Thursday, November 27, 2014

Authentic Audiences: Empowering Learners to Make a Difference

I work with some of the most courageous, inspiring educators in the world.

Bold statement...I know.  But truly, I do.  Allow me to explain...

When I was a fifth grade teacher, I always ended the year by sharing several books with my learners. Books like Oh the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss, I Knew You Could by Craig Dorfman, and I'd Choose You by John Trent. If I were still a fifth grade teacher, I would now include The Dot by Peter Reynolds! My goal, of course, was to share some bit of "wisdom" with my learners before they headed off to middle school. Well, since then I have discovered that my learners have far more wisdom to share with me than I could ever hope to share with them.   Looking back, I don't even know if those timeless stories ever had the impact I was hoping for, but I do know that they led to some great conversations and precious memories during the last week of school each year.





Of all the books I shared with my learners during those last bittersweet days of their fifth grade year, my favorite by far was Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Based on the true story of Alice Rumphius, this precious book is the story of the real "Lupine Lady" who had three wishes in her lifetime...to travel the world, to live in a house beside the sea, and to make the world a more beautiful place. She worked hard to make all of her wishes come true and, in the end, made the world more beautiful by spreading lupine seeds wherever she went. These seeds eventually blossomed into beautiful patches of "blue and purple and rose colored flowers" that carpeted the town where she lived.  



I absolutely loved this story of giving back and living a life that made an impact on those around you...a legacy of sorts...but sometimes I felt frustrated because my kids...my learners...well, they often didn't seem to "get it." Oh, they said all the "right things" and definitely knew the "right answers."  

Ms. Malone: "What's this story about?"

Learner: "A lady who was a librarian and who travelled around the world, but then got hurt and went to live by the sea."   

RIGHT

Ms. Malone: "What else did she do?"

Learner: "She spread seeds everywhere and flowers grew all around the town."

RIGHT

Ms. Malone: "Why did she do that?"

Learner: "To make the world more beautiful."

RIGHT 

Ms. Malone: "Why did I choose to read this book to you today?"

Learner: "Because you want us to do something to make the world more beautiful too."

RIGHT AGAIN

So what's the problem, you might ask?  Well, they were saying the right things...but still, they didn't get it.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they didn't believe it. Despite my best efforts, many of my kids were leaving me not believing that they would ever really make a difference.  Many of them left not believing that they should...or could...or would...ever do anything to make the world a more beautiful place.  What a sad indictment on my teaching!  What a sad indictment on me!

Here's the good news...I am no longer the teacher I once was...and the learners in my classroom...they are different as well.  They are more confident, more self directed, and more globally minded than those who came before them.  They are more willing to take risks, step into the unknown, and face challenges than ever before.  And most exciting to me, they believe that they have what it takes to make a difference in their world!  And they believe that they can make that difference now...at this moment...in this time and place...and they are...well...RIGHT!




So why the change?  What is the impetus behind this shift in the way our learners think, act, and believe about their place in this world of ours?   Well, there are a lot of answers to that question.  
  • Our world is changing...true.
  • We live in a global society...true again.
  • Technology is changing how kids learn...ummm...yes!
All of that...and more...is true.  But at Austin Elementary, I believe...no, I know...that SEM is also a huge part of the impetus to change.   Our kids are different...because we allow them to be different!  Our kids are making an impact because we tell them that they can...and then give them the tools to do just that!
  
"What kind of tools?" you may ask.  I could go on for days answering that question, but for now, let's keep it simple.  Two words...Authentic Audience. These two words have been part of my vocabulary for several years now.  I first heard them from Marcia Gentry, Professor of Educational Studies at Purdue University, while she was leading a session on Enrichment Clusters that I was attending at Confratute  during the summer of 2010.  Dr. Gentry talked about the power of an authentic audience to bring purpose, meaning, and real world significance to the work kids do...and I believed her...and I've shared my belief with those around me...a lot.  But finding...and connecting...to a real world authentic audience is not as easy as it may sound.  It's tricky...and scary...and well, hard!  And so for a long time these two words remained just that...words.

  

But not anymore!  Here at Austin Elementary, the inclusion of "authentic audiences" into the learning design in our classrooms is becoming more the norm and less the exception than ever before.  Recently, I stepped into an enrichment cluster where the children were learning to sew.  On the surface, it might have seemed to the untrained eye to be simply a sewing class. Enjoyable? Yes...but really worth giving up an hour of instruction every week? Well, if "enjoyable" was where it stopped, my answer would have to be no.  But learning to sew, while interesting and exciting for these young learners, was not the ultimate goal.  For you see, the conversation in this room went far beyond how to thread a needle or bind a seam. The most prominent conversation in the room was not about the what or the how of sewing, but rather, about the why behind their work.   Who would benefit from these new found skills?  How could they use what they were learning to help those around them? In short, how could they use this experience to make the world a more beautiful place?  




Cool conversation...yes?  But here's what's even cooler.  It is a conversation that is happening in enrichment clusters and E-Time groups all over the building!  
  • Trendy Styles is creating hats, hairbands and clothing for orphans and needy children around the world.
  • Seeing Through a Dog's Eyes is making pull toys for service animals.
  • Stop Motion Films, Inc. is creating videos to raise awareness about global warming, pollution, and hunger.
  • Cause for Paws is making blankets for homeless animals.
  • Sew Fashionable is making stockings for children in need.
  • Broadcasting is exploring tools to make visual announcements possible on our campus.
  • Calling All Carpenters and EVENTful Planning are working alongside the PTO to plan, design, and build games that will be used in the Spring Carnival.
  • second grade E-Time group is creating cards/posters for nursing home residents.
  • The list goes on and on!! 

And even cooler than that?  It's not just happening on Fridays!  This idea of authentic audience is catching on, not only throughout the building, but throughout the week as well!  Daily, our learners are having conversations...with each other...with educators...maybe even with you...about how they can make an impact on the world around them!  How cool is that?!

Now I realize that some of you may be wondering why this is such a big deal.  After all, you may not have sent your child to school so he or she can change the world.  All that can come later...right?  Maybe...but here's the deal.  The payoffs for children immersed in this kind of learning environment go far beyond the obvious social emotional benefits that come from the realization that they have valuable contributions to make to our world.  Let's just look at a few...
  • Learners develop skills that will allow them to be competitive in a global workplace. These skills include communication, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, self awareness, and many more.
  • Learners identify areas of strength and talent and are given opportunities to develop those areas in a supportive, risk free environment.
  • Learners understand their identity as global citizens and begin to take ownership of the privileges and responsibility that identity requires.
  • Learners are immersed in real world experiences that give value and purpose to their efforts.
  • Learners construct new understandings of their role as both learner and educator in a world where the value of each is absolutely immeasurable.
  • Learners develop perseverance in the face of challenges and obstacles as they work to accomplish tasks and goals that are globally relevant and personally meaningful.
  • Learners dive deep into academic content in the context
    of real world problems that provide relevance and purpose to the learning that is taking place.
  • Learners demonstrate a higher level of motivation, task commitment, and willingness to take risks with academic skills that are embedded naturally into the tasks they are striving to complete.  These skills include concepts related to measurement, numeracy, data collection, fine arts, reading comprehension, written expression, scientific understanding, and many more. 
This list could go on and on!  The benefits are truly endless!  

So, back to my original statement...

I work with some of the most courageous, inspiring educators in the world. 

  
Still don't get it?  Stay with me...
  • For the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) to truly take hold in a school, the educators must be willing to let go of the reins and give the learners control of their learning...scary.  
  • In order for the Schoolwide Enrichment Model to continue to grow and begin to change the culture in a school, the educators must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and resourcefulness like never before...demanding
  • If the Schoolwide Enrichment Model is going to truly define who you are as a school and impact the way every learner and every educator thinks and behaves
    on a daily basis, educators must be able to take a deep honest look about what they believe and then take steps daily to truly live out those beliefs...bold.  
Helping our learners identify and reach out to authentic audiences is just one example of how the educators at Austin Elementary have made these things happen.  

It's scary.  It's demanding.  It's bold.  It would be easier to give up...to decide its not worth it...to go back to the comforts of "the way things used to be."  After all, will it really make a difference if there's one less fashion group in the world?  Will one small group of learners working together to make make a difference in the lives of orphans halfway around the world really change anything?  Well, I can tell you, if you ask the learners in those cluster groups, their answer to that question would be a passionate and heartfelt YES.  
 
So, on this eve of my most favorite American holiday, let me just say THANK YOU to the educators and administrators at Austin Elementary who day in and day out say YES to the sometimes scary, often demanding, and many times bold choices that bring innovation, opportunity, and empowerment to our learners! 

 Inspire. Digital image. Inesonline.com. N.p., Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.