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.”



You can follow Common Core AND let students direct their own learning

You can follow Common Core AND let students direct their own learning

Children and education, young woman at work as educator reading book to boys and girls in park

Children and education, young woman at work as educator reading book to boys and girls in park

I’ve been trying to explain this concept for folks for some time but here is a great example. You don’t have to teach to the test. You just need to make sure that the overall concepts that will be covered in the testing is covered in class.

For example, what is going to be more effective in helping me to learn greater vocabulary to pass the GRE? Studying word flash cards or reading lots of literature? I would say reading the literature because I am learning the words in their natural environment, learning a definition, learning usage…all at the same time in a relatively stress free environment of reading. Studying flash cards is a rote memory task and I am not learning how the words are used and their meaning. And I’m quite likely to forget everything as soon as I don’t need to use it anymore for the test. That could basically describe my entire education.

If you are “Teaching to the test,” It’s because you don’t have the resources or creativity to create your own lessons that still reach the same end result as the rote memory tactics.

In this article, Susan Wolfe, an elementary school teacher in Boise, Idaho talks about how she uses student directed learning that still matches Common Core:

Increasingly, schools are making time for students to learn about whatever excites them, inspired by Google’s 20 percent time when employees get to tinker on passion projects unrelated to their jobs. Wolfe finds this model a natural fit with both Common Core standards and her interest in making sure students are individually connected and passionate about the topics they are discovering. …

Wolfe treats Genius Hour as a pass/fail class. Students are required to set a goal each week, blog about how they went about achieving that goal and what obstacles may have come in the way. This may sound scary to teachers concerned that they aren’t ticking off all the standards required by their districts and Wolfe understands this fear, but says the core skills of research, writing, communicating and collaborating, emphasized in all areas of the Common Core, become part of Genius Hour projects.

“If you can integrate skills into one really fantastic project, that’s half the battle,” Wolfe said. “You have to unpack those Common Core standards and build them into the units and project-based learning being designed.” She finds that teaching skills and concepts together as one unit saves a lot of time.

We need to give teachers autonomy to create creative lessons, but we also need teachers who can create creative lessons……