit on subject and just begin talking, deeply, smoothly, passionately about their subjects.   They forgot they were "presenting" and just spoke from the heart. It was tangible and amazing.  It confirmed my commitment to this project.

One additional twist I threw at the students was that I planned to live-stream their presentations.  This set off a flurry of panic and apprehension, much more than I had anticipated.  It offered a great opportunity to talk frankly with the kids about how most of them were not really motivated by what their teachers thought, but if they had a real audience, they cared more.  They didn't like it, but they agreed.

Once presentations started, again (as always) the kids amazed me.  I had worried my time limit (10-15 minutes) was too long, yet almost every student made time easily.  I have shared the links with parents, and I know a few created accounts and watched their child’s performance.

Concerns & Adjustments:
I had a plan to use a spreadsheet to track sources and daily work progress that I did not follow through on implementing.  I think this (in some form) would be a good addition, and I will look to add this next time.  I also had initially planned that students would turn in a formal outline of their presentation; I also let this go by the wayside.  I worried the kids had too much on their plates; however, after seeing their presentations, I think this would have helped a few of the weaker presentations become stronger.

I admit the pressure and expectation that I felt when I posted the upcoming live stream events and saw that event get retweeted out was extremely scary.  Yet, it all went smoothly, and I believe it to be a successful learning moment for myself and my students.

As with any new project, I made a list of “Do” and “Don’t” for next time.  In fact, I have passed the course on to be taught by a colleague this quarter, and I have shared my perspectives with her.  She will put her twist on them, and this strength in sharing will ultimately make the project even better.