Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's Not About Us

courtesy Scott Maxwell
"We need to prepare students for THEIR future 
and not OUR past." Ian Jukes

As a college sophomore, I landed a job as a summer camp  counselor. Set in idyllic southern Wisconsin, this place offered it all--sports, water adventures, horseback riding, skits, and FUN!! Every week before a new set of kids arrived, Leroy, our director, would gather the staff in the main hall and remind us of one thing. Camp is for the Campers!

As an educator, I kept that saying in my mind as I prepared for classes. At first. But soon papers piled up, grades needed to be given, tests corrected, meetings attended, and whew! I forgot all about camp and campers. I just wanted to stay afloat and ahead of my kids.

I was involved in a Twitter chat about education one night (who knew I could tweet with others just as passionate about kids and education?), sharing with other educators ideas that worked well in our classrooms. In the midst of keeping up with the chat, I sat back, stunned as I started to consider what I was doing. I was engaged in a professional development (PD) in my home at 8:30 on a Monday night and I was learning! How awesome was that? I gained greater insights about my profession sitting at home tweeting than I did most days enduring PD days that allowed little interaction and lots of stationary time.

This got me thinking even more. If that's how I felt during a PD day, what do my kids feel every day? I teach at an alternative school with a block schedule. Two three-hour classes per day. I love the set up as it allows me to experiment with technology and projects. But how well do my kids like it? Why not ask? So I did.

When I questioned my students about the format of our school and if they felt they learned anything, most responded positively. They felt they learned more because they were more engaged. Quite a few admitted the first books they had read in high school had been in my class. Then they asked me something I couldn't answer. Why don't more schools have this kind of set up? Why don't more schools ask students how they want to learn and teach to that?

Why indeed? I couldn't answer and said as much. Their questions haunted me until my weekly Twitter chat when I posed the question to my colleagues. 

I felt like the Chaucer's knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale." I heard so many answers yet none seemed right. Until one brave soul ventured this solution. "Because we've always 'done school' this way." As soon as I read the tweet, I knew it was the right answer.

We do it because it's what we've always done. Habit. Ritual. But what about best practice? Educators are challenged all the time to implement "best practices" in the classroom but is our classroom set up and schedule a "best practice?" Do we continue to prepare our students for our futures based on our past rather than their futures based on the present? Or do we look for new, engaging ways to "do" school?

I teach at-risk students, but this whole conversation with them got me thinking if education itself wasn't at risk. Of becoming archaic? Of becoming out-of-touch? Of becoming a past with no future? Of becoming a disservice to our students? Because, after all, isn't that who this gig is all about--students?

School is for the students. By keeping students and their needs in the forefront of designing lessons, by taking risks and teaching to the needs of the students, by assessing our kids often, we can become more aware of their needs and take needed steps to meet those needs. 

I have no doubt if Leroy were my principal, he'd remind his staff often. "School is for the students." Do I teach like that? Something to think about...

For more thoughts on education, check out this blog.

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