Student voice in the classroom
This semester, in my Grade 11 English class, I decided to try something new. I decided to incorporate a new non-fiction writing assignment in my course, in place of a traditional "reading journal". This non fiction writing was optional but I was very pleased when I logged into my Teacher Dashboard in Hapara to see that over 90% of the students to chose to do the personal writing assignment.
I was inspired by a few posts I had seen on the Humans of New York instagram page - in particular, ones of students talking about struggles in their lives. I started to wonder how much I know about my students. I also started to reflect on what I would share if I was stopped by a "HONY" type of project.
I knew that in order to get my students to buy in, I would have to open myself up also. I would have to model not only what I was looking for, but also some vulnerability in what I was sharing if I wanted them to share true feelings and emotions with me.
So last week I walked into class ready to present my brand new lesson.
I polled the class to see who had heard of HONY. Not many. But many had heard of something similar, our school's own "Humans Of" page. I used that as my kick off to introduce their task.
"When people find out that I'm a teacher, they always want to know what it is like to be on the “other” side of the classroom… people always want to know what the hardest part about teaching is. It's not all the prep or the marking... although those are the most time consuming. And, most days, it's not even the behaviour issues or the disrespect, as frustrating as those are. Usually it's the battle to make a difference. To reach every kid. When kids are little, they are usually so excited about school and so open about their feelings and their struggles. They want to share their goals and dreams with you and they will tell you about their defeats and disappointments. By the time they get to me, in high school, that has often changed. They all have their own unique past life and school experiences which influence them, who they are and ultimately, how they are in my class. I have 75 minutes a day for 18 weeks to try to make an impact on them. To teach them not only curriculum - fundamentals of English or History or Civics, but to hopefully make a positive difference in their lives… one that they will carry with them further than their memory of metaphors and conscription and electoral reform. And it's not easy to reach them all. There are so many other factors at play - stress, depression, anxiety, poverty, hunger, gender and sexuality issues, self esteem, negative school experiences, bullying… to name a few - that shape who they are and what they are feeling. But I only know what I observe or what they choose to share with me. Usually there is so much more beneath the surface. And sometimes those stories are the saddest of all. The stories that I’ll never know. So that's the hardest part of teaching: the helplessness you feel and the tears you shed when you so desperately want to reach every single student but know that sometimes you just can't because it's not always about you... it's about them... and you need to respect that too."
That was a big share. A big vulnerability for me to lay that one out to them.
I then shared their assignment:
Imagine you were stopped by a “Humans Of” photographer. You can choose anything to share with him/her. It should be something that you think ‘defines’ you as a person - a life experience (positive or negative), a passion/goal, a memorable moment. It should be about 450-500 words. Use the Humans of New York social media pages (http://www.humansofnewyork.com) (and my example) as a guide.
Next, answer the question: Who am I? The first part should be background information about you (who you are, where you are from, where you have lived, your family, your hobbies, etc). Choose any quote that “speaks” to you. It can be from song lyrics or a poem or a famous “saying”. The second well developed paragraph of this assignment should about how this quote represents you or your life (or what you want to be or want from life).
And I waited patiently for the week to pass until they submitted the assignments to me.
I had no idea whether this was going to be a huge success or a huge failure.
The night that the assignments were due, I sat at my computer and watched the clock click to 7:30pm then I went into their folders and started reading. I stayed up until well after 1:00am reading all of these amazing reflections. Some were hilarious, some were so sad that they made me cry, and some inspired me.
But most importantly, they gave me insight into the students I was teaching. I got to know something about each and every one of them that I might not have known otherwise. I can't control how much they choose to share - perhaps some of the students who shared the funny ones have some deep pain that they chose not to share with me.... and that is okay. What is important that I gave my students the opportunity to share with me whatever they felt comfortable sharing and in turn, it offered me a chance to understand them better.
I am also glad that I chose to wait until a few months into the semester; while I understand that there is merit to knowing information about your students "right out of the gate", I think that my choice to wait a few months gave my students a chance to get to know me and hopefully feel comfortable sharing some things that they might not have otherwise shared, back in early September.
"No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."
To my PLN… thank you.
As Connected Educators month wrapped up, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my journey in “connectedness”.
I turned to Twitter by happen stance a few years ago but was never very active online. I lurked, I posted a bit then abandoned it for weeks and months at a time. Finally, just over a year ago, I came back. I don’t even really remember the circumstances surrounding it but I decided to check out what was out there. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was grappling with who I was as an educator and where to go next. I'm a true Type A… perfectionist to a fault… and in many ways, I had begun to feel worn out and jaded. I didn't want to be THAT person. I wanted to learn more and do more. I was getting frustrated by negative comments about change and innovation. I wanted more than basic professional development workshops on subjects/areas that I felt comfortable in. I didn’t know what else was “out there” but I figured there must be more… and I wanted to find it.
And then Twitter opened my eyes. I started following “ed tech” gurus and learning about neat tools to try. I started using some of these tools in my classroom and experimented with them as a means of learning. I started to read and follow tweets from people who shared my views and beliefs and the passion that I once had and wanted to have back. I read thoughts that could have been my own… and then realized it had been retweeted and/or favourited countless times and I knew I wasn’t alone. I stumbled upon a new “chat”... Canadian Ed Chat (#cdnedchat). I had never participated in a Twitter chat. A month or so later, Michael Quinn, one of the co-founders, invited me to help guest moderate a chat on Differentiated Instruction when I tweeted to tell him it was a passion of mine. I was terrified. I was worried that everyone would think I wasn’t good enough, well versed enough, tech savvy enough. I felt like a fraud. I was new to this online realm. What could I possibly have to offer? I will be so much less than everyone else, won’t I?
And then I met the #cdnedchat team and they were amazing. They were welcoming and open minded and great sources of information, learning and support. And I realized, we’re all on this journey and we all had to start sometime and somewhere. What was most important then, was that I wanted to be better and learn more and integrate innovative teaching tools and strategies into my practice. Not surprisingly, everyone was there to support and help!
I was blessed to continue my involvement in #cdnedchat, having been asked to join on the moderation team full time. Participating in these weekly chats fuelled my drive to keep learning as much as I could about new educational technologies and educational initiatives. It became a passion. I started learning more and more about things that I knew some, little or nothing about! Online literature circles, Google Hangouts, blogging, Google Apps for Education, digital portfolios, 1:1 programs, QR codes, Flipping the Classroom, project based learning…. the list goes on and on. And the more I learned, the more my passion returned. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with how much was out there and how little I knew, I began to feel invigorated that there was so much potential and that all I had to do was learn about it and make it happen! I would look forward to Google Hangouts with the team because I felt I had found people who were similar to me. I’ve called Dana Ariss my “edu soul sister” on more than one occasion because we see so many things from the same perspective and are passionate about so many of the same things.
I began to participate in more Twitter chats and reach out to #edtech leaders on Twitter to share and gather ideas and feedback. I became inspired by the amazing Angela Maiers and her “You Matter” campaign. It changed the way that I viewed my role as a teacher and how I began my school year (2013-2014) with my students. Instead of focusing on rules, I chose to focus on relationships. I am seeing a huge difference already.
I also spent more time learning about and integrating technology into my practice. I launched my professional website and started sharing my research and presentations, and even included a blog… this blog… as a part of it. I wanted to start sharing all the neat things that my students were capable of doing! I started using more #edtech tools such as Edmodo, Pinterest, AudioBoo, Google Drive (docs/forms), and more recently, this school year, blogs (Blogger), Remind 101, Socrative, QR codes, ExplainEverything and Geddit. (This led the way to using innovative teaching strategies like Genius Time and project based learning and the creation of my alternative learning space this year).
The ideas became endless. My mind would be racing after a Twitter chat and I could hardly sleep, thinking of all the great ideas I had heard - things I had never even thought of before - and how I could make these work for my students! And the passion began to multiply. I would bounce ideas off of educators trying the same things or wanting to. And I’d get feedback and advice from people who had been long doing the initiatives and using the tools and strategies that I was just taking on. And I teamed up with amazing mentors, like Michelle Cordy, who pushed me to make opportunities to better myself as an educator- to steer my own ship and find my own niche - and inspired me to do things that challenge me and scare me because I can and what do I have to lose? (And here I am, one exam away from having attained Google Apps for Education Certified Trainer - Qualified Individual status! I couldn’t have imagined this 2 years ago!)
And so, as we wrap up connected educator’s month, I am thankful that I faced roadblocks, frustrations and feelings of being jaded and alone because it forced me to make a decision; make a change or stay the same. I chose change. It’s scary, terrifying, exciting and inspiring all at once. It needed to happen and I’m glad it did. I’m glad I felt the push to look further to find something to challenge me to be better than I was. Something to make me better for myself, and thereby, for my students… because isn’t that what it’s all about? Being the best version of yourself?
A few of the key people that I have learned the most from are included in this post but there are many more who have impacted my journey…. some with one post that stood out to me and some, who with their every post inspire me, daily. Some of these people do not follow me and will never see this blog post. Some will. I am okay with both of those facts.
I just want to say thanks. Thanks to the PLN for helping to open my eyes to the amazing world that is out there. Thank you for showing me the endless possibilities in education. Thank you for reminding me why I have never wanted to do anything other than teach. Thank you for showing me ways to reinvigorate the passion that has never died inside of me. Thank you for being people that I learn from and thank you for inspiring me to be the best that I can be.
With a full 5 days under our belts, I thought I'd take the time to update my blog for this new school year!
Keeping with my vow from this summer and my professional learning, as inspired by Angela Maiers (and other educational leaders in my PLN), I began this year much differently than other years. On the first day, I did not go through a list of school/class rules. I did not lay out consequences. I didn't give a stern talk about behaviour.
I told my students that they matter to me. They matter to this class. That they ALL have a contribution to give, no matter what it is. That they all HAVE my respect at that very moment... no earning needed. And that the only thing that they need to do to maintain this great relationship that we are forming as a class is to be respectful - to themselves and others - because they will be respected by me and by others. They are all valued members of the class - equal in importance and contribution, regardless of their talents. I told them that they have a 'clean slate' - that no matter who they were or how they acted in the past... it doesn't have to matter now if they don't want it to; they have a fresh start to be the person they want to be!
The #youmatter manifesto is pinned on my classroom wall; printed on bright, neon, paper... typed in big, clear, bold letters so that no one forgets the motto of our class!
"In May, it won't matter what rules you made in September. It will be the relationships you have formed" was a quote from someone in PLN (I am so sorry I forget who!) that spoke to me. Students won't behave properly because I gave them a list of rules on Day 1; they will learn through the course of the semester the value in contributing to the class positively and being a caring member of the class.
I have noticed a difference already! The sheer number of students who go out of their way to say "goodbye", "have a great day", "thanks Miss" at the end of a class, so early in the year... or even going out of their way to stop by my class on their way to lunch or at the end of the day... it shows the impact of the respect they have received and are giving back.
This year, my students are going to MATTER. To me. To the school. To each other. Together, we will learn and grow and become the best versions of ourselves.
I know it can be done!
To read more about #youmatter, by Angela Maiers, check out her TEDx Talks video below and check out her blog:
Who am I?
Hi! I'm Megan. 21st century learner and teacher. I am passionate about DI, assessment, student success and #edtech. My blog is where I share what is happening in my classes, my professional learning and sometimes things that are on the outer circle of education. Comments always welcome!