Monday, May 21, 2018

Giving Students the "Keys" to Engage

Many adults falsely assume that the current generation of students is lacking any sort of work ethic, loyalty, or desire for learning independence. Some mistakenly stereotype an entire generation of students as full of apathy and an inability to think critically or engage with a world outside of social media. What many fail to see is that we are educating a generation of individuals who may have more intrinsic motivation than we realize. The challenge we face is not how to teach students these qualities but to find ways to bring them out in our students and give them opportunities to apply the necessary thinking to content as they learn to grow and develop the skills we desire to see.

In her 2011 BarnardCollege commencement address, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, encouraged graduates to, “…find something that stirs your passion, a job that matters to you and matters to others. It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It's also a very clear path to happiness.” The students we work with each and every day have a real desire to do just that. A 2017Harvard Business Review article quoted one student as saying, I would rather make nothing and love going to work every day than make a ton of money and hate going to work every day.” This mentality seems more common among current students and when classroom teachers create purposeful opportunities for those students to help guide them through curriculum, we allow for true “student-driven” instruction that puts the learner behind the wheel and dials into passions, in turn, fueling that intrinsic motivation for learning. Many times, observing the work of academy students at Northwest ISD is the ultimate example of student-driven instruction and is an incredible opportunity for students to spark passions and develop innovative ideas that they are encouraged to pursue as part of academic course work.

In his first year at Eaton High School, Canaan, a Business Management and Entrepreneurship Academy student, was brainstorming for a Junior Achievement Company idea and had a desire to do something that had a “real effect on the world” or solved a real-world problem. He also happened to read an article about human sugar intake and how it was linked to diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. As Canaan continued his research, he watched a documentary on the topic, which spurred him to begin tracking his own sugar intake for about a week. He started tracking it on paper and saw that his own sugar intake far exceeded the amount recommended. His research supported that this was not uncommon and Canaan's very startling discovery prompted him to think about how important is was for people to understand and be aware of this issue. Through his research and continued tracking, Canaan’s interest in this area grew and he wondered if there was an easier way for people to track their own sugar intake. He found few apps and tools online to help and even researched some of the major personal health trackers. While looking at some of the more widely used digital trackers, he found that their primary function was to count calories and fat and that most of them grossly underestimated grams of sugar in foods he consumed. Canaan knew there must be a way to create something to meet this increasing need and started looking for courses at school that would help him pursue this new found interest.

Canaan eventually signed up for William Gilbert’s web applications course where he could acquire basic knowledge for coding and building apps on his own. Mr. Gilbert recalled Canaan approaching him about one of the course assignments and asking to incorporate his ideas for sugar tracking. Mr. Gilbert said that “He changed the assignment when he came to me about his research and asked me to allow him to do something different and more complicated.” Gilbert allowed Canaan the opportunity to pursue his area of interest and Canaan turned it into Bloom, an app for sugar intake tracking

Canaan has since continued to update and work on his app and has an entire notebook, or journal, for ideas he plans to incorporate. He did say that he was a bit disappointed that there were only so many courses he could fit into his schedule to advance his desire to code and develop apps. However, Canaan continues to record suggestions from classmates and gathers outside feedback to help him continue developing ideas for evolving his app. He plans to develop this web based application that can also be accessed from a computer or a smart phone and wants to incorporate a variety of convenient features in the future to help with more accurate tracking of sugar intake.

Without the opportunity provided in our BME academy to creatively think about societal needs and possible business ventures and without the willingness of Mr. Gilbert to hand over the “keys” to learning to his students, Canaan’s idea would not have come to fruition. It’s his personal drive to make a difference and the willingness of Canaan's teachers to facilitate and open up this opportunity that drove Canaan to conceptualize his "passion project" while also learning useful and relevant academic skills.

Mr. Gilbert’s web applications course also allowed three other innovative students an opportunity to develop tools that not only met a course requirement, but also addressed a need in the Eaton UIL community. Nate and two of his peers, Devon and Nate, are part of the Eaton UIL computer science team. While at competitions, they noticed that results were usually printed on a single 8½ x 11 sheet of paper and posted on a wall in the school cafeteria for a bunch of students to crowd around and try to decipher. They felt that this method of sharing competition results was much “more difficult than it should be” and they worked together to develop an app that works with current University InterscholasticLeague (UIL) event tabulation procedures for electronically communicating competition results

The app was deployed at an Eaton UIL competition last year and worked incredibly well for electronic dissemination of news updates and scores and efficiently communicated rounds and results to all students and coaches. Nate said that he liked how the app “alleviated a disconnect between scorers and competitors.” It worked so well that these students decided to add in speech event tabulation to the app for the 2018 Eaton UIL tournament. The feedback from their endeavor was all positive and noted how well these students served a legitimate need in the school community.

Another group of students who utilize passions and skills acquired through academic course study can be found in Eaton High School’s Book Club, sponsored by the EHS Library Media Center. Crystal and Jasmine are prominent book club members and say they joined book club because they school helped them to acquire a love for reading and they wanted to connect with friends who also loved to read. Jasmine, specifically, appreciated that Mrs. Sarah Thomasson took an interest in her, as a new student who was previously home-schooled, and showed her that she could reach out to others in the group by joining book club and getting involved with the YouTube channel, called "ISBN Thinking," produced by its members.

The channel was started after members students, who had an interest in other online book reviews, realized that they had all the skills and resources necessary to produce something similar, and according to Crystal, “We knew we could do it better.” The students worked with Mrs. Thomasson to utilize library resources for recording of online book talks and originally used a back room in the EHS library for producing and editing of their videos, which they learned to do with the knowledge gained in several of their classes and with the help of Mrs. Thomasson. The EHS Book Club meets during lunch shifts or Eagle Time to film and they have produced video reviews of books available through the Eaton High School Library. These students also make an effort to cover all of the North Texas “Battle of the Books” texts and involve all twenty-two members of book club in reviewing books and filming talks.

The group is currently not posting new videos because they are in need of a new location for filming and hope to find a suitable and accessible location at EHS very soon as they have plans to increase filming on a more regular basis and to organize the group with a set schedule and structure that they believe will provide added online and library traffic. These students love being able to share their own passions for reading, critical analysis, and video production through this very relevant educational outlet that is meant to strike a love for reading in other EHS students.

Obviously, there are an innumerable amount of opportunities for students at NISD to find and pursue individual passions through academic study. Allowing students to take control of those opportunities and push themselves forward are what will empower and motivate them to positively engage with and change their community. These students are part of a generation described by many adjectives but apathetic, disengaged, and lazy should not be part of them. This generation is motivated to go above and beyond in pursuit of things that are important to improving the world around them if educators will only help them to engage in content in ways that interest them. With an amazing wealth of tools to help students access those opportunities and fuel the desire to do more than consume technology and resources they can create in ways that will permanently benefit the world.

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