• Wacey Tobler

Get Real

Each school year during teacher inservice week, we host a small technology conference for our staff. It's called Tech-a-Palooza and it's always a great day of sharing and learning. Normally, we invite an EdTech colleague to keynote the event. This year we decided that we - the two Geeks and a Gal - would deliver the keynote address. It's not that we wanted the fame and glory of being on stage. Rather, we had a special message that we wanted to deliver to our teachers. We wanted to present them with three “challenges” for the school year to help them integrate technology deeper, make students’ learning more authentic, and strive towards becoming more reflective educators. Today's post is the second in a series of three that detail our challenges to our staff.

I remember when I used to tell my students to “get real.” The context of this snappy comment was usually an answer to the age old Question: “when will I ever use this in my life?” As an English teacher, I would tell them - “you just used English to ask me that question didn’t you?” Most of the time, this was met with eye rolling. In my younger years, I would say different sarcastic comments to make sure my kids knew that I was the expert. I had the experience. I was the one with the job, right? I paid my bills. My adulting level was up to 100. How dare they question the usefulness of what they learn?

Fast forward a few years. I had survived the past the five-year-itch that was taking many teachers out of the classroom and was humming along one day and a student asked me The Question (capitalized for emphasis). And I stopped short of one of my snappy come-backs and really absorbed the question. Was I really doing enough to make my content more real-world & student-centered? Was I doing enough to provide choice to my students instead of only exposing them to the things I thought was fun or interesting? In other words - was I getting real enough?

These types of internal naggings started me on my quest to transform my classroom. I started to do things like not differentiate my content between pre-AP and on-level English. I thought, on-level students need to be engaged, too. Why is it only the “good” kids that get to do the “fun” activities? The answer to those questions was getting rid of every reading comprehension worksheet I had. In fact, I really got rid of all of my paper anything and started to incorporate more digital resources into my lesson plans. In addition to that, I started to adopt the workshop model as my only teaching model. Suddenly, The Question started to disappear. Students were no longer talking directly to me; the conversations were drawn out of the learning and shared with each other. I started to have a classroom culture. I also started to hear students get excited about their readings. My snappy come-backs became comments of agreement or questions to take students deeper into their understandings as I became a participant, instead of a dictator.

In other words, I got real. Like, really real. As in, I got my act together and started to realize that my traditional model of teaching, adapted from how I learned, wasn’t going to help my students grow nor was it going to prepare them for a tomorrow that I would also be living in. I moved my teaching into the 21st century. But more importantly, I moved my students’ learning into the 21st century.

When Dr. Rios asked us to speak on a particular challenge for our Techapalooza keynote, I don’t think it was fate when he tasked me with the Get Real challenge. Our district has been studying the learning philosophies of Mr. Phillip Schlechty and he speaks clearly to the idea of building authenticity into our curriculum within his 10 Design Qualities.

Image adapted from the Schlechty Center

Notice the keywords in the definition of authenticity: significance, consequences, present. These mixed connotations should inspire us in a way that frees us from tradition. By embracing a real-world, student-centered approach to learning we are inviting our students to take part in their futures and begin to develop them as life-long learners not just memorizers of facts and figures. We should not care about failure because there should always be a chance to reflect, revise, and re-do. Our classrooms are the last place where students should have the opportunity to fail forward so that we prepare them to be the best they can be in their post-secondary lives.

So where do we begin? We must begin with the why of the learning. The Question was often phrased as “when will I use this,” but really implied “why is this relevant to me?” In other words, students begin to question their learning when they don’t see how it equates to an outcome or need in their lives in the present moment even if they were thinking about their future. Beginning with the why (and I am advocating for bringing this to the students before the learning even begins, not just asking this of yourself) helps students to situate the learning within the right contexts. Most importantly, though, it helps them to understand that you understand where they are in that moment. They’re a thousand miles away, stuck in that text conversation between their boyfriend/girlfriend. They’re at Friday Night Lights. They’re making themselves food while their parents work long hours. Most of the time, they’re not in the classroom ready to engage in your lesson. Beginning with the why throws them a life-line and invites them to be present in their learning.

If we start with the why, we are helping to build authenticity into our students’ learning. But as Dr. Rios pointed out with the SAMR model sometimes we need help. Sometimes our curriculum needs help, too. This is where EdTech can help us Substitute, Augment, Modify, or Redefine (or SAMR) our students’ learning to further build an authentic learning environment.

One of my favorite set of SAMR tools are the Google Apps for Education. The collaborative features on Google Docs absolutely re-defined my writer’s workshops. Finally, students’ writing skills were being shared, revised, edited, and published in real time for a real audience. As a teacher, I became just one more voice of expertise in a long line of suggestions, praise, and encouragement as a student discovered themselves as a writer. When we talk about authenticity and getting real, even a simple substitution - moving writer’s workshop from paper to digital - can make all the difference in how our students engage in our content.

I believe very strongly that these personal types of learning experiences are the ones students will and should remember from school. They are the ones where they put themselves out before an audience and were guided and supported through their learning styles, learning needs, and learning outcomes instead of the teacher controlling every aspect of it. So what does this learning look like? Is there a set of characteristics that tend to define authentic, real-world learning?

Let’s take a moment to look at a few basic qualities provided by SUNY researcher Audrey Rule (1) (with a few added in by yours truly):

  • Open-ended inquiry

  • Social Learning

  • Voice & Choice

  • Presentation of work beyond the classroom

  • Feedback

  • Reflection

When you take a step back and look at these it is impossible not to see the real-world possibilities. Think about your own experience as a teacher teaching within a team or department. These qualities are inescapable in the workforce. So why are we so hesitant to do our best to incorporate these into our learning as often as we can?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made our class take a teaching philosophy personality quiz of his own design. Basically, we were given a set of educational scenarios and then had to rate our feelings towards each. Each rating was given a point value and then these were added up to reveal which learning philosophy we tended towards. Mine came out very strongly in favor of constructivism which is the theory that we construct our own understanding and knowledge of the world over time, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences, and then evaluating this knowledge against new information as we learn.

Taking this approach, it is important that we are taking these types of theories and breaking them down into models to help guide our curriculum design. My model is the Five Es. When entering into a new topic or concept, we can reach a saturation point with our authenticity that begins to develop these real-world skills naturally in our students. They are:

  • Engage - what real-world connections can I build into the introduction of this lesson or concept?

  • Explore - what real-world issues could students research or inquiry upon in connection to this topic or concept? What choices could I offer to complete the assignment?

  • Engineer - how can my students solve a real-world problem through an original creation?

  • Explain - how can I authentically create a system of authentic discussion within the real-world context of this topic or concept?

  • Evaluate - how can I help students analyze the real-world connections to this topic or concept?

Asking these questions during curriculum design and implementation can assist us in reaching more deeply into our content, but having students draw out the relevance and real world connections. Again, taking these two concepts - the qualities of authenticity and the Five E model of design - we begin to put the student at the center of their own learning, but also create opportunities for them to choose their learning path, work at their own pace, and facilitate authentic collaboration.

Getting real in the classroom space and in our schools takes time and effort. As I closed out my challenge to teachers, I left them with this important quote from Jaime Casap, Google Education Evangelist:

When we ask our students authentic and genuine questions they will most likely give us an authentic and genuine answer. Our students are growing up in a time of great change. Please ask yourself throughout the year - and especially in the beginning - how can I “get real” with my content? I think you’ll find the answer to be a much more simple one that you might expect because when you’re making an effort to build an authentic learning experience for your students you won’t have to answer that question. Your students will do it and they will always remember you for it.

(1) Rule, Audrey. (2006). The components of authentic learning.

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