Using Mindfulness to Prevent Teacher Burnout
If you are a teacher you know the meaning of burnout. It happens to all of us. For some, stress and anxiety ebb and flow based on the demands of the job at the time. For others, stress becomes a normal part of life. That is what happened to me.
Five years into my teaching career I was confronted with an unexpected health issue. I met with a variety of doctors who all said the same thing: Get your stress under control. Stress was not only impacting my mental health, but was taking a toll on my body as well. One of my doctors suggested that I see an acupuncturist. The acupuncturist always took my heart rate before starting. One day she asked if I had a tough day. I told her that I hadn't, that it was a fairly standard day. She told me she asked because my heart rate was very high. That was eye opening for me. I couldn't even recognize when I was stressed because that's how I felt ALL THE TIME.
I took the advice of my doctors and sought help. I got a stress therapist. The physical health issue was ironed out for the time being, but the stress issue as a whole was not resolved long-term. The efforts that I took to maintain a low-stress lifestyle were not sustainable. I couldn't see a stress therapist forever. I didn't, and still don't, have the tools to manage my stress long term.
A few months ago I connected with the lovely, intelligent, and fiercely passionate, Nikisha Patton Handy through LinkedIn. Her profile struck me because of my own history with stress. She was an educator that was burned out of the industry. She stepped away to take some time to be with her family. She has since discovered mindfulness and has used that discovery to serve other teachers that are having similar experiences. Her story, which she tells here, is powerful because it is so relatable. I wish I had met her 5 years ago. Check out her story below as well as some resources for self-care.
Nikisha Patton Handy began teaching in 2005 as a special education teacher, and continued to work in education until 2016. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, a Master's degree in Special Education specializing in Behavioral Interventions, and is currently working to complete a Doctorate degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Nikisha has served in the capacity of educator, tutor, department chair, interventionist, and interventionist coordinator during her career. Nikisha has since become the proud business owner of 2 Inspire Peace, which seeks to inspire peace in those that pour into children. 2 Inspire Peace offers stress relief and healing by way of mindful meditation, offering retreats, professional development opportunities, aromatherapy and de-escalation products, and life changing events for educators, mentors, and caregivers.
Every burned out teacher has their story. Mine is one of passion, hope, overachieving, and high expectations. Let me begin by saying that since 2005, I have been a special education teacher. The first hurdle I encountered was the fact that many of the other teachers, administrators, and staff never quite understood what I did as an educator. There is quite a discrepancy between what special education teachers are responsible for in comparison to general educators. When other teachers and administrators see what you are doing, many either feel sympathy or lack understanding and judge what you do as subpar in comparison to other educators because of a lack of knowledge, empathy, and experience.
The last year that I agreed to be a teacher of record, the year began with me sitting in a before-school professional development session as the principal presented the assessment data from the previous year. This particular year included a monetary incentive if percentages of passing the state exam were achieved.
I found myself staring at a screen with bar graphs illustrating the performance of students that took a modified test. There were several misconceptions built into just showing the chart without explanation. The first misconception was that all students that took these tests were in my class. The second misconception was that these students failed the assessment without making significant growth from the prior year to the year on the graph in front of me. The ultimate misconception was that none of us earned the monetary incentive because of my students.
I knew about all of the struggles, the meetings, the number of students that had shown grade levels of growth in one single year, and even the relationships with families that had been restored during the process. But as this screen was displayed for all of the other teachers to glare at, I felt a sense of apathy, and in that moment, I was determined to do more to prove to my peers and myself that I was an excellent teacher.
This is what many of us do as educators: push ourselves more even though many of us aren't given the support, resources, funding, or time needed to work the miracles expected for the students we serve. From there, for me, as my family grew, as I left special education and switched to becoming an interventionist to prevent future false positives in special education, as I worked harder to make an impact, I was slowly losing myself and had no idea that I was burning out. I had created a new normal of toxicity, of complaining, of saying "yes" and agreeing to do more work than was possible for me to complete, of taking work home and losing more significant time and memories with my family.
With everyday that went by, I hit snooze more, woke and got out of the bed later, arrived at work later, and promised myself to do less as I was assigned more. How did I get here? I now realize that what I lacked was something I never knew existed, so I didn't know that I needed it. What was that? Mindfulness. Simply being aware of the present moment, having self-awareness and the ability to regulate my emotions and behaviors, or even recognizing that I was leaving the majority of my life either in fear of my future or suffering from the past.
The only times that I truly felt present were the moments that I spent with my students. Once I left the classroom, I didn't have as much access to students. I was working more closely with teachers and staff in a supposed "elevated position". It was at that time that I began to lose my passion for the educational industry as a whole.
There are many teacher training programs for those that aspire to change the world by pouring into our younger generations, but where are the classes within these programs that teach balance, mindfulness, and the skills to live in a way that promotes resilience in such a demanding industry? The new norm is that teachers graduate from their programs, enter the industry, many without a mentor, and simply get better with time. But what happens to these educators as people, as family members, as friends, who who are just trying to balance their lives with their newfound career?
Many unfortunately burn out within 2 to 5 years of entering into the industry. Therefore, our industry is flooded with new educators, many of which go without mentors, support, or any idea of how to sustain themselves without losing their family, their friends, and sometimes awareness of their own mental health.
I chose my family after 12 years of dedication to education, and that's when I found mindfulness. I had a two-year-old at home and a husband that I felt I had emotionally abandoned and needed to take care of. My journey began with long moments of contemplation of how I had arrived to a place where I was consuming medication to control depression amd and anxiety. I needed a deeper connection with myself to truly find my purpose, not necessarily my next career move. I needed to find peace! I was beginning to see the same signs of unhappiness and anxiety in my daughter. A separation had been created between me and my spouse. I immediately recognized the need to simply reset.
Mindfulness for me began with finding what allowed me to feel at peace. Was it the sun beaming on my face? Was it my time using guided meditations to center, balance, and positively affirm myself? I began playing uplifting music, cleaning and decluttering my space, and journaling my feelings and insights. I found that certain scents such as lavender and lemongrass lifted my spirits, and so I took an interest in essential oils and aromatherapy. Moment by moment and day by day with these practices in place, I began to develop a sense of gratitude for having access to all of the things around me that made me feel uplifted. I found that deep breathing had the power to reverse an oncoming anxiety attack. The same breath could calm me even in my most furious moments.
Mindfulness is different for everyone. What may appeal to one may deter another. Whatever you have to do to stay in the moment and keep your thoughts positive is the definition of mindfulness to me. What we consume and accept as our reality flourishes. It can start with you choosing to grow rather than stay stagnant, choosing to be happy rather than feeling fine, choosing to live your best life everyday instead of taking it a day at a time. Mindfulness is a second by second, minute by minute choice that has totally changed and rearranged my existence in a way that I cannot explain. What mindful practice will you commit to in order to adopt a lifestyle that allows you to balance and stabilize, thereby allowing you to offer patience and compassion for yourself and those around you? #positivevibesonly
Written by Nikisha Patton Handy
Attention needs to be paid to the sources of teacher burnout, there's no question. And no one is arguing that here. Continue to use your voice and advocate for systems that prevent stress and burnout. I wasn't burned out of the industry because I had support from my director and coworkers. That is not uniform across the board, however. Teachers battle lack of support in many districts. Until all of the issues with education magically disappear, keeping mindful is a good practice. It's a good practice in life. Educators aren't the only ones that feel stress, pressure, anxiety, depression, etc. It's likely a reality of living in the 21st-century. Being mindful of your emotions and actions is an important skill for everyone to have, including our students. It's important for us to model social/emotional intelligence, and mindfulness can be a really effective tool for that.
Thanks for reading! Nikisha hosts her own Youtube station where you can find quick and simple tips for stress reduction and meditation exercises. You can also peruse her website, 2 Inspire Peace, for more resources.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day (not all of it). Our students lead their education through student-directed project-based learning. For details on student-directed PBL, go back to this post. Each student in the example above is working on some component of a student-directed project. One student decides he wants to gather information for his project by reading books on the topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach their authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product to demonstrate learning. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts to utilize for his project. The small group of students watching the live webinar is using this modern technology to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, such as a standard that needs to be met (or not), but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions based on their passions and needs.
The question then is where is the teacher in all of this? If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or providing a structured lesson plan or activity, then what is the teacher even doing there? Teachers wear A LOT of hats. ALL educators know this and experience this, regardless of pedagogy or philosophy. Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, provide input, and even teach students how to direct their own learning. What changes in a student-directed learning environment is your role. You are far from obsolete. You are a facilitator of learning. You guide and support, you challenge, you give feedback.
What does the teacher do in student-directed learning environment?
1. Help students learn how to direct their own learning -
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students -
In order to serve your students effectively in a student-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is very personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical to when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities. The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship building is huge and sometimes you have to work at it.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative -
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great decisions! They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have that blank PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
The picture above shows one of my students learning about history through photography. Getting to know this student I discovered she was interested in photography. She needed history credit so she decided to stage major events in history, take and edit photos, and write a description of the events. She eventually developed an entire gallery of recreated historical events. She CHOSE her final product, a way of demonstrating learning that was of interest to her. I guided her through this process. I was so impressed by her results that I created a guided PBL project around this idea and it's available in my store - History Through Artistic Expression.
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans -
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help them write this plan and modify it as they learn and grow. My personal learning plan template is also included in my PBL Toolkit.
5. Assist students with finding resources -
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl. I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
At the time when the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, a group of my students chose to raise money by having a holiday pie fundraiser. This was their plan for their student-directed community action project that I assigned. Also in my store. I helped them locate resources, in this case, ingredients for pies, by connecting with and arranging deals with local orchards.
6. Provide input and feedback -
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc. I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. In most cases with my students it's a rubric for project-based learning. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community-
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
8. Organize learning activities and sparks -
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible. Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialog about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team building event that I arranged.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners -
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should give structure. It is your job as their instructor to provide the tools they need to direct their own learning. Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
10. Everything else that comes with territory of being a teacher -
You wear a lot of hats regardless of teaching style. The same goes for teachers in student-directed learning environments. You will always have a student or two that are distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with baggage or trauma. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on. With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are reduced because students have choice and autonomy. Their learning experiences are based on interest and real-life.
That was long! Thanks for hearing me out. Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do student-directed learning in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Student Climate Strike
Students from around the world skipped class today to raise awareness and push legislators to make moves on climate change. I was able to pop over to the Minnesota State Capitol Building and watch the students in action. I was drawn by two issues that are important to me; climate change and education. The energy exuded by students and bystanders was contagious. I was both inspired and in awe by this student-led movement.
I wrote a blog post on student activism a while back called "Four Ways Students Can Take Action." The gist of the post is that students can have a voice. Students can make massive waves of change. The four ways that students can take action mentioned in the blog post includes: 1) raising awareness, 2) advocating for legislation, 3) raising money, and 4) giving time. The climate strike is a small piece of a much greater movement, but the strike alone has been wildly successful in raising awareness.
This current climate change movement, initiated and led by students, is gaining global attention. Why? In my opinion, it is because young people are the ones making the demands. And they have that right. Students at the capitol building today spanned every race, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and background. They came from all walks of life, yet were brought together today to work toward a shared goal; to secure their future and the future of those that will come after them. I don't know if the message would be as strong if a bunch of middle-aged folks like myself stomped up the steps of the capitol building waving around posters. Young people not only have the passion and the energy, they also have the tools and skills to spread the word to mass audiences at a rapid rate simply because they are growing up in the 21st-century.
Rondo: Beyond the Pavement
I recently had the opportunity to go back to my school, Jennings, to view a one-time screening of a documentary created by a group of High School for Recording Arts students. The project was entirely student-directed. The film, called Rondo: Beyond the Pavement, is about the Rondo community in St.Paul that was leveled and fragmented to make room for highway 94 decades ago. The hours and hours of research conducted by the students, rifling through thousands of documents, revealed that there were other route options that would have kept the neighborhood of Rondo in tact. They discovered in their research that the displacement of marginalized communities for the sake of development has happened to 1200 neighborhoods across America, leaving community level trauma in their wake.
What these students did was take an issue close to home, close to their community, relevant to the future, and they spread the word. Their film will be shown at six film festivals across the nation this year, possibly more. Their message is to learn from history, from people's stories, and not to sit back while others determine their fate. This student project is another great example of students taking action by raising awareness.
I have a resource in my TpT store called "Community Action Projects", which is a student-led PBL project where students take action on something important to them in the community. It doesn't have to be creating a global movement. It could be as simple as getting a crosswalk put into an area with a lot of pedestrians. The idea is to get kids involved and invested in their communities. To be responsible and educated citizens. It doesn't have to be political and it should not be teacher led. It has to be personal to the student and relevant to their lives.
I used to teach a climate change seminar before I decided to stay home with my own children. I have a lot of climate change resources to put in my store, but need to get them organized. That will take some time. I will probably have to take the summer to get it all on there, but keep an eye out for single resources here and there. It will likely be a mix of inquiry labs, project-based learning, and problem-based learning, and will be scientific in nature.
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
How to Use Google Maps in Project-Based Learning
I am never the most tech savvy person in the room. There is so much out there and it's always evolving. It's tough to know where to start and just when I feel I've gotten it, everything changes. Technology can be intimidating and time-consuming to learn. Time isn't something teachers have sitting around in abundance.
One tech tool that I have been using with my students for years is Google Maps. I used to only touch the surface of this program; to get from point A to Point B. I slowly started discovering that there is a lot more to it. I have really stuck by this program as an educational tool because it is user-friendly. That is a win for those of us that feel a little overwhelmed with technology at times. It's a fantastic learning tool and a great way to showcase student work.
I have used Google Maps as an end product option for many of my class PBL projects. Google Maps can be used for obvious projects such as trip planning, but it can be used in some unexpected ways as well such as storytelling, scrapbooking, and data collection for science experiments.
Benefits of Using Google Maps as a Learning Tool:
1) It's an innovative final product - A lot of projects end with poster boards. One problem with poster boards is that they tend to be cut and paste. There's little engagement depending on ho they're used. Putting information into Google Maps requires a certain degree of inquiry and problem-solving.
2) The final product is shareable - one of the important principles of project-based learning is sharing the information with an authentic audience: relevant and public. You can easily share your Google Map by sharing the link via social media, embedding it in a website or blog, and personally inviting specific people by email to view it.
3) Encourages community collaboration - Another important principle of project-based learning is getting the community involved by utilizing experts in the field and creating a usable final product that is of benefit to the community. Creating a usable map for others to use is ideal. Let's say a student creates a tour on Google Maps. Once the map is published, anyone looking to take a tour in that specific area could use the map as a guide.
4) A tool for developing 21st-century skills - Technology is around. It's a part of life now. For students to be successful in the 21st-century workplace, I personally believe that we need to embrace technology and help our students learn how to navigate it. Google Maps is a great way to effectively utilize technology in the classroom as well as pose the opportunity to practice problem-solving, critical thinking, flexibility, collaboration, communication and so on.
Google Maps Features:
The following features are utilized regularly by my students for PBL projects. There are many more features to Google Maps, but I'm going to stick to the basics right now. Students will learn more elaborate features as they spend time getting to know the program.
1) Create routes and alter them - Students could design a tour for example, and map out their route for the day. If there is an alternative route that they want to take, students can simply move the line that Google Maps created between two destinations to fit their needs.
2) Plan routes by bike, car, and foot - Students can choose their mode of transportation and Google Maps will automatically find the best route. For example, Minneapolis has an elaborate trail system throughout the city. If you choose "bike" as your mode of transportation, Google Maps will lay out the safest and most efficient bike route using the trails whenever possible.
3) Add pins with photos and descriptions - Let's say a student is planning a trip. They can throw down markers/pins to places they want to visit on their trip, and add details to those pins by creating a photo card. Descriptions and photos can be added to every pin.
4) Add layers - Students can add layers to their maps. One reason to use the layers feature would be to add itineraries for multiple days.
5) Measure distance - There is a ruler tool to measure distance between two points. This is helpful for gauging how much time to set aside for commuting, among other things.
6) Add directions - You can choose to add directions between pins if you wish. The directions will show up as a blue line between pins. Viewers can also get step-by-step written directions.
7) Share your final product - Because your map is online, it receives its own unique link once you have published it. That link can be shared on any digital platform. You can also embed a code to your map into any website or blog. Finally, you can invite specific people to view your map and collaborate if you wish. This last part would be helpful for feedback from a teacher, peer, or community expert (an important element of PBL.)
PBL Project Ideas that Utilize Google Maps:
1) Plan a trip around the world - This is a project that my students do every year. They love it. Creating a Google Map is one final product option for their trip plan. This resource is available on my TpT site - "Project-Based Learning: Plan a Trip Around the World".
2) Plan a trip itinerary - Students could create a Google Map outlining their itinerary for a trip. My school is travel-based, so my students have created Google Maps of actual trips that they've taken with the school. You could also assign this project to students as a theoretical trip or even as a family trip, especially if you're homeschooling. Check out these free resources for student-planned trips - Trip Project Proposal and Trip Planning Guide. Refer back to an old blog post on student-led travel for guidance.
3) City scavenger hunt - Students can create a scavenger hunt around the town or city using a Google Map as their guide. Our school is located right in front of the light rail, which connects Mpls and St. Paul. A coworker of mine created a scavenger hunt for students to get better acquainted with public transportation. That is one example and something a student could do.
4) Storytelling or content sharing - A Google Map could be created to demonstrate learning of content knowledge in place of a more standard end product such as a poster board or Powerpoint. For example, if a student is doing a project on art history, they might create a Google Map with the locations of some of the most famous art pieces around the world - Louvre for the Mona Lisa or the Galleria dell' Accademia for the Statue of David, and so on. They would add descriptions or content info that they have gathered through research to their Google Maps photo cards.
5) Map out a story that has already been written - A few of my students did this for the Serial Podcast. The first season is about a murder in a suburb of Baltimore. The setting is critical to the storyline. Several of my students created their own Google Maps of the crime scene and other relevant locations to the case to demonstrate comprehension as well as analyze evidence from the case.
6) Map out your own story - My advisory students tell their own story through Google Maps as a beginning of the year "get-to-know-you" activity. They map out their past such as where they have lived and specific places that have played an important role in their lives. They include in their map where they are today and where they hope to be in the future.
7) Creating a scrapbook of a vacation - I have mentioned creating a Google Map of a trip plan, but a Google Map could also be created as a reflection to a trip already taken. Students can drop pins at the places they visited and add photos and captions describing the experience they had, much like a scrapbook.
8) Use "time travel" to analyze how neighborhoods have evolved - There is a feature of Google Maps called "time travel" that came out in 2014. This feature allows you to look at how things have changed at any given location. Students could analyze neighborhoods to see how they've evolved over time.
9) Use Google Maps to record data - You can drop a pin and add descriptions anywhere on a map. Therefore, students that are conducting experiments outdoors could drop pins and add observations to Google Maps similar to what one would do in a field notebook. For example, I did biodiversity surveys with my bio students in Minnesota and then again when we traveled to Costa Rica. We could drop pins at every location that we surveyed and add our biodiversity count to each pin under the description. Another example is collecting water samples from various wetlands throughout the state. You drop a pin where you are collecting samples and add the results to the description.
10) Be a citizen scientist! There is something called "treks" on Google Maps where you can "off-road". You can see places that you can't see from a typical snapshot such as Angkor Wat or the canals of Venice. Google needs people to get these off road views by taking photos and submitting them to the database. You need to apply to be one of these people. If travel is part of your curriculum, you might want to look into this. This would be a great ongoing project for worldschoolers.
11) Plan a hometown tour - This is my favorite project for using Google Maps because it really excites and engages my students. It is relevant to their lives, it is personal, and they take pride in their final product. The project is for students to create a tour of their own hometown. They create a 2-day itinerary and map it out on Google Maps. The include stops on their tour that are meaningful to them, not the masses. They can then share their map with the public. Click here to get to this resource from my TpT store.
I created my own hometown tour of MPLS using Google Maps. My tour is very personal to me, as it would be for each of your students. It's a great way to provide tours for those that are looking to skip the super touristy stuff and see the town from the perspective of a local. Check out my tour below as an example of a final product using Google Maps. You can move the map around and click on the pins to see my photo cards with descriptions and photos. To go directly to the tour, click here.
Minneapolis Bike Tour Project Example
Check out this tutorial on how to create a tour on Google Maps. Your Students can easily access this "how to" on Youtube. Click here to be redirected to Youtube.
I would LOVE to add student projects to my blog. If any of you use either one of my TpT products mentioned above, OR if you have your own projects for students that use Google Maps, I would love to showcase student work right here. If you use Google Maps in your curriculum in a way that wasn't mentioned in this post, please share in comments. I'd love to hear more ideas!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
Teachers and parents of the 21st-century have a challenge to face and the responsibility to confront that challenge. Technology is a prominent and permanent part of modern society. It is a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to social media and children.
We have all been faced with the need to make important decisions for our children when it comes to technology; at what age to allow them to have their first cell phone, whether to let them use social media as a research or presentation tool in class for school projects, how much time to allow them on social media each day if at all, whether to install child monitoring software to home or school computers.
These are all legitimate decisions to make as parents and educators. We want children to be able to utilize all of the amazing learning tools that technology has to offer, but also want them to be safe. Technology is evolving rapidly. Generation Z is all over it. They know the latest trends the moment they start trending. My four-year-old knows how to use a photo editing app on my phone better than I do.
It is illogical to think that I will always know what my children and students are doing on social media at any given time. Therefore, rather than obsessing over how to control it, Cory A. Jones, author of "Followed", contends that we should embrace it and help students learn how to navigate it. He does so through realistic storytelling. Cory wrote "Followed" as a teaching tool for young people, parents and educators to help navigate the social media scene responsibly and safely.
Cory Alexander is an educator, author, serial dreamer, and entrepreneur. He holds a Bachelor Degree in Deviant Behavior & Social Control from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Masters Degree in Education: School Counseling from Liberty University. Now, Cory is a high school guidance counselor as well as the founder of Harlem Press, LLC. and Rise Career Academy, an on-demand career mentoring program. He is also the author of Followed: Who's Following YOU? A compelling story of a group of typical, modern-day teens navigating their way through social channels and personal emotions.
Using Storytelling to Talk to Kids About Safe and Responsible Social Media Use: Start the Conversation
1. You’ve written a book called “Followed”. What is the premise of the book?
The book's objectives are three-fold: 1) To encourage young people to think before they post, take a moment of pause, and proceed through a set of standards. Post with a purpose. 2) Be aware that their social media expressionism creates a digital footprint, a resume, and paints a picture about them whether they like it or not. 3) Be wary of strangers. Things aren’t always what they seem. There is a staggering amount of fake accounts and people with bad intentions trying to connect for the sole purpose of taking advantage of you.
2. What inspired the book?
Being a guidance counselor I wanted to really help young ladies. Overall, I have a sense of fairness and I don’t like people being bullied and taken advantage of. I’ve experienced girls finding themselves in compromising positions due to poor judgment in sending a nude pic or saying things online that cause massive disagreements, which lead to physical fights and ruined relationships. I also notice the self-esteem issues. I know it’s difficult growing up, finding your way, and trying to navigate friendships and family obligations. Social media adds a level of complexity to an overall complex time in their lives. Those middle and high years are rough on many levels. Helping young people and sharing a story that they can relate to with the hope of encouraging them to pick us some tips from the story is what inspired me to write Followed.
3. As a school counselor, you have likely seen social media risks at play. What can you say about those experiences? Was your plot line or were your characters based on true events?
As a school counselor, my heart has broken more than a few times. I’ve witnessed shame and stress caused by sexting and arguments escalate to physical altercations because of social media comments and post. Embarrassingly, fights are first videoed before anyone considers breaking them up. Still an act that I just can’t get used to. The characters in the book without question share traits with many of my students. The plot, not so much. Some of the behavior in the plot is general to any high school in the world. That’s why the book works. It’s real life and extremely relatable.
4. Your solution has been to teach kids about responsible use of social media through realistic storytelling. What inspired this avenue for educating students?
I’m such a respecter of persons regardless of age. I grew up in a single family household and I had to independently make decisions on my own so often. Because of this, I don’t look down on younger people like their trials and stresses are less than. With that, I wanted to “share” a story on what could happen to them or loved ones if they're not careful on social media, I want to do more than just state facts that they may or may not remember. I’m of the opinion that we learn in story form. Books, movies, and music are very good storytelling vehicles. I’ve read things that have stuck with me because of how it was presented. I’ve learned from movies because of how it was presented and I’ve gotten some of my best advice from observing what happened to someone else.
5. Does the book include resources for teachers and parents such as curriculum or discussion guides?
I so much believe that the advance in society as a collective starts when we dialog amongst each other, so I created end-of-chapter questions that a teacher or parent can use to help kids share what they’ve experienced online. This is best in group settings so that we can share and learn that we’re not alone in dealing with social media anxieties and an unhealthy attachment to tech in general. I recently did a group talk with my students titled, “Social Media & Cell Phone Over-Usage”. It was great how students shared what hurt about social media, what they would like to see changed, and what part they want to play in that change.
6. If you could give parents a tip to help them navigate the world of teens and social media, what would it be?
If I had just one tip I would say talk. Share stories you’ve heard, both good (i.e. someone raised money using social media), and bad (i.e. someone got hurt because…) Create an environment where you share what you’ve learned and ask them about the trends they're noticing. Interestingly enough, when you get kids talking, they really share (probably more than they planned).
7. If you could give teachers one tip to help them navigate social media when it comes to their students, what would it be?
One tip for teachers/educators is to get involved. No longer can we be passive on social media. We need to talk about it, help them navigate their way on it. It’s not going away. We have to embrace it. Our parents had to embrace the change in language and sexuality on T.V. and cable. Their parents had to embrace the change in music, etc. Every generation has challenges and new norms. By embracing social media, we can make effective change and common sense behavior for our students.
For resources and more information on Followed, visit Followedthebook.com
Check out these free chapters: Chapter 7 and Chapter 8
Take a look at these supplemental worksheets.
The book can be found for purchase on Amazon.
If you have read the book "Followed" and want to support the author, vote his book for a 2019 Author Academy Award! Click the link and find the YA category. Good luck, Cory!
What have been your experiences with teens and social media? What works in the classroom? What doesn't? Parents, what works for you and your children? Any resources, tips, suggestions are welcome!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
Several years ago I traveled with some of my high school students to Costa Rica to study tropical biology. The purpose of the trip was to experience biodiversity and a culture different than their own first-hand. I often write about the benefits of educational travel. There are many reasons to incorporate travel into school or homeschool curriculum - enhance worldview, gain content knowledge, build 21st-century skills, make lifelong friends- among other things. Check out 6 Reasons to Start an Educational Travel Program for more.
I have taken dozens of educational trips throughout my teaching career but this trip to Costa Rica stands out among the rest. It exemplifies all of the reasons students should travel. The students were very involved in fundraising and trip planning. They enrolled in my pre-trip biodiversity seminar. Each student completed an independent, student-directed community action project (find this project in my TpT store by clicking on the link) in relation to biodiversity and Costa Rica. Students were immersed in another language and culture. They learned about the people, politics, topography, traditions, history, and of course the biodiversity of Costa Rica. Most importantly, this trip changed their lives. It will be an experience they will never forget because of just that. They experienced it. They weren't just reading the travel guide. They were in it.
During the trip one of the student travelers and I kept a blog on the experience. Each evening one or the other of us would come back to our hotel and write about the day. I wrote some posts and she wrote others. I took that blog we kept on our Costa Rica trip from five years ago and placed it below in hopes that you can be inspired to incorporate travel into whatever learning environment you're a part of. Happy travels!
High School Biology Trip: Costa Rica
The Time Has Arrived!
After two years of planning the day has finally arrived! A group of Jennings CS students will be heading out to Costa Rica to study tropical biology and environmental science on November 17, 2014. The idea to travel to Costa Rica came into fruition in 2012 by one of our students, but at the time was just a dream. We knew there would be challenges to traveling abroad such as getting passports and travel vaccinations, but the student overcame each obstacle. For example, she posted a "project" on Donors Choose asking for donations for passports and travel vaccinations. Within a week $800 was donated toward this project by complete strangers nationwide. Our Costa Rica travelers just purchased their very first passports a few weeks ago thanks to the generous donations. All is falling into place.
Pre-Trip Learning Activities and Preparation
- All students will be taking a biodiversity/environmental science course before the trip.
- All students will be working on one group PBL project throughout the course of the next couple of months. They will be conducting biodiversity surveys/counts in various habitats of MN and then again in Costa Rica.
- Spanish lessons
- Student-directed biology PBL projects
- Student-directed culture and history PBL projects
- Student-directed community action projects
Examples of student community action projects for this trip:
1) Primate protection petition - one of the students discovered that monkeys and other arboreal species are getting electrocuted by telephone wires while trying to get from place to place.
2) Sea turtle protection education brochure - one of our students researched how tourists can help protect sea turtles. She put together a brochure and placed her brochure in hotels around the country.
3) Trash to treasure - a couple of the students took plastic bags, CD's and other trash items and turned them into art pieces. This trash would otherwise make its way to the ocean threatening marine life.
Day 1 - WE MADE IT!
We left for the Minneapolis airport at 10:00 pm last night. It is now 7 pm the next day and we just arrived at our hotel. On the drive from the airport to Arenal Volcano we spotted a large iguana, blue jean dart frogs and tucans. We also passed through a cloud forest, stopped to check out a coffee bean farm, and ate authentic Costa Rican rice and beans for lunch. We are exhausted, so this will be a short post. But we are excited! Tomorrow will be a long day of exploring the Arenal National Park.
Below is a picture of Arenal (are-en-all) Volcano from the deck of our room. Arenal is one of 7 active volcanoes in Costa Rica. It last erupted in 2009, but was relatively harmless. The last serious eruption was 1968. Tomorrow we will be hiking the base of this volcano. Stay tuned!
Day 2 - Arenal National Park
We all went to bed last night by 8 pm from sheer exhaustion. We awoke at 6 am to the view of Arenal Volcano in the pic above. Apparently there is rarely a lucid view of the volcano. There is usually overcast covering the cone, so we were lucky (so we were told).
Today we hopped a bus and traveled to the rainforest to check out the canopy from hanging bridges. It was a three hour hike. We saw vipers, cutter ants, a sloth, a tarantula, parrots, a Montazuma pendulum bird (so cool), howler monkeys and their young, and on top of that the most diverse array of plant life I had ever seen, all from the perspective of an arboreal (tree) animal, since we were up in the canopy. We were able to see organisms that we would have had a tough time seeing from the ground.
We decided on Costa Rica because it is the biodiversity capital of the world. It hosts 5% of the world's biodiversity (variety of species) yet is only .03% of the world's land mass. Before we left for Costa Rica, our biodiversity class went to Fort Snelling State Park to do biodiversity sampling. In 100 square feet we recorded 5-10 species on average. In Costa Rica we did a similar activity. There were too many species to count. Many of the species are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Costa Rica. That is why the biodiversity needs to be protected. Costa Rica is one of the international leaders in land protection, since they became dangerously close to losing it all.
Day 3 - Adventure Day
I told the girls that they could plan one tour that is more adventure than education. They chose a ziplining/white water rafting tour. The students were nervous about ziplining at first. They got used to it after the first couple of cables. A couple of the girls were afraid of heights, so doing this was an incredible challenge and accomplishment for them. From there we went white water rafting on the Rio Balsa. We weren't the greatest paddlers at first, but about 15 minutes in we were doing well. We practiced communication skills and teamwork. After the tours we went to eat lunch with a group at a traditional Costa Rican spot. We ate rice and beans, fried plantain, beef, potatoes and topped it off with homemade Costa Rican fudge and coffee. They use a special strainer to make the coffee to get the most flavor possible. They demonstrated the process and the coffee was amazing.
Tomorrow we will be packing up and leaving Arenal to head to the coast. Mostly driving, but tomorrow evening we should be checking out the "arribada", arrival of nesting sea turtles to the beach in the thousands. Conditions have to be just right though, so cross your fingers.
Day 4 - Which Way to the Beach
Today we woke up, ate a quick breakfast of fresh Costa Rican fruit, beans and rice, and French toast. We packed up all of our things and hit the road, heading to the Pacific Coastal region of Guanacaste. Costa Rica is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. We went to the Pacific today. The students slept for most of the drive, but had a pleasant visit with seven howler monkeys on the way. Costa Rica has four monkey species including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and white-faced capuchins. We have seen howlers and spider monkeys and hope to see capuchins in the next couple of days.
The drive was 5 hours, which was a bit taxing, but there is no way around that in Costa Rica. There is not an established highway system in Costa Rica. It's hard to find straight roads because of all of the volcanoes. There are over 100 volcanoes in Costa Rica.
The girls were pleasantly surprised by our hotel. The picture below is the view from our deck. Unfortunately the minute we arrived it started storming. We got some bad news today. We will not be able to observe the "arribada" or arrival of nesting sea turtles because of torrential rain. We are pretty heartbroken. But tomorrow we will be going to visit the old Mayan town, Guaitil, to see them make traditional, hand-made pottery.
Day 5 - Guaitil Pottery and Palo Verde River Tour
Today we drove to Palo Verde where we did a river tour. We saw capuchin monkeys, iguanas (currently mating season, so the males turn from green to orange at this time), howler monkeys, crocodiles, and hundreds of different migratory bird species. Many of these birds were likely in the Midwest a few months ago, like great blue herons for example.
After Palo Verde we drove to a small Mayan town called Guaitil, where the Choretega people make pottery the same way they did hundreds of years ago. These are the native people of Costa Rica. It was an amazing experience to watch them make the pieces. So much time and meticulous detail goes into each pot.
Each pot is made on a small, manual pottery wheel. Not electric, no foot pedal, they just use their hands to spin it. The first phase is making the pot on the wheel with clay. They use sharpened rocks to cut the clay and leaves to smooth out the clay on the wheel. Once the desired shape is achieved, they leave it out in the sun to dry. Then they polish the piece with a stone. Next, a layer of white paint is put on it. It dries, and they polish it with stone again. Then a layer of black paint, thet let it dry, then polish it again. Then they take what looks like a crayon, and draws designs on the pot. All of the symbols they use represent something. Monkeys symbolize luck, butterflies symbolize beauty, and so on. From there they polish the piece one more time with a stone, and let the pot bake in the sun for 4-5 days. Finally they put the piece in a homemade oven to bake. It sounds like a challenging process, but the natives make it look easy!
Day 6 - Sibu Sanctuary
Today was an incredibly educational and emotional day. Two years ago, I dreamed up this trip. I wanted to work with monkeys in some form or another in the future, and learned that Costa Rica is a great place to study them. We found a place on the Guanacaste coast called Sibu Sanctuary, a large, protected, dry tropical rainforest. This 50 acres of land was bought by a couple of North Carolinians in 2009. On the property they built a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured arboreal (tree) species like monkeys, particularly howler and capuchin monkeys that are treated, cared for and eventually released back into the wild. Today we got to visit this sanctuary and get a behind the scenes glimpse of the ins and outs of such an operation.
When we arrived to the center we met Vicki. She explained to us the purpose for the center. Costa Rica is a conservation conscious country. They believe in conserving resources. For example, we learned from Vicki that 93% of Costa Rica's energy comes from renewable resources like wind and solar. They have also protected 25% of the land from destruction and fragmentation. This sanctuary was established specifically to rehabilitate monkeys that have been electrocuted by electric lines. The sanctuary took in 200 monkeys last year alone with horrific injuries that often times resulted in amputations or death. Mothers are often electrocuted with infants in tote, leaving the infants orphaned.
It is currently illegal for electric companies to run uninsulated wires through jungles, but unfortunately it still happens due to lack of enforcement. It is not possible to insulate existing wires. It is possible to put up new lines that are insulated and/or bury them, but both are costly. One thing that goes a long way is making sure those branches that hang over the lines are kept trimmed back to prevent the monkeys from trying to use the lines to get through fragmented forest. Boots to shield the transformers are also helpful. Education is the best way to make change. This experience in addition to some research I did before taking this trip inspired my community action project. Find the video titled "Baby Monkeys of Costa Rica" on YouTube to get a better idea of what goes on inside the sanctuary.
Day 7 - Last Day
Today we went kayaking and snorkeling in the coral reef. It was everyone's first time kayaking and most of their first times snorkeling. About half of the students had never even seen the ocean let alone swam in it. We saw a tiger snake, eels, a blowfish, sea urchins, crabs, an octopus and more. The students got to see some of the adaptations at work that have evolved in these animals to help them survive and reproduce, which they learned about in our evolution seminar earlier this year.
Educational Travel Resources
If this looks good to you, feel free to reach out anytime. I'd love to help you get your students traveling whether it be through a high school travel program, a homeschooling experience, or simply a family trip. There is an enormous amount of learning potential for young travelers regardless of how they get to their destination, especially in the planning process. I have many student travel resources available in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, most of which are free. Please check them out and let me know if you have any questions.
I also have many more blog posts on student travel right here on this blog. Just click on the category titled "Student-Travel".
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I recently posted part 1 of my student-directed learning series, which broke down the meaning of student-directed learning: What is Student Directed Learning Anyway? Now that you know what student-directed learning means, what do you do with that? What does a student-directed learning environment even look like? Where should you start?
Whatever learning space you are working with, it must nurture student choice. That's the bottom line. If at this point you know nothing about student-directed learning, just know that student choice is mandatory. Students direct their learning through a series of choices from learning objectives to designing their own assessments. The role of the teacher changes to facilitator.
It may be tricky to even imagine what that might look like. What does the "facilitator" do? Sounds like the kids are teaching themselves. In some respects they are, and I'd argue that that's essential in raising lifelong learners. My next post will be on the role of the teacher in a student-directed learning environment. For now, I'm going to share with you the first and most important steps to take to shift from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom.
4 Steps to a Student-Directed Learning Environment
1. Modify Your Learning Space to Allow for Student-Choice:
Shifting the layout of your room can make a dramatic impact on the success of student-directed learning in your classroom. The foundation of student-directed learning is choice, so a variety of micro-spaces should be available for students to utilize. The room should accommodate for creating, group cooperation and collaboration, technology, movement, a quiet and peaceful area for reading or independent work. Student-directed learning means that students use their unique learning styles, skills, and interests to guide their educational journey. At any given time students may be working on something different than their peers. It would make little sense to have a room with 30 forward facing desks in that case. That layout screams lecture. Student-directed learning is the opposite of lecture-based instruction.
My Learning Space:
- A large round table in the center of my room for whole-group collaboration. This is a great space to gather for class discussion, meetings, group projects, and presentations.
- Workstations line the perimeter of my classroom. My workstations are desks, each with a desktop computer. We recently started transitioning away from desktop computers and are moving toward Chromebooks for each student. These workstations are great for independent projects and cooperative learning.
- Next door is a workshop or makerspace. That room is free for students to use during independent work time. There is usually a teacher in that room to assist and I can also see into the workshop from my classroom. A creative workspace is essential.
- I have a quiet corner set aside for those that want to work quietly and independently. It has a large shelf filled with books, art materials, a large cozy chair, and pillows. It's a good space for reading and relaxing. Yes. I let my high-schoolers rest when they
Student-Directed Learning Design Projects:
Many of the design aspects of my classroom were achieved through student-directed projects. A small group of students painted each panel of my ceiling. Another student designed and painted my large group table. Students built their own desks. Our reading corner was designed by a student using Google Sketchup. The small square table was an old piece of literal garbage that a student stripped and refinished. If this is something that interests you, check out my PBL Maker Challenge project - Upcycled Lounge Area.
2. Move Beyond the Walls of the Classroom:
Utilize the Community to Your Advantage:
Some of the most profound learning experiences happen outside of the classroom. A large chunk of our student learning activities take place outside of the room whether that be on a school trip across the globe, in the park near our school, or even right outside my classroom door in the commons area. For students to be successful at directing their own learning experiences they need input that is relevant to the real-world. Sparks incite interest and provide exposure to new ideas. Community collaboration, locally or globally, is essential. Using the world as the classroom brings student-directed learning to another level. If you can't leave your classroom, bring the community to you.
Using the World as the Classroom:
In the Community:
- Field trips (history centers, science labs, local businesses, community events, etc.
- School travel
- Mentorship program
- Service learning projects
- Community experts (independent PBL projects, maker projects, assessment panel, speakers)
On School Grounds:
- Live webinars with global experts
- Video conference with community experts
- School yard activities
- Bring experts to you - students can and should arrange for many these meetings in a student-directed learning environment, especially when the expert is unique to one student's project. . You guide and offer suggestions when needed. You could also invite guests from the community that offer exposure to a new topic or are relevant to an overarching theme or standard.
- Get creative with your space - ex: using the commons area for physics experiments.
- Attempt to implement an open-door policy - I know this sounds radical, but what I mean by this is allowing students access to makerspaces, tech rooms, the library, a music room, a quiet conference room. The logistics of this will depend on your situation. Do some brainstorming and find a system that works.
3. Organize Student-Directed Learning Activities:
Implementing student-directed learning activities seems pretty obvious, but what is a student-directed learning activity? Again, student-directed learning involves choice, so the activity needs to provide students with flexibility and the freedom to lead the experience. Project-based learning is a great way to do that. PBL doesn't have to be student-directed, however, which I really just recently discovered.
As a quick reminder, project-based learning is the active exploration of a particular topic where students are fully engaged with the community. Students demonstrate learning with an innovative final product, and share their outcome with a public, authentic audience. For more on PBL see previous posts - What is Project-Based Learning Anyway? and Key Components of Project-Based Learning. All of that in theory could be arranged by the instructor with little to no choice or input from students. However, as a project-based learning teacher who also taught at an experiential high school for 9 years, I can tell you that project-based learning is the perfect canvas for student-directed learning. It's just a matter of proper execution. I have a PBL bundle in my store that gradually transitions students (and teachers) from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom using project-based learning. If you're unsure how to make this transition, this may be a great place to start - Project-Based Learning Bundle: 20 Integrative Projects.
Other Activities with Student-Directed Learning Potential:
- Passion Projects
- Genius Hour (although I would argue you do this all of the time instead of for an hour!)
- Learning committees or clubs run by students
- Maker projects
Again, any activity has promise to be student-directed, you just need to let students do the directing!
4. Shift Your Role:
Teacher's Role in Teacher-Directed Learning Environment:
Obviously the activity going on in your classroom at any given time would look very different in a student-directed learning environment than a teacher-centered one. Imagine observing a teacher-directed classroom. What would that look like? You'd likely find students sitting in their desks with pen in hand jotting down notes while the teacher lectures from the front of the room. The teacher may walk the room a bit, reminding students with eye-contact and body language to pay-attention. You may walk into the classroom one day to find students working together on a hands-on activity, but upon closer inspection discover that they are following a prescribed recipe.
Teacher's Role in a Student-Directed Learning Environment:
Now imagine walking into a student-directed classroom. There isn't a typical "scene". There is always activity, but students are pouring into every corner of the room engaged in a different enterprise than their neighbor. One student might be working in the makerspace on their final product. There might be a pair of students in another corner of the room deeply absorbed in a brainstorming session. Another student may be at their desk engrossed in a phone interview with a community expert. And let's be honest. There will of course be the kid who is wandering around looking for someone to banter with, or the kid sleeping in the reading chair. Even student-directed learning classrooms have their challenges. But that's for another day.
Now, where is the teacher in all of this? The role of the teacher changes to facilitator. The teacher is guiding and assisting. You may find the teacher sitting with the pair of students brainstorming, asking questions that challenge their thinking. You may find the teacher in discussion with the student who will be giving the interview. The teacher may be proofing the interview questions or offering suggestions before giving the student the go ahead to make the call. The teacher may be redirecting the wanderer. The teacher works the room offering assistance and inspiration.
What Role do you Play?
My guess is that most of us are probably trying to find a balance between the two roles, especially if you're a high school teacher. There are limitations, rules, time constraints, the pressures of testing. Sometimes whole group instruction is necessary. Full disclosure: sometimes I lecture. I keep it as brief as possible and it's always in connection with student-directed projects. If you find yourself lecturing most of the time, I get it. I have been this teacher. What I do know though, is that if you want your students to be truly engaged, to practice deeper thinking, to have a passion for learning, the internal motivation to thrive and improve, then a great start is shifting your role to allow for more student-directed learning.
How to Start the Shift:
Start small. You don't need to flip your classroom upside-down in one day. If you decide to start doing student-directed project-based learning for example, start by taking one concept that you'd typically teach through lecture, such as climate drivers, and replace it with a PBL project. Once you're comfortable with that, try another one, until you've replaced lecture-based instruction (for the most part.) My PBL bundle and manual that I mentioned above starts with more teacher-centered projects and gradually moves to projects that are entirely student-directed. Play around with your options and ultimately do what feels right and is working well for your students.
I am a huge advocate (clearly) for student-directed learning. I love to talk about it. If you have any questions, need advice, or even want to challenge me, I invite it! Please reach out. Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
For much of January and some of February I have have slowed down on blogging, not because I haven't wanted to write but because I've been tied up in family travel. As most of you know we traveled to Denmark in January and right now we are in Florida visiting my parents. I am exhausted and so are the kids, but I don't regret any of it. There are learning experiences that can only be had from removing oneself from from the comforts of their everyday living and learning environments.
When I was teaching I was heavily involved in the school's travel program. There are few schools that have travel programs. Mine just happened to be one of them. The school's founder and director recognize the connection between travel and learning. Learning comes organically when traveling, especially when traveling with a group that shares the same purpose and goals. Our school travel program is an example of that. Our travelers bond over a profound shared experience.
I understand that our school travel program is a rare thing in public education. There are a couple things you can do if you do not have a school travel program at your school. Teachers, students, and parents can be proactive. Below I have listed a few ways students can travel if traveling through school isn't currently an option. I split them up into different roles for the sake of organization, but encourage combining your efforts.
8 Ways To Get High School Students Traveling
1. Start a Travel Program at Your School -
Go back to a previous blog post that I wrote on the Top 6 Reasons You Should Start a School Travel Program, put together a proposal that highlights the value of travel, and present it to the school board. Teachers, students, and parents can do this together. Creating a committee of teachers, parents and students would make the greatest impact. Strength in numbers!
2. Start a Travel Club -
If you can't have a full blown travel program at your school that provides traveling experiences to all then start a travel club. You can get it started by organizing and ironing out logistics, and students can take over from there. It would be like any other club, such as prom committee. They would organize fundraisers, plan travel opportunities, and recruit chaperones including teachers, parents, and community members.
3. Provide Support and Travel Resources -
If a school travel program just isn't realistic at your school, provide resources and encouragement to students that could really benefit from a travel experience. We had a student who wanted to study abroad in Japan her senior year. She worked with her school advisor to get there, as our school didn't have it's own exchange program with Japan. The student did most of the work, including the fundraising, but the support and assistance of her advisor was critical. The student did study in Japan her entire senior year, went off to college, studied abroad in Japan again, and ended up getting a degree in organizational development. This experience significantly changed this student's life and continues to play a role in her life. Her advisor recognized that and did everything she could to make it happen.
Students and Parents:
It's tough being a parent, as we want to provide as many experiences for our children as we can, but traveling isn't cheap. Many of us don't have the means to make it happen for our children. The reason I was able to bring my own children to Denmark is because it was paid for by my husband's company. If student travel is a priority, I would start by checking for schools in your community that have a travel program. If that doesn't exist or if that isn't an option, there are a variety of other ways to travel cheaply, especially when it is with a volunteer or educational organization.
Keep in mind, some of these options may not sound exciting. Just because it's not an adventure trip to Brazil or a food tasting experience in Paris doesn't mean it's not valuable. A simple two night camping trip a couple hours drive from home could be a profound life-altering experience.
1. Camp Counselor -
Students, consider applying for a job as a camp counselor at a summer camp. It could be nearby, or if you have a way of getting there, consider applying a little further from home. The great thing about this experience is that it's free and it's paid. Save that money for a grander travel experience such as that trip to Paris. Another plus is that it's organized. It's a great place to start teen travelers. Working at a camp is a great way to make lifelong friendships and memories.
2. WWOOF -
This stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. There are organic farms around the world that register for this program. Travelers can choose a farm from a catalogue to visit. You can stay at the farm in exchange for labor. You volunteer your time and they let you stay for free. Usually they provide much more such as fresh food from their farm, excursions after work hours, and more. I have taken students on WWOOF experiences, one to a chicken farm in Colorado and another to a maple syrup/hobby farm in St. Croix, Wisconsin. Both hosts took us on hikes, gave us lessons on farming, taught us how to can and cook using farm ingredients. The chicken farm was off the grid in the mountains of Colorado, so my students learned a lot about sustainable living and renewable energy. Students may have to raise money for airfare, and maybe food, but the rest is free. If they can't afford airfare, there are certainly WWOOF farms within driving distance. Parents: if this experience isn't with school, which it likely won't be, I highly recommend WWOOFing with your child. Background checks are not mandatory. Reputation is strictly based on reviews.
3. Conservation Corps -
There are Conservation Corps' scattered across the United States. There are several opportunities for student work within the organization, but their Summer Youth Corps program offers travel. Students travel around the state working and camping in state parks as they go. Students earn a small weekly stipend. The groups are small so they build deep and meaningful friendships with people from various walks of life. They work in dirt and learn the value of our natural world. I have several friends and students that have participated in this summer program. I highly recommend it. For students 18-25, consider applying for counselor positions.
4. Community Organized Travel -
Many of you are connected to a church, are in boy or girl scouts, or are active in the community ed system. A lot of these community organizations or clubs offer travel opportunities. Most of these will require fundraising on your part. My parents insisted that I go on trip with our church when I was 16. I fervently resisted, but didn't like to be at odds with my parents. I went on the trip because when it came down to it I didn't have a choice. It changed my life. Look for opportunities like this in your own community. You don't have to be a member of a church or affiliated with a religious organization. There are other community groups that offer such experiences. Keep your eyes and ears open.
5. Summer Volunteer Abroad -
There are a variety of volunteer abroad programs for teenagers, most of which take place in the summer. Check out this great list of organizations from GoAbroad.com that are not free, but reasonable. If you're finding that the experiences you are interested in will cost something, usually for transportation like flight, don't let that discourage you. There are a variety of ways to raise money for your learning adventure. Check out this blog post that I wrote a while back on student-led fundraisers. Start with a crowdfunding page such as FundMyTravel.
Note to parents: Not all travel programs are reputable. As with anything else, do your research. Make sure the company you're working with is safe and reputable.
It's important that students travel. It doesn't have to be all the time, but an experience here or there could potentially change their lives. Teens are under a lot of pressure from their schools, parents, peers, social media, and more. Give them an opportunity to take a step back from all of that and gain perspective, meet new people, embrace other cultures, and become active and engaged citizens.
If you have more travel resources for high school students please share!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my travel curriculum at my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. Most of the travel resources are free.
Several years ago I showed a Vice News episode to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity to express her interest in this topic. The conflict in Syria was something she knew little about, and she wanted to know more. She decided to do a project on Syria. The driving question for her project, which she chose, would be how the conflict in Syria began. She would demonstrate learning by organizing the series of events that led to the conflict into a digital timeline. Again, her choice. With my guidance the student wrote project goals and created her own project rubric.
My student dove deep into research and quickly came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something to help or contribute in addition to her original timeline project. She organized a holiday pie fundraiser in the community. She turned the fundraiser into a group effort by recruiting students from our advisory. They made and distributed marketing materials, made order forms, and made their own "take-and-bake" apple pies to sell. The student still completed her original project and used her timeline as a marketing strategy to sell pies. She shared her timeline to various social media pages along with an ad for her pie fundraiser. The visual helped connect potential pie buyers with the cause.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
This project is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance but the learning experience as a whole was entirely directed by the student. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice at every step.
Without student choice you do not have student-directed learning.
1. Students choose what they want to learn.
2. Students write their learning goals and determine their own learning objectives.
3. Students choose how they will gather information.
4. Students partner up with community members of their choosing for expertise and collaboration.
5. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning.
6. Students determine an authentic audience and choose a method of reaching that audience.
7. Students establish a method of assessment and criteria for evaluation.
Ways to implement student-directed learning:
Student-directed activities: some teachers may throw in a student-directed activity once in a while into an otherwise teacher-centered curriculum.
Student-directed curriculum with teacher-directed objectives: other teachers will design a learning environment that is dominantly student-directed but will themselves lay down a framework around specific objectives. I see this as the most common form of student-directed learning as teachers have the unfortunate task of meeting standards. Imagine how wonderful teaching would be if students didn't have standards. Students could learn about whatever they want to learn whenever they want to learn it. Genius hour for more than an hour! Anyway, this is the type of student-directed teaching you'd likely see going on in my class at any given time.
Authentic student-directed learning: the final way of operating a student-directed learning environment is to give students full control of their learning from start to finish. Teachers do not place any parameters on the learning experience. The project conducted by my student on Syria is an example of authentic student-directed learning. Some would say it is not student-directed learning at all if every step above isn't directed by the student. I would tend to agree, but understand that it is much easier to implement in theory than in reality. There are obstacles to consider such as state standards, district philosophy and mission, class sizes, class structure, and district/staff/parent/community support.
I worked in a very progressive school for most of my teaching career. I didn't face many of the obstacles just mentioned, yet I still found myself choosing learning objectives for my students here and there. I did this for a couple of reasons. One was because progressive or not, we still needed to follow the same state standards as everyone else. I also learned that students need input. They need "sparks" as Wayne Jennings would say. The Vice News episode in the project example above was such a "spark" for this student. It was the introduction of a topic that sparked interest and questions. It is okay to plant the seed even in a student-directed learning environment. I showed a Vice episode to my advisory every single Monday morning to start off the week. I did this because they loved it. Every time I showed an episode of Vice at least one student turned the episode topic into a student-directed PBL project. I have Vice News episode guides and student-centered extension activities in my TpT store. This is a bundle I used with my students, the episode about Syria included in the "War and Peace" bundle - Vice News Series Bundle.
Benefits of student-directed learning:
The student mentioned in the Syria example not only learned the details of an important and current global issue, but gained numerous critical 21st-century competencies as well by learning how to learn. When students direct their own learning they take ownership. They are invested in the process and the outcome. An intrinsic motivation to learn emerges. The motivation for some, a passion for learning, has been buried deeply in students that have spent much of their academic careers in a teacher-centered learning environment. Allowing students choice, autonomy, room to fail, and opportunities to construct knowledge through experience sets the stage for lifelong learning. The alternative is a teacher-directed environment where information is given, answers are right or wrong, learning is passive, 21st-century skills are glossed over, facts are memorized and forgotten weeks later. There is little meaning or relevance, therefore, learning is shallow.
I'm elated to say that I don't see a lot of teachers running classrooms anymore that are completely teacher-centered. There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, maker education, inquiry, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning. There are so many cool ideas out there. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-directed learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well do more until your entire curriculum is student-directed! You won't regret it.
Student-directed learning resources:
A great student-directed learning activity to start with is project-based learning. There are so many amazing PBL resources out there. My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot is dominated by PBL projects right now. Feel free to check those out. I have a project-based learning bundle that includes a manual on how to get started with project-based learning in your classroom. This product is designed to move your classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. If you are a beginner to project-based teaching or student-directed learning this may be a good resource for you. You can also go back to any number of my previous blog posts on project-based learning. Start here with "What is Project-Based Learning, Anyway?" I also like the Buck Institute. They work hard at spreading PBL love and have great tips and resources for using project-based learning in a more traditional learning environment.
Coming up in the student-directed learning series:
Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series. Expect to see some future blog posts on the following, among others.
1. What does a student-directed learning environment look like?
2. What does the teacher do in a student-directed learning environment?
3. Student-directed assessments. I'm really excited about this one. I submitted an article to be to the Reformer, an education magazine through ASCD. I was accepted from a pool of over 500 submissions! My article on student-generated rubrics will be published in February. I will add a condensed version of it here.
4. Student-directed parent/teacher conferences.
5. List of student-directed learning activities.
6. What teachers are doing in their student-directed classrooms.
If you have questions about student-directed learning or would like me to write a blog post on a specific aspect of student-directed learning that I haven't mentioned, please reach out.
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You are likely aware by now that I did a lot of school travel when I was teaching. I post on these trips often because I believe traveling to be an indispensable learning experience. I wrote about the benefits of student travel in a post a couple months ago - Top Six Reasons to Start a School Travel Program. Take a look.
When I wasn't planning and coordinating school travel experiences I was project-based teaching. Because I taught at a project-based school, travel and PBL often went hand-in-hand. I took students on a tropical biology trip to Costa Rica in 2013. One student created a brochure on ways tourists could help protect sea turtles. She placed the brochures in hotel lobbies as we traveled the country. I took students to Hawaii in 2017. The students completed a group project on climate change interviewing locals, business owners, farmers, etc. as we circumnavigated the island.
If you're an educator looking to tie field trips or school travel experiences with project-based learning, or if you are a homeschooler about to go on a family trip and want to enhance the learning experience by adding a PBL project, head to my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, for this free student travel project proposal.
In just a few hours my family and I will be heading to Copenhagen. I have two kids; a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. My four-year-old has recently developed a passion for photography. He takes photos with my phone and edits them using the Photofox app. The cover photo of this blog was taken and edited by him. It started off as a close-up of my eye and evolved into this beautiful abstract photograph. His abilities blow my mind. I never expected a preschooler to be able to navigate a photo editing app, nor that he'd want to. But he can, and he's great at it.
My son and I sat down and filled out a project proposal together, the one mentioned above, which I would normally use with my high-schoolers. With effective scaffolding, students of any age can design their own PBL project using a project proposal. He will be doing a project on "Copenhagen Through the Eyes of a 4-Year-Old" by photo-documenting his travel experience.
This project proposal was written by my four-year-old. I wrote and he told me what to write. His "research questions" were largely based on activities - what he'll do in Copenhagen, where he'll sleep, what he'll eat. This proposal would look very different if it were to be completed by a high schooler. That's another great thing about project-based learning. It's personalized, so could be adapted to any age, backgrounds, skill level, etc.
Rather than "what will I eat when I'm there?", says the pre-schooler, a high-schooler whose project topic is "Danish culture", for example, might ask "what are the main culinary ingredients used in Denmark?, "In what ways are staple Danish ingredients used in Copenhagen?", and "What dishes are the Danes known for?" The student would demonstrate understanding or new skills and knowledge by photographing ingredients, food, and/or chefs in action among other things related to their driving question. They might arrange to take a cooking class while traveling, shadow a farmer, or interview a chef.
My preschooler has decided that he will take a few photos as we tour Copenhagen, edit the photos using Photofox, write a brief caption, and share with an authentic audience by posting his photos right here on this blog post. I will try to upload new photos each day as we go. Whenever I was teaching and took students on trips, I documented the experiences on a travel blog so that staff, students and parents could "follow" us on our travels. Check those out - The Jennings Experience. Return here, to this blog post, to see updates of our travels and my preschoolers project photos.
Combining Project-Based Learning with Student Travel:
"Copenhagen Through the Eyes of a Four-Year-Old"
Hey, we made it to Copenhagen!! After a long flight with two littles, no sleep, very little real food, and a minor bout of toddler motion sickness on the plane, we made it to Copenhagen. We plowed through the day yesterday a bit delirious, came back to our Air B and B, slept for 15 hours and awoke ready to explore the city. We stayed near the canal where we are lodging this week and explored the heart of downtown. We ate lunch at the fresh food market, TorvehallerneKBH, which is made entirely of glass. Lot's of bikes in Copenhagen, regardless of the weather. We strolled on cobblestone streets through winding roads of shops, castles, cafes, and of course, the LEGO store.
Now, for the 4-year-old's project. I mentioned above that my preschooler will be documenting his experience with a photography project. He is very into taking photos, but even more interested in editing using the Photofox app. A challenge for project-based teachers is letting go of control. It was for me when I was teaching and was even more apparent when working with my son on his photography project. We as teachers have likely been taught to instruct - share facts, seek the "right answers", with a few student-centered activities thrown in here and there. Project-based learning is not that. It's active participation by the student, not passive, which means students have to be given the freedom to arrive at conclusions through their own process. There should be a lot of student choice, and students should be directing their learning from project design to assessment criteria.
It has been an extreme challenge watching my child edit his photos. We are in a country with breathtaking views, old architecture, we are steeped in Danish culture, yet my son wants to add "stickers" and wild fiters to his photos. I have to remember as his teacher to scaffold, encourage, and accept his learning process. The learning experience is not diluted just because he added a few special effects to a photo of a castle. It's how he sees it and how he is expressing the experience. Just because it's not what I would do doesn't make it bad or poor work. So I step back and offer suggestions or ideas if he wants them. That is the job of a project-based teacher. To facilitate. The student through exploration, questioning, trial and error, and testing comes to conclusions on their own.
With that said, here are his photos from day 1.
Well, so much for posting everyday. Things have been a little crazy around here. We've been here for four days, and the time-change still has us all feeling a bit off. We have been keeping really busy, trying to get to every corner of Copenhagen, and we had one little set back. My daughter dislocated her elbow while rough playing with my son, so we have experienced the Danish health system. That was an eye-opening experience.
My son has evolved a bit with his picture taking and editing over the past two days. As his "facilitator" I've let him take the reins while subtly guiding him through the process. He played around with lighting on photos from day 3, which led to many revelations about angles, various sources of light and how they come together to add interesting features to his photos.
There is something really special about photography when traveling. If you are ever taking students or your children on a trip consider suggesting a photography project. Photographing one's surroundings encourages a level of observation that can only be achieved when coming from a certain perspective. Pulling out a camera, especially when there is purpose behind it, makes you notice things you may not have noticed otherwise. You're fully immersed in the experience because you are actively looking for great shots. There are certainly other ways to immerse oneself in an experience such as sketching or talking with locals. Project-based learning while traveling, regardless of the final product, gives students some direction and purpose. Taking pictures has led my son to ask a lot of questions that he may not have asked if he was just following me around the city.
I decided to put the original photos of day 3 side-by-side with my son's edited photos as well as captions. The original photos are on the left, edited on the right.
This area is called Nyhavn, a strip of colorful shops and restaurants lining a canal.
This building, Rundetaam (Round House), was built in the 1600's by Christian IV of Denmark as an observatory. The winding ramp leads to a tower that overlooks the city of Copenhagen.
A view of Copenhagen from the top of Rundetaam.
The royal crowns found in the "dungeon" as my son called it (aka the basement) of the Rosenborg Castle.
A view of the Rosenborg Castle from Kongens Have, or the "King's Garden." We toured the inside of the Rosenborg Castle where we found the royal crowns.
The tree-lined corridors are one of many stunning features of the King's Garden.
Day 4, 5, &6
I had to combine three days into one post because we got so behind! I don't remember timely posting being an issue when I used to travel with my high school students. I posted our adventure daily. Different with littles I suppose.
The last few days were amazing. We hit up all of the typical tourist spots like the Little Mermaid statue, the canal cruise, Nyhaun, the castles and shopping areas. We visited the sites that make Copenhagen such a kid friendly city like the Experimentarium and many of the awesome outdoor playgrounds. The best part of the trip though was a bike tour that my cousin took us on. She has lived in Copenhagen for a couple years. She took us on a full snowy day bike tour to all of the cool corners of Copenhagen that tourists rarely frequent.
Check out my preschoolers final project photos, Copenhagen through the eyes of a four-year-old. His favorite feature of the photo editing app is "blending." He finds background images on Google Images and blends them with his original photo. They turned out really interesting. Check them out!
Rows and rows of bikes and lights in Nyhaun Viking ship parked in front of Barr
Konditaget Luders - rooftop playground Classic Copenhagen courtyard
Experimentarium Inside an art installation - no filters or edits
Canal Boat Tour Glimpse of Church of Our Saviour from the boat
View of King's New Square from Nyhaun Photo of tour boat. No edits were made here.
Just changes in camera settings and angles.
Both of these photos were taken biking through Assistens Cemetery at dusk.
Copenhagen has an amazing sense of community and I think a part of that is tied to the biking and walking culture.
Sledders out in waves to sled the hills in front A view of the Royal Library on our bike tour.
of the King's Stable. The sky is an example of the "blending"
feature that my son loves on the app.
Going crazy with the stickers on the editing app. This is a photo of my daughter eating a
chocolate covered waffle on a stick.
The trip isn't the end of a project for student travelers. They return from their trip, organize their new skills and knowledge into a final product and demonstrate learning to an authentic audience. For example, they may put all of their information into a blog and share via social media like my son did here. They might share their final product in a presentation or exhibition night. Student travelers complete a reflection, which is critical in my opinion. Try this free option from my store - Student Travel Reflection. Finally they self-assess their own project and the travel experience in general using rubrics. They meet with their instructor to complete a final evaluation, and that's that!
I'll be moving on from student travel for a while, but I'm sure I'll be back with more in the near future. I'll be moving into student-directed learning for a couple of weeks. Thanks for following us on our learning adventure!
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Don't worry! We didn't forget about Thomas the Train.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.