By: Erik Ray and Janice Walton
This is part four of a four-part series about how student engagement increases when students share their learning.
Teachers and students recognize there is value in making student learning public. Student-led conferences, exhibitions, and presentations of learning are just a few of the ways student learning can be shared in authentic ways. In this series, we have explored how an elementary school teacher and an organization are working to make student learning public and we highlighted eight reasons why students should share their work. To wrap up the series, we wanted to further unpack why teachers think sharing student learning is so important. Erik Ray, a fourth-grade teacher in Vista, CA, shared his thinking with us.
Why I Share Student Learning
“It felt awesome sharing my work! I know that others care about what I am doing at school.” This is a quote from my student, “Ben” (“Ben” is a pseudonym). He was reflecting upon a poem he shared, which was one of the final products of an 8-week long project centered around the driving question: “How can we, as poets, share our stories with our Lake Elementary community?” Through readings of literature, as well as informational text, students were introduced to what inspires people to write. As a grade-level team, we all wanted our 4th graders to embrace a love of reading and writing at the start of the year. After analyzing a novel, researching and writing about what inspires famous poets to write, students began to think about what inspires them to write poetry. The final investigation of the project was writing original poems, focusing on the word and phrase choice and adding punctuation for effect. Students also wrote a formal presentation explaining why they wrote their original poem. They then held a Poetry Gala that was open to the community and their families where they read their poems and presentations.
I have found that project-based learning engages, challenges and empowers students in ways that traditional instructional methods fall short. The poetry project was situated in the authentic context of sharing our stories with our own school community. Our class was finding that cliques were forming early in the year, and we did not know more than surface level stories of each other. By having an established problem at the center of the project, we had a purpose for the work we were creating. After some vulnerable sharing around our morning meetings and closing circles, students realized there were multiple perspectives to approach every situation with. We wanted to truly get to know each other. Students need opportunities to analyze, apply, and create with the knowledge they gain.
How can we ensure every student has access to these purposeful learning opportunities? What structures are in place that makes it difficult for educators to practice project-based learning? How can time be managed to provide these educators with more support? There is ever expanding access to content and information, but if we do not give students opportunities to apply content, they will not be prepared for the workforce.
Diving deep into interdisciplinary projects with my students has had a profound effect on my assumptions of what learning can be. As I continue to collaborate with fellow educators in designing learning experiences, I have been asking myself if the work our students are creating is for an audience greater than the classroom. Students are often given opportunities to share their learning and perform outside of schools in their community. These public displays typically come in the form of a theater performance, concert or sporting events. Growing up, I was frequently given these opportunities outside of school, playing in a jazz band and with my soccer team. However, sharing my school work publicly was unheard of. This is all too common for students in school today.
The Power of Student Voice
Ben showed the transformation from start to finish of this project. Throughout the project, and after the exhibition, he developed a better understanding of himself. Ben is an eccentric kid. He is aware of his strengths, and specific areas of growth.
As you can see from his writing, he knows that he is working on managing his impulses when tempers rise. Ben struggled through the first drafts of his poem. The first subject of inspiration he chose would not allow him to open up and share an authentic story. One day, he asked me, “Mr. Ray, can I start over and write about something different? It will be hard, but I think it will be juicier.” “Juicy” was a term we used to describe words or lines in poems that made us feel. My students know that drafting and critique are part of creating high-quality work. Ben was a little nervous, even scared to start from scratch and write about something so personal to him as his tricky temper. Once Ben worked up the courage to start writing, the feedback he got from his peers fueled him. He read this new draft differently and we all noticed it. With writing as one of his strengths, the revision and editing process came quickly to him. Ben was ready for the Poetry Gala exhibition.
Putting out challenges to my students has given them the same fire that ignites when they hit the soccer field or gymnastics center outside of school. When my students know they will be presenting to a master gardener or holding a museum exhibition for everyone in our school to visit, they rise up to that challenge with commitment. The work they do is meaningful. It is real. There has always been tremendous joy amongst my students when they are presenting work they are proud of. Sometimes they are nervous, or even scared to share their work in front of others. But they are more willing to edit, revise, and go through multiple drafts to make their work high-quality when they have an authentic audience. An authentic audience gives learners a stage to practice the skills and dispositions required of being life-ready. Learning to please the teacher is not what I hope for my students. I hope they have the experience of creating work that matters to a greater audience. And I hope it is work that they did not know they were capable of.
For Educators Looking to Get Started
When working with fellow educators, I have seen the challenges and uncertainties that come up when designing projects for an authentic audience. Are they having opportunities to connect with experts in the field? How are we going to get kids outside of the classroom during the project? What possible products will they create? How and who will they share their beautiful work with? This all takes time. I have found that the most challenging piece of getting students prepared to share their learning in authentic ways are the adult relationships involved. We need to set aside time to connect with each other. It takes true collaboration amongst a team and site community to create opportunities for students to share their learning.
Whether this is organizing an exhibition, a celebration of learning, or getting experts to come in and critique students work. This could be in the form of a teacher to teacher, teacher to parent, or teacher to an outside expert. An email is a great form of communication, but I always encourage meeting people face to face when possible (an area I am currently growing in!). This not only establishes the relationship but also gets them excited about the project you would like them to be involved in. Start small. Tap into one content or curricular area, and ask the students how they want to share their learning with the outside community. Hopefully, the work that they are creating requires that. There is a deep change that can happen in a child when they see themselves create something that they didn’t think they can do. Especially, when it is for an audience greater than the teacher.
Are your students already sharing their learning? Do you have advice for other teachers getting started? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on social media using #ShareYourLearning and #iShare. Also, be sure to commit to making student learning public by signing the pledge on www.shareyourlearning.org.
For more, see:
- 8 Reasons Why Students Should Share Their Learning
- How a Community Organization is Helping Students Find and Share Their Voice
- Empowering Students Through Sharing
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