Monday, November 30, 2015

How "Real" Is Your Classroom?

"But how will I ever use this in the 'real world'?" I remember questioning my teachers as a student. I didn't always think what they were teaching me was important or useful. However, I was the type of student who wanted to succeed, who trusted my teachers despite those seeds of skepticism and doubt. For me, the assurance that things would be covered on the test or that they would be required to move on to the next stage or course in my education was enough. But I was probably the exception to most students in the late 1990s, and I would certainly be an anomaly today. In the age of Google search, Youtube, and global connections, "because I said so" doesn't cut it.

As a teacher now myself, I want to make sure my students never have to ask me when they'll use what I'm teaching them; I strive to make the relevance of the topic and the connections to their own lives crystal clear. If it's not important to them, then they won't give me the effort (and hopefully the enthusiasm!) I'm seeking. If I can't make Shakespeare, Dickens, and argumentative writing applicable to my 21st learners, then I should find something else to teach. Instead, I use Romeo and Juliet as a catalyst for conversations about teenagers, love, brain development, and decision-making; Great Expectations gets us discussing what character traits are truly important and how much we should be willing to change ourselves for someone else; and argumentative writing helps us defend our favorite athletes, musicians, and movies. Check out my "trailer" for my class below!

School should be the "real world," but our students don't often see it that way. Our students see us create an artificial environment of rules and regulations that have been in place for as long as we can remember, yet they are nothing like the "real world" they experience every day outside our school's walls. If we truly want our students to be successful, happy, life-long learners, here are a few things we can do to help them.

Stop Pretending Cell Phones Don't Exist

Devices exist in the "real world"
I'll admit it; I was guilty of this one my first couple years in the classroom. Our school had a policy against cell phones, and I would confiscate them if I saw them (as the rule stated), even when they weren't in use. Despite my feelings of guilt, I followed along. But if we want to be "real" we need to acknowledge that our students have their cell phones everywhere else. Instead of putting phones on lockdown, we need to teach our students how to handle the distraction they can be and to harness their power for the forces of good. My students and I discuss when appropriate times are for using phones in class--we even role-play some scenarios! We also share times a cell phone could help us with learning or sharing our learning. I have my phone out to snap quick pictures of what we're doing and to share on social media. We share new apps we like and whether or not we can find an equivalent web-based program to use on our Chromebooks. Sure, students sometimes get distracted by their phones or try to use them at inappropriate times, but when they do we talk about it. They are allowed to learn, grow, and make mistakes here like anywhere else, and they can do it with my guidance. Allowing students the freedom to have their phones or other devices out shows them that the classroom doesn't have to be an artificial environment where we have to pretend personal devices don't exist.

Allow For Choice

Teachers, you don't always have to tell students every detail of how to do things. I used to be guilty of this. I had a vision for the content, the process, and the product, and I would clearly outline each step for my students. It's not that I didn't ask for feedback or change up the projects, or even that I didn't sometimes offer what I though of as choice (you can choose option A or option B!) to students. I just never truly allowed for student choice that wasn't initially my choice. It is comfortable that way, both for teachers and for students. But a few years back I taught the same class six times each day for the first time, and I was bored. One of the changes I made was to deliberately allow for student choice. I let them choose books to read or how to make a visual representation of their thoughts with any tool they could access. I let them generate ideas for projects and allowed them to teach each other new web tools. Because in the "real world" they get to make some decisions for themselves. Their interests and strengths matter, and our classrooms should reflect the influence of our students. It can be scary for us; teachers like to be in control. It can also be scary for students who have never been offered the opportunity to choose for their own learning and don't know where to start!

Stop Raising Hands

This has been a tough one for my students, but I asked them to stop raising their hands and simply to discuss with one another. When I inquired if they had to raise their hands anywhere else or if they could recall their parents ever raising their hands, they couldn't come up with any examples from the "real world." So with a few ground rules (only one person talking at a time, respectful conversation, and no one student dominating the discussion) we have tried to eliminate raising our hands and to simply talk to one another. We are about one-third of the way through the school year, and I still often have students begin a discussion with raising their hands. I wave the "come on" signal, though, and the students relax and the conversation flows much more smoothly than any contrived or disjointed discussion of hand raising! Students feel more relaxed and are more willing to participate when they know we're truly having a conversation!

Stop Assigning Mountains of Homework

My first few years in the classroom, I taught French ful time, and I never "assigned" homework. I did ask my students to spend 5-10 minutes a night looking over their words and conjugations, but I never assigned writing compositions or worksheets. My philosophy was that French was new to everyone and that students would do more harm than good to themselves making mistakes that I couldn't help them correct in a timely fashion. I also knew the amount of work other classes were assigning, and I knew they simply didn't have time for it all. But that changed when I started teaching English full time. I felt pressure that first year to assign homework each night; English is a core class, a tested area, after all! But I was miserable, and so were my students. I had more work to do to keep up with their assignments, and I was disappointed when they either didn't do them or didn't do them well. So I changed. I make sure never to assign work over the weekend or a break, and I always give multiple days to complete any assignments that may need to be wrapped up outside of class. Students are happier, and so am I. Test scores didn't sink, and my students could still demonstarte their learning and growth. This is the "real world." How many adults do you know (besides teachers) who worry about their work away from work or take their work home with them?

Don't Make Learning a Secret; Make Students Responsible for It

This has been a game-changer for me. I read Paul Solarz's Learn Like A Pirate this summer, and he shares how he gives students responsibility for ensuring the class is on task by sharing a daily schedule. With the schedule projected on the monitor, students know exactly what should be accomplished during the class, in which order (if necessary), and they hold each other accountable for making sure the schedule is followed. What the class is doing is not a secret that only the teacher is responsible for following, but becomes a collective responsibility. What is more "real world" than that?!

These are just of few of the measures I have taken to make my classroom a more authentic, relevant place for my students, but I'm always looking to adapt, grow and improve! I'd love to hear some amazing ways you've been able to add more "real world" to your class in the comments!