Monday, October 20, 2014

"Tell Me Your Story"

Create more opportunities to engage and empower my students.  

Install a balance of learning that includes both consumption and creation. 

Build a culture of learning that enables students to cultivate relationships with both their peers and their teacher. 

These goals, set prior to the start of this school year were the result of a passionate and inspired student centered vision.  Each and every day there is a collective effort towards achieving the realization of this vision. While a work in progress and not without challenges, I am happy with the success that we have achieved thus far within our classroom community.  The students are being stretched, they are embracing challenges and they are producing a body of work that reflects a quality effort, passion and pride.

Our first unit this year focused on the Five Themes of Geography.  The students learned the identity of the themes, how to distinguish one from the other and most importantly how to connect the themes to their lives.   There were multiple opportunities for collaboration with peers as students consumed and unpacked various new terms and concepts.  Varied formative assessments  were completed on a daily basis. The students reflected a firm understanding of the concepts and they successfully demonstrated an ability to connect the themes to their own lives. Upon reflection I was pleased with their level of understanding but I wanted something more.  I wanted to empower them to learn more. I wanted to engage them in a process that would allow them to create a product revealing their personal connections to the themes and demonstrating their knowledge of those themes. Thus the idea for Telling Your Story was born.


After careful consideration a document was produced to assist the students in the creation process. Essentially I wanted to learn more about my students and their lives in Robbinsville; therefore the idea of Telling Your Story was developed. With all project opportunities I strongly believe that the best student work occurs when they have choices and options in all phases of development. This project which would mark their initial effort would include multiple options to choose from.  My experience has always indicated that when students make their own choices.Their voice and passion always resonates the most clearly.

When the day arrived to introduce the project to my students, we read through the assignment together carefully, answering all questions and clarifying all concerns.  The initial introduction of the project took place in one of my inclusion classes. Both my co- teacher and I prepared a written narrative, "Telling Our Stories" as sixth grade students and of our connections with the five themes of geography. This was intended to model our expectations and hopefully strengthen our connection with our students.   Following the completion of the introduction the students were provided with two and a half class periods to assist them in completing their efforts. Four additional days were allocated at home to assist in the completion of the assignment.


During the initial phase of production the students carefully chose the option that enabled them to best Tell Their Story or they developed a  unique option that was best suited to their strengths.  Although the projects were of an individual nature, a culture developed within the classroom community that allowed students to ask questions of each other, to provide assistance during the development process. Furthermore opportunities were created that allowed for collaboration and constructive feedback. While observing the process as it unfolded, helping students triage their concerns and helping to facilitate the overall process for individual students, I was not sure what to expect in terms of the final results.  Students required redirection from time to time and adjustments were required to make sure that the students were applying what they had learned correctly. After two and half days most made significant progress in class but all still had quite a ways to go before bringing the journey to an end. I wasn't sure how they were going to get there but I knew I couldn't wait to see the results once they did.


The day finally arrived for the students to present their finished products to me and their peers.  The audience and the presenters were equally enthusiastic to share and learn from each other.  The hope that I had initially was that the students would reinforce their understanding of the Five Themes of Geography and in the process a passion for their own lives would be ignited.  They did not disappoint!  One thing that was heard loud and clear was that my students love being kids and they love the opportunities that they have to enjoy their lives. For some that meant vacationing in Greece or Costa Rica, for others it meant riding their bikes in their neighborhoods , or taking trips to Maggie Moos, a local ice cream shop. Some told tales of surfing, playing soccer, lacrosse, softball or they even wrote and sang songs telling their story. Throughout the presentations the students were excited to share their passions and the audience clearly enjoyed learning of the diverse cultures that were being presented. I observed joy on the faces of my students as they shared a piece of their lives with their peers and the pride they took in their work was clearly in evidence by the quality of their work.   I would be remiss if I failed to comment on how impressed I was with abilities of my students to successfully manipulate the technology that they used to complete the assignment. Images were effectively used to support the written text. Animation was used to enhance the visual quality of the presentation. Even hyperlinks were used to impressively create an interactive presentation that allowed for audience participation. While I wasn't sure what to expect at the conclusion of the production process, I was beyond thrilled with the results.


One of the outcomes that I am striving to achieve this year, is to create more authentic learning experiences for all of the stakeholders within our learning culture.  In order to achieve this I believe that reflection on the quality of instruction and the  learning experiences must take place on a daily basis. Ultimately this will lead to my own professional growth as well as growth for my students.

After the final presentation took place, I commended my students on their efforts in preparation and production and for their courage in sharing their products with their peers. I then discussed with them the importance of reflection and we all agreed that it was necessary in order to improve or grow.  I then asked them to participate in a two part written reflection activity. The first part included three questions that were designed to help them find a deeper understanding of their strengths and the areas that they could improve upon. The second part included more questions.  This set designed to gain feedback on how the overall project might be adjusted, to produce even greater results as they applied to student learning.

After completing the written activity students were asked to move about the class and share at least two things that they felt comfortable sharing with others about both their own performance and project design.  As I observed the process unfold I was quite impressed by the courage that students demonstrated in sharing their thoughts with each other after they had critically self assessed. The final piece of reflection was for the collective group to share with me what they felt comfortable sharing about their own reflections and then to give me feedback about the project design. Again I learned a great deal about their courage as they critically assessed their own abilities and provided me with constructive feedback as well.

The Story Ends for Now

Over the course of  the past several days I have watched and listened to so many students stories and the following things have been made abundantly clear; my students are passionate about their lives, they enjoy sharing their life experiences with others, they take pride in their work, they understand the five themes of geography and can connect them to their lives, they understand how to utilize technology to enhance their presentations, and most importantly they are courageous and willing to take risks in order to achieve something memorable. Mission Accomplished!

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