Thursday, February 3, 2011

Would This Work?

I had a really fun conversation with my principal and a couple of fellow teachers on Twitter last week. It was about an idea that my principal (@phsprincipal for you Twitterers or for those who like his blog) and I have talked about before, but this time it felt more realistic, like we could actually give it a try. Anyway, we decided to throw the idea out to a larger audience to get more feedback and maybe even more ideas as we look further into trying to implement this on a small scale to see how effective (or ineffective) it is. Here is the basic idea:

1. Form a teacher team of four or five teachers- Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Sciences, and Special Education if we can swing it.

2. Assign that team a group of 50-75 students. Students would be enrolled onto teams based on interests or maybe desired educational outcomes.

3. The team would operate almost entirely outside of the traditional school schedule. The idea of bell schedules and set patterns for moving from one room to another would be out the window. The team would spend the majority of the day working together as a whole. There would be times when the teachers could pull smaller groups of students aside to provide specialized instruction within their content area, but for the most part, learning would be viewed as a collaborative process that does not recognize the boundaries between subjects. They would tackle projects or explore all aspects of a given topic. For example, instead of kids learning about ancient Greece from a purely historic perspective in history class, the team could spend a large unit exploring the history of the time period while also reading the literature and exploring the mathematic and scientific discoveries of the period. The whole unit would be geared towards some final project/product, maybe a student-created documentary about ancient Greece.

4. There would be time built into the schedule to allow students to leave the team and participate in courses still maintained within the traditional school structure. This would be used to allow students to take classes that wouldn't be available within the team (foreign languages, drivers ed., etc.). The team would also coordinate with vocational and fine arts teachers to incorporate those areas as much as possible.

5. With the emphasis on Common Core Standards, the team would obviously make sure that they are meeting learning standards in the core subjects over the course of the year, and on paper at least, students would be enrolled in separate classes, but in reality, they would be taking all of the classes simultaneously.

This is our basic idea right now. I hope I didn't leave out any key details. Let us know what you think.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Even For Threeeeee Scooby Snacks?

I've been thinking about motivation lately. I used to think about curriculum and how I could change my class to make it more engaging, and I still do, but now that I have made a lot of changes toward making my class more student-centered and project/product based, I am left with motivation. You see, the amount of students really "getting into it" hasn't really changed even though my class looks drastically different than it did three years ago when I began. I spend very little time lecturing and try to leave all of my assignments open to student exploration and inquiry. I want them to find their own routes of learning. Yet, a majority of my students refuse to answer the challenge. I give them social media projects, and they complain, asking instead for worksheets. I give them the freedom to explore topics of their own choice, and they ask to be spoon-fed information. I'm told that they probably know more about technology than I do, but they need me to stand over their shoulder every time they attach something to an email. It flies in the face of everything I read about reaching these kids, and I can't help but come to the conclusion that it is all simply a matter of motivation.

The problem with motivation is that it is so darn hard to figure out. I looked up the definition on, and this is what they have:

1: a : the act or process of motivating
b : the condition of being motivated
2: a motivating force, stimulus, or influence : incentive, drive

Even the dictionary can't define motivation without using the word motivation. By rule, if a word can't be described without using itself, it is a tricky thing. Too often we get caught up in thinking about motivation in terms of external rewards. When my students aren't motivated to work in my class, I talk to them about their chance of graduating. I talk to them about their grades. I talk to them about their future job. I talk to them about a lot of things that are external. Not surprisingly, it never works.

I've come to realize that motivation is so internal that nobody outside of ourselves can see what it looks like for us. Nobody outside of ourselves can unlock it. The best example I can think of from my own life is basic training. I went to basic training simply to qualify for college money. I joined the military not out of some sense of patriotism or duty, but rather for the very selfish reason of cold hard cash- an external motivator. I quickly realized that money will not motivate you to low crawl through a cactus patch. Money will not motivate you to complete a twenty-five mile forced march on about an hour of sleep. I had to find something deeper within myself to accomplish those things. I found that motivation in a blue cord. The blue cord is awarded to soldiers upon completion of infantry school to be worn on the dress uniform. Our company commander in basic training clipped his on the back of his ruck sack and led every road march we went on. I wanted my blue cord. I was going to get that blue cord, but not because I valued it as an object. I wanted it for what it represented. It represented pride in accomplishing something that few people accomplish, something that most people in my life didn't think I could accomplish. I made up my mind early on that I wasn't leaving Fort Benning, Georgia, without that stinking blue cord, and it was a very proud moment in my life when my father was able to pin it to my uniform the day before graduation.

I understand motivation... but only for myself. The challenge we all face as educators is figuring out how to unlock something in others that we hold so deep within ourselves, and even if we find it, how do we know what to do with it? If someone had known how much that cord motivated me, they probably would've just bought me one online. Sometimes I think that is what we are trying to do with our students. We shouldn't be surprised that it doesn't work.

I don't have the answers. I think all I'm hoping to do at this point is get a better idea of the questions.