The 5 Core Elements Series: Making an Impact With School

Inspired Teachers embrace the practice of engagement-based education. They recognize every child’s unique, inherent potential, challenging each student to solve complex problems, collaborate, and pursue continual learning and growth. In order for students to excel in the 4 I’s (Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity), we believe that teaching and learning in schools should be built around five core elements: student as expert; purpose, persistence, and action; wide-ranging evidence of student learning; joy; and mutual respect.           

We’ve invited five guest bloggers to share their thoughts about the five elements. Writing on the subject of Purpose, Persistence, and Action is Heather Wolpert-Gawron, an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL/21st-Century Learning instructional coach. She is the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), a staff blogger for Edutopia, a proud member of the National Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter @tweenteacher.

Setting the Tone

I want to start this post with a question: What is the purpose of school?

Each school year, I begin with a video from John Green, author of The Fault in our Stars and Paper Towns. His open letter to students returning to school is meant to pump them up with the idea that compulsory education is a privilege granted only to those born in this most recent slice of history that we currently inhabit. The video ends on a call to action, a beg, for students to use this privilege to take our species to another planet, or to at least make microwaveable pizza that actually has a crispy crust. It’s a plea to make their education have an impact.


Building Student Confidence

As a middle school ELA teacher, I focus much of my teaching on advocacy. After all, there’s nothing more engaging to a student than deeply feeling that you can make a difference with what you’re doing in school. As a PBL coach and speaker who focuses on student engagement, I argue to educators all over the country that we must focus on engagement if we want to see increases in student achievement. It’s all connected.

And frankly, if we aren’t teaching students to have an impact with what they’re learning in school, then why have school at all? To me, that’s the answer to my opening question above. The purpose of school is taking what you learn into the world beyond our walls, and impacting that world in some positive way. “Yes,” we should be telling them, “you can make the world a better place than it was when you entered it.” And teaching students that they might have an impact is vital. Giving them the confidence and tools to make themselves heard by those in positions of power is vital.

So the key to what we should be doing here is building both their confidence and their toolbox. The confidence resides in addressing Social and Emotional Learning. The tools are the standards that help students make themselves heard.

It’s important for us to teach students that confidence isn’t something they’re entitled to have without the backup of effort and skills. Their efforts and their understanding of the world around them help to arm them as they move forward. Teachers have a huge role to play here by being present and open to hearing student voices. Project-Based Learning helps to activate students’ awareness of the problems in their school, neighborhood, state, country, and world. By allowing students to identify those issues and tackle them through research and presentations, we will contribute to their real schooling.

A Toolbox for Impacting the World

Teachers have been entrusted with the role of being the first line of adults who can be swayed by students’ evidence-based opinions. We give them the opportunity to change our minds about a topic. By giving students voice, we address a deep emotional need shared by all humans: the need to be heard. By being transparent with our own learning, we make social connections with the students that will also impact their achievement. By modeling our own ability to listen, agree with, disagree with, and move on, we also help them to connect more deeply with the adult in the room. That relationship impacts achievement as well.

Along with instilling confidence, we must also give students the tools to impact the world around them. We must teach them how literature reflects the different stories of humanity. We must teach them to write and speak with evidence-based persuasion. We must demand that they back up their opinions with data. We must open their eyes to look critically at the world around them and identify the problems with respectful outrage, not whiny complaint. We must help motivate them to better the world, not let them acquiesce in the face of challenge and allow our world to stagnate.

Each generation has an opportunity to make an impact on the world it will be inheriting. School’s purpose is to give students the chance to learn how they can make their own impact, to inspire their persistence, and to help them discover the effectiveness of their actions in the world.

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