Find your Passion

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, written by learning expert Mitch Resnick he suggests that the rest of school (even the rest of life) should be more like kindergarten. The main premise is the book is the idea that in order to thrive in today’s dynamic world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively —and the best way to do that is by focusing more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do in traditional kindergartens. The book is structured around the four P’s: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play and the important role each plays in cultivating creativity.

This is a book that speaks to me from beginning to end. If you know me or have read any of my previous blog posts, you know that the second P-passion, is a topic I am personally “passionate” about, so much so that it inspired the name of my blog, “The Meaning of Meraki”. Meraki is a Greek word defined as “the soul or creativity you put into something; the essence of yourself you put into the work you do.” Although there is not quite a direct English translation of the word “meraki”, the closest we can get is the word PASSION. Leading a life filled with meraki or passion is a gift.

Definition-Passion: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept or a strong enthusiasm or interest.

If you know any kindergarteners, you can speak to the often unbridled enthusiasm they bring to all that they do. They are passionate about their learning; engaged, curious, and eager. Yet we know as students move up the grades this initial enthusiasm and interest in school often diminish. Research shows that as children advance through the grades engagement levels decrease significantly. The 2015 Gallup Student Poll, Engaged Today, Ready for Tomorrow defines engagement as student “involvement in and enthusiasm for school”. After surveying over 900 000 US students the study shows engagement levels steadily drop as students move from Grades 5-12. The poll indicates that while over 75% of 5th graders are engaged in school, this numbers steadily drops to 34% of students being engaged in their learning by the 12th grade. The Canadian Education Association (CEA) 2011 study looking at intellectual, social and institutional engagement in schools entitled, “What did you do at school today?” shows similar trends. These decreasing levels of engagement tell us something has to shift. How do move schools towards a culture in which students maintain a similar interest and passion for learning that they enter with in Kindergarten?

Quote by George Couros

One of the ultimate goals of schools is to prepare students for their future and the world of work. Starting in their early days of high school students begin to make choices that may determine their life path. They choose electives, course levels and vocational programs that may come to influence or determine whether or not they go to post-secondary education, whether or not they finish high school and what direction life may take them. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. But what if this were different.

Imagine if schools were places where starting from an early age, students were regularly given opportunities to discover and uncover their interests, skills, strengths, and passions….

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick, creates a spin-off of a Ben Franklin quote to make his own suggestion, “An investment in interest always pays off with the best knowledge”.

When we invest in our students and give them time to be creative and the opportunity to uncover their passions and interests, we allow them the chance to develop insight and knowledge about themselves, and we allow them the opportunity to invest in their own future.

Imagine if all schools honoured more student voice and choice when structuring learning opportunities and learning was, in turn, more personalized, active, student-driven and gave students the chance to explore something they may ultimately become passionate about.

Fortunately, we are seeing more and more schools implement models honouring this approach and fulfilling our students’ need for more choice and voice in their learning throughout the grades. Check out examples of some of these inspiring educators and schools below:

  • Genius Hour/ Maker Initiatives

More and more classrooms at varying levels utilize a Genius Hour kind of format which allows students time to explore their own passions through maker space or project-based learning initiatives which encourage creativity and student-driven learning in the classroom. Sue McFarlane Penner, a teacher in Winnipeg, Manitoba, uses a variation of this approach with her grade 1,2,3 multiage class. Her students develop “Workshops” on topics they are passionate about ranging from basketball to piano, to chess, to video making and in turn her students teach other students about their passions, including their older Grade 5/6 Learning Buddies. Not only do students have the opportunity to research and share their learning about something they are passionate about, they also learn presentation skills, communication skills and build confidence as young learners.

Some places structure more personalized learning options for students to explore interests and passions using a school-based model.

  • Ecole Garden Grove School IDEAS Initiative

Ecole Garden Grove School also in Winnipeg offers a school-wide initiative called I.D.E.A.S which stands for Innovative Design Exploration Activity Stations. IDEAS provides students in grades 3-6 with the opportunity to explore personalized learning opportunities. It is a chance for all students and staff to have fun, while discovering, learning about, & creating new things. All learners have the opportunity to design, create, work together, try new challenges, take risks, fail and try again, all while building community and connections with students and teachers they may have never had the chance to work with before.

IDEAS is scheduled in for two one hour slots, twice weekly and each block typically lasts for 4 weeks. Past focuses in IDEAS sessions have been on: Robotics, drama, pottery, electronics, clothing design/sewing, woodworking, coding, Lego 2.0, geocaching, comic book design, scrapbooking (Cricut), Little Bits, audio sound engineering, outdoor education, claymation/digital animation, magic, quilting, tinkering, photography, space/rocket science, batik, culinary arts etc.

Workshops are determined based on student and staff interest. Staff plan and prep for their activity stations, students choose their top interests using Google Forms, groups are made and workshops begin. Reflection is an integral and critical part of the IDEAS initiative. Students are asked to reflect on their learning stations each session through the foundational educational tenets of the initiative including; 4 C learning (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication), having an innovative mindset and design thinking.

This innovative initiative encourages both staff and students to step outside their comfort zone, try something new and potentially find areas they are passionate about. It has been embraced and highly valued by all stakeholders and also maintains great community support.

Lake Trail Middle School Electives and Flex/Quest Time

Similarly, Lake Trail Middle School in Courtenay, BC offers personalized learning opportunities for its grade 8-9 students through electives and what is scheduled as Flex or Quest Time. The staff was surveyed and asked to create courses they thought would be meaningful for students and that fit their own personal skill sets. These electives (46 in total) range from the more typical options found in middle school settings related to athletics, art, music, foods, woodworking and textiles to a wide variety of more personalized options including: African & Aboriginal Drumming, Art Installation, Film, Audio Engineering, Global Foods, Gender Equity Alliance, Marine Biology, The Music Business, Cooking with Fire, Coding, and Community Leadership/Engagement to name a few.

The Flex or Quest component scheduled into timetables gives students the opportunity to explore an independent project that they are passionate about that may or may not be connected to their chosen electives. To start the year teachers scaffold the thinking, planning and requisite skills needed to support this sort of individualized student work, and they serve as mentors as the work continues. Students are also connected with further mentors, if applicable, within the greater community.

The teachers at Lake Trail were encouraged to expand their own learning and model risk-taking by imagining the possibilities, building on their own strengths or interests, teaching something they may have never taught before and facilitating learning using methods that were new to them. Through this expansion of available electives and increased exploration time, students were offered an abundance of personalized options, encouraged to take risks, explored new interests and developed a new valuable skill set as independent learners!

In many ways, the 2 examples above may seem parallel to personalized learning initiatives such as Genius Hour, passion projects or Inquiry time, because they are. However, often those types of learning opportunities take place in certain classrooms and are driven by individual teachers. School-wide initiatives such as these two examples ensure empowering, personalized learning is in place for ALL students, develop common understanding across classrooms, and builds on independent skills throughout the grades in a school.

  • We can also look to examples of entire school philosophies making bold shifts away from traditional models of teaching and learning and reinventing what school can look like:

Schools like High Tech High, Connect Charter, Big Picture Learning Schools, The Pacific School of Inquiry & Innovation, PROPEL and countless, countless others are imagining the possibilities and turning their innovative visions into realities as they look to alternative approaches to; school organization, programming, meeting standards and curriculum, assessment, and reporting . These types of initiatives all have one thing in common; a more student-focused approach to learning.

There is much to be learned from the schools above and the plenty more like them. However, there are also many examples of schools and classrooms still stuck in very traditional, teacher driven, merely content focused models of teaching and learning. As suggested by Mitch Resnick, “finding the right balance between freedom and structure is the key to creating a fertile environment for creative learning”. We owe it to our students to find this balance. We owe it to our students to create learning environments where deep learning, and passion thrive. We owe it to our students to provide rich learning opportunities that allow them as individuals to explore and discover where their interests, strengths, and passions thrive. These learning environments may look similar to the ones outlined above, they may be an iteration of something parallel or they may be something brand new. The possibilities are endless and may vary greatly depending on the level, the learning context, and the learners themselves. Yet, ultimately all classrooms and/or schools need to find an entry point to ensuring both choice and voice are honoured for students in the form of engaging and empowering personalized learning options, in some way. Our students may not be passionate about everything in school, but they should be passionate about something. As teachers it is our job to help them discover their “something”.

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The Meaning of Meraki

fullsizerenderA year ago almost to the day, I wrote my first post on this blog, The Meaning of Meraki, shortly after being acquainted with the word itself. Fitting, that this month I received the necklace above from my family, who had it specially made for my birthday, recognizing what this word has come to mean to me.

Meraki…the soul, creativity or love you put into something. The essence of yourself you put into your work.  

I am not sure I can truly explain or articulate my love affair with this word.  It just is.  I love what it means and what it stands for.  I love the way it looks on a page.  I love how it found its way to me. I love that it is of Greek origin and it is one of those words that has no direct translation in English. I love that since being introduced to it I have found many other fascinating untranslatable words, some examples you can read about here. I love that I think about it often.  I love that I have witnessed what I deem as real life examples of the word’s essence in people who are obviously passionate about their jobs, their hobbies, and their life, which have included; artists, athletes, musicians, inventors, chefs, students, and educators I have encountered over the past year.

It is a blessing and gift to find passion, joy, reward, and love in what we do and how we spend our time. This past weekend, I came across another great example of this in reading  Shelley Moore’s book One Without the Other: Stories of Unity Through Diversity and Inclusion. This book is a must read for all educators.  It explores how inclusive education can increase the learning and life chances of all students.  After reading the book and looking further into some of Shelley’s work online, one thing that becomes quickly apparent is her strong experience base and her true passion for children and education.  She is a master storyteller who appears to leave much of her heart and soul in all that she does.  She has most certainly found her meraki, and through her work, shares her voice to inspire that in others.  

In the book, Shelley Moore, suggests a definition of inclusion in which there is no “other”. Instead, she states, “ We are diverse, all of us. We all have strengths, we all have stretches and we all need to get better at something. The difference in teaching to diversity, however, is that we don’t start with our deficits, we start with our strengths.”

Imagine the possibilities if we organized our students by strengths instead of most schools’ traditional model of deficits. Imagine the possibilities if we supported our students in their quest to find their passions and fuel their interests. Imagine if schools were places that relentlessly sparked the inspiring artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, poets, designers, inventors and makers in our midst with regular opportunities for creation and exploration.  Imagine the possibilities if we gave learners the opportunity to explore these interests using a student driven, personalized learning approach that honoured voice, choice, and autonomy. Imagine if innovative programs like High Tech High and inquiry/interest based initiatives like Genius Hour were the norm in our schools and not the exception. And imagine the possibilities if ultimately, as educators we served as guides in supporting our learners in finding their own sense of meraki.

This week I received a gift; a beautiful piece of jewelry, envisioned by my 13-year-old daughter capturing a word, a concept really, that means a lot to me.  However, the real potential gift is the realization of the meraki that lies within all of us.  

 

Paradigm Shift to Personalized Learning

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This tweet resonates with me for many reasons….it brings forth big ideas related to personalized, student-driven learning as well as learner engagement, empowerment, and agency. We know in the realm of education, these are topics on the minds of many.

We also know that our contemporary learners are vastly different than previous generations.  They are far more diverse, as are their needs. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet their changing needs and the demands of our society.  Past practices, and only focusing on filling our learners’ minds with knowledge, are no longer enough. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. We know that the extensive research, knowledge, and experience we now have access to must drive the changes necessary to not only better meet the dynamic needs of our students but also our society as a whole.  

We also know that many of the students presently in schools are disengaged.  They struggle to see the relevance of much of the content they are learning and to connect it to their current context.  Traditional classroom practices leave them disinterested and simply going through the motions. We can look to the Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) initiative on this topic, entitled What did you do in school today?  It has shed much light on the topic of engagement in schools with its survey results from over 60,000 students investigating how student engagement impacts academic outcomes, instructional challenge, and intellectual engagement.

maya

These wise words from Maya Angelou, seem fitting. “When you know better, you do better.” We now do know better, but often following through with the action or the “doing” part is easier said than done. In order, to see the true paradigm shift needed to transform educational practices and support our students in becoming dynamic learners, a number of changes will need to happen.

First, we will need to see less of a focus in our classrooms on content related outcomes, and more emphasis put on the skills and competencies our students need to be successful.  This includes critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, along with a myriad of personal and social attitudes and skills around such things as; global awareness, empathy, reflection, risk-taking, resilience, and self-regulation. We see examples of curricular reform happening both internationally and nationally with BC leading the way with their recent  Redesigned Curriculum.   The curriculum models a shift in perspective which highlights the same 6 Core Competencies supporting pedagogy and practice throughout the grades from K-12.  Big Ideas drive a focus for each subject area, with a stronger emphasis on Curricular Competencies and a reduced number of Content related outcomes at each grade.  

Second, as suggested in the Tweet by Jason Hubbard above, we need to ensure that classrooms are in fact, “their classrooms”, that is our students’ classrooms driven in many ways by their interests, strengths, and needs. Moving towards a model of teacher as mentor and facilitator of learning is essential. It is only through a more personalized, student-driven learning approach, that we will see our learners engaged in their learning and invested in their education.

There are a number of schools we can look to as models.  High Tech High being one of the most well known.  At High Tech High schools, a strong emphasis is put on personalization.  These schools practice a learner-centered, inclusive approach that supports and challenges each student individually. Students have the opportunity to pursue their passions through projects and reflect deeply on their learning.  The focus integrates hands-on inquiry across multiple disciplines, engages students in work that is meaningful and connects learning to their community and world. High Tech High teachers work together to design curriculum and projects, not only with colleagues but with their students as “design partners”.There are a number of other schools or programs that have parallel approaches; some Canadian examples include SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning), Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, Connect Charter in Calgary and the PROPEL program in Winnipeg. In visiting all of these personalized, inquiry-driven programs one thing is evident, the students there are not only actively involved and engaged in their work, they are driving their own learning.

Last week, I attended one of the PROPEL program’s final presentation celebration events.  I witnessed four high school students share a half hour presentation on the personal learning project that represented much of their learning for the semester.  PROPEL uses an integrated approach to curriculum and students receive a Transactional English credit, a Technologies credit and an Electives credit related to their area of pursuit, a model feasible for many high schools. The students take coursework in the other core subjects in the alternate semester.

At this particular final presentation evening, one student shared her perspectives on creating music videos and her own YouTube channel to share her amazing songwriting and singing talents.  One student described her deep, reflective learning journey in all of the work placements she had organized for herself over the five months,  ranging from apprenticing as a mechanic, to implementing art therapy with people with developmental disabilities, to working in a dental office. The next student described how he had found his potential life path by working on his own film and delving into the filmmaking world through acoustic engineering.  And the final student reflected on a two-year project he had been working on first designing a 3D model of a warming hut and then constructing it.  His creation is now accessible to thousands of Winnipeggers on the skating trails at The Forks Market.

These four students were eloquent and impassioned in describing their learning journeys.  They could not have been more invested.  One of them, Seah Kohli, the creator of the warming hut, summed it up as he spoke about how valuable the experiences at PROPEL had been for him as a learner.  He suggested that programs and approaches to teaching and learning such as PROPEL are “the future of education”.  We can only hope that he is right and that all of our students’ school careers include learning as powerful and meaningful as the PROPEL experience was for these ones.  

Over the past few years, I have been involved with implementing an experiential learning initiative through Winnipeg School Division’s STEAM Centres. I have seen firsthand the power personalized learning opportunities and a flexible learning environment can have on developing autonomy, confidence and agency in young learners.

The WSD STEAM program is offered to students in grades 4-6, across the division’s elementary schools and is built on four key pillars; the 4 C competencies, the design thinking process, reflection, and, strength based learning. After taking part in a variety of learning experiences related to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics such as coding, design, instant challenges, game based learning, and other creation, makerspace type learning, students spend time exploring areas of strength and interest.  The program uses a very hands-on, inquiry based, active learning focus and students are highly engaged and successful. Further to this, we now see many other K-6 schools across our division, adopting this type of STEAM centred learning approach through practices such as makerspace, challenge learning or Genius Hour initiatives, and it is exciting to see this elementary movement growing.

We can look to the examples above to help drive change and guide us towards a more competency focused, personalized approach for our learners, but the reality is that these schools and programs were in fact designed and created with this exact purpose, mindset and intent in mind from day one. With that in mind, they may not face many of the same challenges that is the reality for all other established public schools.  Moving towards programming such as this within the realities and contexts of our current school systems as a whole is a bigger challenge.  In Will Richardson’s and Bruce Dixon’s 10 Principles for Schools for Modern Learning they suggest,  “Today, truly transformative change at a systems level in pre-existing schools is very difficult to find. It’s easier to build a new school than to change an old one.” In our current context in many schools, we see pockets of innovative practice and student driven approaches being used by teachers, but finding examples of where this may be happening school wide is tough.  This may be the reality for a variety of reasons. Challenges may arise when teachers don’t have support and big picture understanding from the administrators in their building. Or on the flip side, in other situations learning leaders in schools are faced with resistance from teachers who are reluctant to let go of traditional methods which place students as passive learners, or still focus solely on content.  It’s complicated.  It is imperative that these changes occur and are supported at all levels and by all stakeholders.

There is much to do and at times this work will be messy and wrought with many stumbling blocks, barriers, and failures. The most worthwhile endeavors are rarely easy. Change is hard. A shift in paradigm involves a fundamental evolution in approach and often challenges much of what many believe and assume to be true.  There is no one clear path, no magic formula, no silver bullet moving forward.  But moving forward in this direction is not optional.  

We owe it not only our youth but to society as a whole, to offer an education that best prepares our students for the future that is their reality.  We owe it to our students to find the best ways to support building the essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed today in a meaningful, and engaging context. We owe it to our students to facilitate learning opportunities that are active, student driven, authentic and personalized.  Ultimately, we owe it to our students to ensure our classrooms are in fact “their classrooms”.