Spend the time to build classroom culture & intrinsically motivate your students

I love what Susan Wolfe, an elementary school teacher in Boise, Idaho does in her classroom. She starts by creating classroom culture and helps the students brainstorm what makes a great student, a great teacher and a great learning environment. This shows the teacher what the kids expect of her and shows the students what they expect of themselves. They are going to be more likely to rules they made up together and feel ownership over.

“The kids need to believe that they’re not here to have learning crammed down their throats,” she said. She says it is fundamental for teachers to take the time to build a class culture for which students take ownership. And contrary to many stereotypes about disadvantaged kids, in her experience, every child, no matter their background, wants that learning autonomy.

“Students have the ownership of the critical factors, so I’m no longer the ‘heavy,’ ” Wolfe said. “They designed this so they have to hold their own feet to the fire, and I’m just here to help them out.”

Self discipline is a skill I never fully learned and I would have likely benefited greatly from this strategy.

The next piece that I love is how she intrinsically motivates her students. She uses what she calls a Genius Hour to allow students to learn about whatever excites them. This gives students power over some of their learning and might be one reason they look forward to school. These projects can also work out to be community service projects as well, which is a category of learning that is very effective and powerful.

For example, a group of students wanted to be outside more, so they are working to build an outdoor classroom. They teamed up with a group of parents who were interested in the same concept, connected with the Bureau of Land Management and eventually designed and began clearing the way for a native plant garden.

They’re working with the community, learning to fundraise, using Excel spreadsheets and building websites. But there’s no grumbling because students are invested in the end goal of the project.

“A lot of teachers spend a lot of time trying to motivate kids, but if they can tie it into students’ passions, you can tap into a lot of energy,” Wolfe said.

This next example reminds of the teaching style at the MET school in Providence RI where my sister attended high school. They allow students to learn about whatever they want to with guidance. The model is teaching them process not content. Here is a perfect example of that here:

“I had a student that I could just not connect with,” Wolfe said. “I could not get this kid to do anything.” But she knew he loved skateboarding, so she suggested he research and become the expert on Tony Hawk and skateboarding. The principal even agreed to let him do a skateboarding demonstration at the end of the project.

The student made a total switch. He was staying in at recess to work on his report, asking for help and doing a great job on his work. Recently Wolfe bumped into him around town and he still remembered that project. He’s in college now, getting straight “A”s.

Giving students the autonomy to direct their own learning teaches them process to do the rest of their school work later. By researching about a Skateboarder, he gained and developed research, writing, reading and analytical skills and had a positive experience in school. All of these skills translate into continuing to do well.

“Kids want that ownership, they want to be in charge of their learning,” Wolfe said. “We just have to give them little pieces at a time to be in charge of and give them a space where it is safe to do so.”




I was never meant to be here and I refuse to accept that

You will want to watch this valedictorian speech by Paul Serrato, the 2015 Apalachee High School valedictorian, Barrow County, GA

As Barrow Superintendent Chris McMichael said:

“This is a stellar example of why educators do what they do every day. It is about the students and the opportunity we can provide them for a better life through education, not the endless testing and data collection du jour, statistical autopsies of the last year’s scores or all the other onerous attempts we are currently forced to make in public education to try and quantify things that are at their root unquantifiable. Education and schooling boils down to one thing – people. It is the people in Paul’s life, his family and teachers as well as his own internal drive, that have guided and pushed this young man over the past 12 years to avail himself of the educational opportunities available to him.

Anyone who believes that the schools and teachers in our state and this great nation are not  providing the opportunities for our children to receive a strong education need to listen to Paul and perhaps reflect a bit on what actually matters. It is not about the test scores and statistical minutia. It is about the relationships and connections that are facilitated on day-to-day basis in our schools and classrooms that make this kind of impact on a person’s life and future.

While I was listening to Paul speak I could not have been prouder to be a public educator in this community and in this state.”

Some of my favorite excerpts:

I was never meant to be here and I refuse to accept that.

Although we do not live in a community marked with abundance, affluence and luxury, we live in a community rich in fearless determination and resolution. …

Refused to allow hardship to consume us, and have instead overcome, not just some of us, its all of us…

We all carry scars of resilience, so display them proudly, display them because we are all survivors and have found success in situations that others could never overcome. …

One thing I’ve learned, out of struggle comes substance, out of substance comes mission, out of Mission comes destiny. I think Shakespeare says it best: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness trust upon them….

Class of 2015 we have had greatness thrust upon us in the form of adversity, and we will continue to have it thrust upon us as we leave for college, military, workforce, we will invariable struggle and invariably dream…

Have faith in your ability to overcome, have faith in your ability to keep on walking