This winter my daughter, a serious fourth grader, made an amazing pilgrim diorama complete with balsa wood houses and goats made out of clay. She approached the hands on project with determination and imagination and came up with something she had a right to be proud of.
The educator in me, always watching what good teachers do, liked that she’d been given the freedom to choose her topic and what project she wanted to do, and appreciated that she’d then been able to present her work in front of her peers. A good lesson, I thought to myself, the kind of thing that doesn’t just happen on its own.
And as I was thinking this, I heard my six year old son in the next room talking aloud about Star Wars. He was alone, so I peeked in quietly and realized that he was up to something that was about to prove me wrong.
Legos Star Wars has stepped to the forefront of my son’s first grade imagination, armies of blocky plastic clonetroopers littering our family room floor. While I’d been in the kitchen watching my daughter wield a hot glue gun, my son had been creating a scene with his Legos, a complex, sprawling thing complete with droids, ships, and an inch tall Yoda. Without an “assignment” from school, he’d brought the same care and creativity to his project that my daughter brought to hers.
The talking I’d heard was my son explaining his work as he held our little video camera and shot footage of a tour of the scene he’d created. He’d seen a boy about his same age do something like this on YouTube, and was inspired to make his own.
These two examples of learning provided a strong reminder about the great power of the imagination and importance of relevance. Students will do what we assign to them, sometimes with passion, interest, and wonderful results. They’ll also do more things than we can imagine, and do them with as much care (or more) because they love what they’re doing.
I was reminded of the students I’ve known who live rich lives beyond the schoolhouse: the special education student who had a C+ in PE because he didn’t always dress out, but told me about the two marathons he’d run that year; the girl who volunteered at the animal shelter, helping do everything from feeding to helping vets heal animals; and the boy who spent two hours every morning working on his family’s dairy farm before coming to school, and then another hour milking between football practice and doing his homework.
Invariably these students were humble, mentioning their own non-school related accomplishments almost casually, or self deprecatingly. As I got them to talk about what they did, their pride and excitement would come through, and I always thought: how can I harness this in a way that works at school?
Thinking of these kids and my own, I believe that the best educators find ways for both guided instruction and freer exploration, celebration, and application of the things students love. Both are important to learning. As teachers, it’s up to us to help create opportunities for students to discover new (or new to them) things. Our own experiences can help us generate a passion for Spanish or sculpting, introduce students to Hamlet and haiku, and open the door to the scientific method and mathematical reasoning. And as we show students the value of coding and physical fitness, we do well to give credit to a well designed curriculum. My daughter knows more about the Plimoth Plantation than she did before she started sculpting goats, and I wouldn’t want my son’s understanding to start and end in a galaxy far, far away.
But that isn’t all that matters.
Allowing students to explore and share what they are passionate about can be life changing. Building on their own interests, whether baseball or bluegrass, can motivate students to achieve more academically. Reluctant readers sometimes invest more time in reading about subjects they care about, and those who wouldn’t think of giving an oral presentation can see the shackles of anxiety fall away when they’re telling others about a subject that matters to them.
Providing students with a framework for learning: academic vocabulary, the skills to discern quality content online, the ability to structure a presentation or an argument, is as important as giving them the freedom to explore topics they are interested in. Both, done well, can energize learning.
As we allow students to be the people they are, full of quirks and interests, passions and preferences, we begin to engage them as learners, not just as students.
We can still integrate the staples of a more traditional education; I’d never advocate taking Shakespeare, fractions, or frog dissection off the syllabus, but even as we talk about world history or algebra, as we help students make meaningful connections to their own lives we help them do something else. We help them learn.