Can I PLEASE Go to School?
10 Ways to make school irresistible for kids
I know kids who hate school, but love to play basketball for their schools. I know kids who can't read, but can create something from nothing with their hands. Everyday, my kids get into the car and respond to my question, "What did you learn today?" with "nothing" and "I dunno."
But they can tell me everything that happened at recess.
In college, I learned more on the quad talking to the international students than I did in most of my core classes. As a teacher, I created more authentic "Aha!" moments with student travel than I ever did with hours of lesson planning and offering feedback. As a school administrator, I have gained more joy from creating programs that make people feel good about themselves than by raising the test scores. While all facets of school and learning are important, building the culture for learning and self-exploration are essential to successful schools.
In order to improve the achievement of students in schools, we must give deliberate attention to the role of culture in student success. Too often schools and districts focus only on the school's academic curriculum and teacher efficacy. There are many strategies and initiatives designed around helping kids learn the core curriculum, but we need to invest more focused time and energy into making schools places kids run to and never want to leave.
Relationships and community-building are essential to creating a culture where teachers love to work and kids love to learn. Recently, I read an interesting article by Dana Truby, where she discusses 8 ways from the Boys Town Education Model that school leaders can improve their school culture:
While I think these suggestions are essential to building positive culture, I would definitely add a strong 9 and 10 to her suggestions:
9. Make school fun.
Everyone loves to be in a place that is fun to work and learn. My 6 year old son doesn't gauge his school day on the quality of the lessons or the experiences in the classroom. He cares about lunch and recess. "School wasn't great today because we didn't play." Or "I didn't have a good day because we had silent lunch." This matters to kids. Shoot... It matters to adults.
When kids enjoy school, they want to be there.
Then we can trick them into learning some things.
Some schools go a step farther and employ recess monitors to make sure kids get included on the playground. There are companies like Playworks that contract with schools to provide training for teachers, a full time Playworks coach, and structured games for indoor and outdoor recess. The Playworks coach is assigned to the school full time and probably costs less than a full time employee.
Another option could be to find creative ways to add staffing who focus on making recess fun. It's a matter of safety, culture building, bully prevention, and fun. A third simple way to make school fun is to have staff greet kids warmly with high-fives and hugs as they enter the school and classes.
10. Add some morale boosting activities.
In my former school, the kids would get pumped-up about a party or an assembly. But nothing got them more excited than our school's big Lion King performance, or our school's first basketball game. The time we got all staff and students to attend a big Pep Rally and won the "Big Game," school pride and morale went through the roof. When kids want to be at school and feel a sense of purpose, they love coming to school. School love improves culture.
School pride doesn't come without work and planning. Schools should have a culture building plan. In it, there should be dates and plans for assemblies, celebrations, and school-wide routines and rituals that create bonds within the school. Even the announcements become great opportunities to involve and unify students. Having students participate in the planning and execution of school events pushes the envelope even farther.
I think the article by Dana Truby hits many key points about how to improve school culture, but simply making school fun and finding diverse ways to create belonging are important as well.
While I do have experience in creating culture in schools, I don't believe that I am some kind of "all-knowing" expert. The expertise is in all of us who have the desire to build strong schools or any other settings that care about creating great experiences for children.
If you have ideas about how to make school and learning irresistible, co-create with us. We would love to hear from you! Leave your comments below or join the conversation on social media.
This was the quote the long-term substitute blurted at me in frustration after I'd walked her through our student-centered unit plan for the fourth time. Sigh. She was NOT having it.
Phenomena discovery stations? KWP charts? 5E model? Inquiry cycles? WHAT is this utter gibberish, and how can we sleep at night when students are confused and we don’t provide them with all the answers?
It was also the moment I knew the title of my first blog post. Because in that quote, and in that moment of frustration, doesn't this well-intentioned substitute teacher kind of speak for teachers everywhere? Doesn’t she perfectly capture the raw tension that lingers as we make the transition from teacher-centered to student-centered learning?
Hearing her words stopped me dead in my tracks; I had to deeply reflect on what had brought me from being in her exact shoes less than a decade ago to throwing around jargon like “student-centered inquiry cycles in the 5E format” with the greatest of ease. I had taken the struggle for granted, and it was time to get back in touch with it if she and I were ever going to be able to find a path forward in our coaching work together. Empathetic connection is where learning happens.
My own journey in student-centered learning began when my now husband and I ran away to New Zealand right out of college. After juggling 3 jobs at once and living at home to save up for the trip, gaining a 1-year working holiday visa, and losing count of how many schools rejected my application from across the world, it was time to head over and hope for the best. Thankfully, spending countless hours going door-to-door to hand my resume directly to principals paid off in more than hellacious blisters. I got hired at what would soon become my dream school!
Discovery 1, as it was known then, was a public charter school designed around student-directed and inquiry-based learning. They sent me to trainings to learn exactly what all those terms even meant and how to successfully implement them in the classroom. I was hooked.
So what does all this "student-centered stuff" actually look like in the classroom? There are myriad flavors of student-centered learning, alI originally stemming and branching off from the constructivist philosophy (more on that in a future post!). Inquiry was the particular flavor that first got my foot in the student-centered door, and it is probably the flavor that colors my teaching most to this day.
Here are the key ingredients that helped me begin to see myself as a student-centered (or at least inquiry-based) educator.
Become an expert questioner.
When I'm working with students, I ask TONS of questions to help them come to their own conclusions, rather than explicitly telling or giving directives. I'm always joking with them that “I am not the answer lady.” They have tools and skills to help answer their own questions. I’m happy to guide, but I refuse to tell. Students are able to make connections, problem solve, and truly direct their own learning when we step out of the way. We do not need to be the information bottleneck; we just need to ask the right questions that keep the process moving forward.
Seek student input, and truly take it.
When students are given the freedom to come up with their own ideas, they immediately feel a sense of ownership over their learning. It becomes theirs. Choice increases interest, and interest increases retention. By diving into a topic or project students already want to do, they are vested in the experience. Sure, this isn’t always going to be possible. That’s why we like to use the term “co-created” a lot around here. It is a partnership; both teachers and students have value to bring to the table. When all parties contribute, the learning is so much richer.
Step into the “I don’t know” zone.
I’ll be the first to admit, this learning style can at times be frustrating, but in the most wonderful way. I once attended a conference where the keynote speaker introduced us to what he termed the “I don’t know” zone. His top goal for his students was to see the “I don’t know” zone as a problem-solving place rather than a big fat stop sign. It’s OK if we don’t know what to do; that just means we need to look at the problem in a new way and approach it from a fresh angle. It gives us space to show our students that we are human, too.
Befriend the discomfort of letting go.
It also doesn’t come naturally to me as a teacher (as I’m hoping other teachers/parents can relate!) to release the reins and watch what happens. We as adults sometimes struggle with letting kids make mistakes, and tend to want to intervene. Doing inquiry in the classroom gives me much-needed practice at trusting kids to figure things out. As we work through projects, we sometimes run into problems we can’t fix immediately. I have learned to feel the discomfort of letting go, accept it, and just be there in it until it passes. Moving through discomfort is a learning process in and of itself.
Know that it is a 2-way street.
It turns out it isn’t just us teachers who get thrown off when the usual teacher-student paradigm gets flipped upside down. Each and every time I work with students who are new to inquiry, I see a lot of sitting around waiting for the teacher to start dishing out heaps of knowledge. I frequently have to remind kids during project work to ask me and each other the question, “What can I do to help?” so we can keep moving forward instead of getting stuck. Eventually, this exchange helps them exercise their independence muscles-- rather than waiting to be told what to do (as they are likely accustomed), they can offer up their own ideas and take action themselves!
Be patient, trust the process.
This phrase has actually become one of my life mottos. Nothing worth doing ever happens quickly or easily. But it is SO worth seeing it through! You will not see enormous immediate differences when you first begin this approach, so just go ahead and have that in mind going into it. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle, and you and your students will feel pretty frustrated at times. Then, before you know it, you’ll look back and marvel at the deep thinkers you and your students have become. Show yourself and your students some compassion, grace, and freedom from perfection. You got this.
So fast forward back to present day.
Did the long-term sub and I have a big breakthrough moment that changed everything and led to magical student-centered learning aplenty?
No. No, we very much did not. Womp, womp.
Mindsets might be the hardest thing in the world to change. And going from a teacher-centered to a student-centered mindset is one gigantic mindshift. We have to wrap our minds around a brand new image of what “learning” looks like, and what “teaching” looks like. So even though that particular situation did not work out, I’m not even close to giving up on the bigger picture of student-centered education and its humanizing potential for all.
So now that you’ve heard a bit of my path to student-centered practices and the struggles along the way, I’d love to hear your story, too.
Where are you in your journey to becoming a more student-centered educator? Why does it matter to you? What difference have you seen it make with your students? What has helped you shift your mindset over time?