Today I came across this Twitter post from Disrupted and it made me think not only about my students but about teachers as well. Could we parallel some of these statements for administrators and their teachers? Should we ask principals and senior staff these same questions? Are your teachers compliant, engaged or empowered? Over my fifteen years of teaching I have been so fortunate to work with administrators who have provided an environment to make me feel empowered. This in turn has allowed me to take risks and try new things. But sadly, I feel like many teachers do not feel this same way and I wonder why? Is it because they, like our students are afraid to fail? Do they not feel as though they work in an environment where failure is an option? As I was writing this post I coincidentally came across a post by George Couros who suggested that “We can’t ask teachers to be innovative in their practice while administrators do the same thing they have always done.”
If change is really going to happen the whole system needs to wrap their heads around how to make it happen, especially at the higher level. If an administrator creates an environment to make the “extraordinary happen” (The Wonderwall, Peter Gamwell) than teachers will feel empowered to step out of the box and try new things, just as our students will when we provide a safe learning environment.
When I started this blog I really wanted it to be a place where I share the good, the bad and the ugly of risk taking in the classroom. So, I would like to share with you something that I tried this year that was good, bad and ugly all at the same time. I also think it is important to note that it would not have happened if I didn’t feel safe enough and empowered to try it out. Last summer I came across an article about Iowa BIG, I read about it and was super stoked about the hands on, mentor lead and community connections that it entailed (see video below). I delved further in and decided that I was going to try a mini version of this in my grade 11 and 12 classes.
From my understanding, Iowa BIG’s program is a high school program where they are connected with community partners for part of the students day. They have a location / warehouse for students where they work with community mentors who come in on a regular basis. At the beginning of the semester, the community partners come into the school and pitch problems that they would like help with. It seems to me that they are problems within their organization that they have been trying to solve but are looking for some new ideas / solutions to the problems. The students get to choose who and what project that they work for and on. But before they choose and commit they have to make sure that they will be able to cover certain curricula while working on it.
So fortunately or unfortunately for my students I decided to try it out on a smaller scale. So I put a call out to the community and some friends and asked them to come into my classroom and pitch a problem that they have. Each of the mentors came in and gave a short presentation about what they do and what the problem was that they wanted solved. The students then chose which mentor that they hoped to work with and I tried as hard as possible to give them either their top one or two choice. As the project got underway the mentors came in and worked with students, they decided roles and brainstormed as to what they were going to do. The students were really excited about this and couldn’t wait to get started. The mentors continued to come in about once a month for the semester. We had the following different projects going on:
Lisa Ricciuti Holistic Nutritionist / Owner of Integellient Eats had a large group of students who were tasked with finding out how to use social media for her business, research better packaging and creating a youtube channel.
Jamie Hughson General Learning Program Teacher had students working on providing learning opportunities for his students to work on financial literacy and social skills.
Liz Rusch Student Success Teacher had students working on researching and redesigning the learning space for the students success room at out school.
Rich King Artist (and our Principal) had students trying to figure out different ways to sell his art.
As mentioned, when I pitched the project to the students they were super excited to connect with community members and get some real world experience. And in the beginning, when the mentors came in and worked with the students things were amazing – the students were engaged and felt like there was real purpose…..but once the mentors left the students felt that it was hard to stay motivated. When we had work periods it was apparent that they still felt that they were still in school and working on a traditional project. It was evident that in order to make this successful the students needed to be actively engaged in the community business or organization. The reality was that we were limited to a 75 minute class, the students couldn’t leave the class to go and work with their mentor and it wasn’t realistic for me to ask our community mentors to come in on a more regular basis. Some of the other failures were that the groups were too big so each student didn’t really feel as though they had a role in some groups and not every student got to work with the mentors that they really wanted to. As for successes, all of our mentors were amazing, they were patient, gave up their free time to support my students and jumped in with this crazy idea 100%. I can’t thank you enough for trying this out. Everyone should get their aches and pains taken care of at Active Health Institute, pick up some granola or a smoothie from Intelligent Eats, shop at Plato’s Closet Barrhaven (seriously I have got some amazing things since connecting with them) donate to the WHS GLP program and the JMSS Student Success program and pick up a print from Rich King’s amazing paintings – all links above 🙂
In the end many of the students did create solutions for their mentors, some were quite successful while others were not so much. In the end we had two groups provide suggestions to their mentors on social media use, a video for youtube was created, we had a very successful event with the GLP’s, the student success classroom was painted and parent council gave them $500 after they gave a small presentation to them, a photo shoot and contest was run to promote Plato’s Closet and some very scary phone calls were made to art studios to find out how to sell art.
BUT…the most important part of this entire experience is what I am going to do with the information that I have learned. I will be reviewing my failures and my successes, the feedback from students and mentors and implementing it for a second time to see how it goes.
I am so so fortunate to work in an environment where failure is an option. I have had so many administrators who have said yes to all of my crazy ideas (Thank you Karen Gledhill, Kevin Bush, Renald Cousineau, Tom Schultz and currently Rich King as well as Superintendents Peter Gamwell and Shawn Lehman and finally Director Jennifer Adams). I think more teachers need to realize that most administrators are on board with trying out new things. And for those administrators who are not quite there yet, if you want teachers to try new things you need to create the same type of environment that we are being asked to create for our students to feel empowered, a safe place to take risks and fail if need be.
My daughter is a hockey player so there’s often a lot of discussion about resilience and perseverance in our home and my husband likes to quote Wayne Gretzky when he said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take”. I am going to keep taking shots and trying new things even if I fail so that I can make my classroom a more authentic and empowering place for my students.
Thanks for unlearning with us 🙂