Editor's Note: This blog marks the beginning of a new series at Teaching Channel, Youth Mic. Hear from the real experts: our learners.
I'm sure it's happened to you, too. You're at the grocery store or putting gas in your car or stopping to grab coffee from the local barista, and you hear it. Actually, before you hear it, you sense it. A glance, then someone looking more intently, double-checking to see if the recognition is right. Then a smile. And a question.
"Ms. Wessling, is that you? I don't know if you remember me, but…" Then I break into a smile. "Of course I remember you, Sam. You sat in that desk by the window and you hated Holden Caulfield, and you wrote that amazing poem about your name." And we talk and catch up and smile and nod and remember and plan and exchange sincerities and feel buoyant with reconnection.
Although I'd never replace these moments of happenstance, I also know that rarely do I get to ask the questions my teacher-self wants to ask. Years later, what did you think of that project we did? Did it work? Does it make sense in retrospect? Do you understand now why I wouldn't let up on that paper and why I let that other one go? Do you love to learn? Was there anything we did in our time together that helped or hurt that?
Then it dawned on me that there's nothing stopping me from having those conversations. So Teaching Channel and I teamed up to get some of my former students together on a Google Hangout to discuss one of the videos I hear about from you the most: The Grant Proposal Project. We recorded our conversation (which was preceded by 30 minutes of the coffee-shop kind of talk) and are anxious to share it with you!
Here are the three former students you'll be hearing from (left to right on the bottom of the screen):
- Ben Parsons, senior at Cal Poly in California
- Lisa Friesth, senior at Iowa State University
- Jenna Francois, senior at University of Northern Iowa
What Surprised You About The Project?
In this first segment, we talked about reacting to the memory of the grant proposal project and what surprised them when re-watching the video.
As I listen to them talk, it's interesting to see how quickly they reflect on their emotional experiences during the project. It was their nervousness and uncertainty that most acutely stuck with them. However, it also seems that these same emotions are what created in them a pathway of learning, that they can now "better appreciate" the importance of the experience, that they learned how to think -- not what to think.
Can All Kids Do This Kind Of Project?
I often hear from teachers that this is a cool project, but one that isn't realistic for their students. I was really curious to hear how my former students, now in college, would react to that.
I agree with the students. It's not about whether you have the ability to do this kind of project, it's about whether you have access to it. Which is an important compass for me and for all of us, in that we cannot lower our expectations, we cannot assume that because students are resistant to school, that they're also resistant to learning. Access is everything.
What Happens When We Shift The Agency Of Learning?
When we talk about shifting agency, we're talking about turning over the locus of control of the learning process to our students. Some call it gradual release. Some call it student- or learner-centered. Some call it project-based learning. Some call it constructivism. In this segment, my former students talk about the advantages of ownership.
What really strikes me in listening to Ben, Lisa, and Jenna in this part of the conversation is the difference between learning that is recursive and evolves, versus the kind that is step-by-step. It occurs to me that as teachers we often think we're doing our jobs by giving them steps to follow. Perhaps, though, we're actually subverting their opportunity to grow.
What Did This Project Teach You About Grades vs. Learning?
As an extension of shifting the agency, we can't help but ask about the role of grades in our conversations about learning. Wait until you hear what they say about grades and student psyche!
They say all the things we intrinsically know about teaching and learning, but oftentimes forget as we get immersed in the apparatus of school. As a teacher, it can be incredibly taxing to fight against the insistence by students and parents to focus on grades. Yet, we must continue to offer them learning experiences that can plant the seeds for this kind of thinking years later.
What Did You Learn About Collaboration?
Asking students to work productively in groups can feel incredibly risky for both teacher and learner. Here, they talk about the life skills that come from collaborating.
Perhaps my favorite part of this segment is listening to their insight on how you have to be willing to share ideas and compromise on ideas -- and also know when not to. It's a central dynamic to all collaborations, and it's something that we need to teach much more explicitly. At least, I know I need to.
This segment includes responses to a few questions in quick succession in which my former students think more globally about the grant proposal project experience.
Once again, I'm reminded that the most important work we do is human work. When we're able to "inject a bit of humanity" into the experiences we give our learners access to, we're giving them access to a better version of themselves.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Laureate Emeritus for Teaching Channel. You can follow her work at sarahbrownwessling.com or connect with her on Twitter: @SarahWessling.