Students Answer the Question: What Should School Be Like?

Group of cheerful students looking at the camera.

Recently, I asked students in my class to blog about what they think school should look like. The following bullets attempt to summarize what students believe school should be like.  The students I asked are 9th graders, generally at an honors level. I tried to capture as many ideas as best I could. Many ideas deal with teaching and learning, while some ideas address other topics.  Eye-opening to say the least!

  1. School should provide real-world skills
  2. Tasks should be authentic as opposed to a test
  3. School should be focused on learning not testing
  4. There should be choice for students to study what they want
  5. School should work to fix real-world problems (Kohn anyone?)
  6. High school should start later (they researched this!)
  7. Seating should be comfortable and variable
  8. Education should be personal and based on interests
  9. There should be more physical activity as part of class, but no more gym
  10. There should be room to be creative in many ways
  11. School should be fun
  12. Focus on learning, not grades and tests (and worksheets—many mentioned worksheets)– so you can make mistakes that won’t hurt you
  13. There should be less homework because how can we be involved in activities (like everyone tells us) when we have hours of homework every night?
  14. School should help you be the best person you can be
  15. There should be more interactive and engaging activities in class that involve discussion

I should also note that almost every student talked about the disconnect between standardized testing, most classroom tests, and the stress and strife caused by both. They stated that this doesn’t really relate to learning.

I learned a lot, I hope you did too!

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7 Reasons to Do Genius Hour: Our Lessons from High School

For the third year in a row, a group of amazing teachers at Pennridge High School have undertaken the monumental task of crafting a Genius Hour experience we call DaVinci Day. Inspired by Genius hour and many other movements and initiatives that place passion, purpose, and creativity at the heart of the student experience, DaVinci Day allows student interest, curiosity, and passion to drive the learning. Each student (we’re close to engaging 180 freshman this year) spends regular time throughout the semester pursuing their area of choice through various forms of research and action. This culminates with a TED-style talk in various classes where each student presents their journey. Some students, usually most of them, attend and present at our DaVinci Day @Night where we invite students, teachers, parents, and community to listen and learn. To say the least the experience has been, and is, unbelievably rewarding for teachers and students. So much is shared, so much is learned, and so much is gained beyond the measurement of any test or grade. The following reasons to do #Geniushour are not so much persuasive reasons as they are the repeated lessons we’ve learned by doing our version of Genius Hour in high school:

  1. This is the truest form of student-centered learning. When given the chance to pursue anything they want, students amaze us. After their own realization that we’re serious, they dig in. They study an array of topics that range from taking action against modern slavery to helping each other cope with stress and anxiety, and everything in between. Where is that in the curriculum?
  2. This transforms our classrooms to give students what’s really relevant. As teachers in different disciplines, we find that students now want to truly do great research, create meaningful presentations, and become skilled presenters, because this is so important to THEM. This is not to mention learning things like resilience, tenacity, grit, and empathy along the way.
  3. When passion drives, creativity flourishes. Students continue to amaze us with their ingenuity and problem-solving. There is no other place in a normal curriculum for the powerful questions asked as part of this journey, and no other way to find answers than by sparking passion and creativity in kids.
  4. When the learning is meaningful, grades don’t matter. DaVinci Day is not graded. It is shared, expressed, evaluated, celebrated, and painstakingly worked on, but not graded. If you want to see intrinsic motivation at work in a grade-hungry, GPA-driven culture, just try it. Again, it’s transformative!
  5. DaVinci Day is not a competition, so the collaboration, empathy, and genuine interest in each other’s work places positive pressure on each student to do their best. As part of our classes and curriculum, we study the usual range of math, social studies, science, and English. Even with our best efforts and practices, engagement can be mixed. I’ve never seen students pay attention and show genuine interest like I have when they share their learning and stories.
  6. DaVinici Day is a catalyst for accelerated skill mastery. Want students to be better writers? Ask them to blog about their pursuits. Want students to research deeply? Let them find what inspires them. Want to help students build confidence? Let them discover themselves by pursuing their own passions.
  7. We’ve found the “it” for transformative practice. Of course, the answer was simple: let the kids drive, and everything else seems to fall into place. As teachers, we’ve learned to leave the stage to the stars, and support, coach, mentor, and teach in ways we never considered when we stepped into this business. Naturally, we guide them and help them do their best work, but ultimately they succeed on their own merits and desires. We’ve yet to be disappointed!

If you get a chance, check out our DaVinci Day site, and more importantly check out the Genius Hour site (our greatest inspiration)– Thank you Angela Maiers!

Holiday Sandwich

EdSlowChat  In a recent #EdSlowChat on Twitter, Anthony Purcell @MrP_tchr  posed a question regarding what to do with the “Holiday Sandwich,” named for the gap or valley  created during December by the Thanksgiving  and Christmas or Winter breaks.

Frankly, this time of year is exciting for many reasons, but also challenging in terms of keeping students engaged in learning. (Sometimes its even hard for me to stay engaged!) For me, a high school English teacher, I feel like I never want to start another big unit (aka book or play) because this 3.5 week period plays more like 2 weeks in a more (traditionally) productive time of year.Tweet edslowchat

My own answer to this question is captured in my tweet response on the chat. This year some colleagues and I decided to take a chance with a new PBL experience (see BIE for a better explanation than I’ll ever give) for students that involves embracing the learning value in a world of tragedy, change, and challenge. The recent terrorist attacks in France, the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis, and the ensuing political and ideological battles in the United states can create confusion and concern in students, and thus become opportunities meaningful learning. This is how I (we) plan to keep kids and myself focused during the “sandwich.” The time can be stretched or condensed based on student work and response, so there’s urgency to learn but not a strict time limitation. I know it doesn’t sound like the most fa la la thing to do, but at a time of year when we all, in some way, consider what’s most important, some perspective building and relevant learning might be a gift worth giving.