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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Empowering Students Through Empathy and Collaboration

Close-up of pennies from Penny Harvest

Every year around this time, my students come together and collect all the monies donated within our school for Penny Harvest, a program by Common Cents, Inc. that serves to help schools create service learning projects for children. It starts with young leaders prompting others in the school to make donations to a cause of their choice, but it often evolves into community service projects.

This year, for instance, our school decided to dedicate our Penny Harvest to Hurricane Sandy relief, and will gear our community service projects toward non-profits that focus on feeding those in need or helping in animal shelters.

That's the students' choice, not mine.

While this happens, many teachers and administrators wonder how I get students from all walks of life to pay attention and then get them to lead despite their prior reputations. Sharing a cultural and socioeconomic background with them helps, although not always. I know plenty of teachers from different backgrounds who have their set of student leaders, and plenty of people from similar backgrounds who can't get kids to gravitate to them.

The Essential Role of Dialogue

Inspiring that kind of leadership starts with understanding the students we serve daily. I take my inspiration from Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he writes:

We must never merely discourse on the present situation, must never provide the people with programs which have little or nothing to do with their own preoccupations, doubts, hopes and fears -- programs which at times in fact increase the fears of the oppressed consciousness. It is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours.
We must realize that their view of the world, manifested variously in their action, reflects their situation in the world. Educational and political action which is not critically aware of this situation runs the risk either of "banking" or of preaching in the desert.

Our best bet when working with students is to do way more listening than speaking. It gives you a sense of where they stand and where to target their potential for growth as leaders. Once you've taken a hard listen, you find a way to take some of their language and turn it into something more purposeful.

People often mistake kids doing whatever adults want them to do with kids thinking for themselves, which doesn't sustain itself for long. Students absolutely need to take the reins of their projects for them to have ownership of those projects.

While I provided an out-of-classroom example of my journey toward empowering students, I would be remiss to not focus back on the classroom. Here are three simple things you can do right now to help this process move along:

1. Frame the Lesson as a Story

You're more likely to pull students in by wrapping lessons around a story of some kind. The biggest outcry I often hear from my fellow technical educators is that telling stories in math usually comes in the form of a word problem. That bores me, though. We can find the story in the processes and the approach to problems even when they're abstracted. If we de-emphasize the answer a little more and, instead, focus on how we arrive at it, we can find ways to tell stories around the approach. Also, telling stories (not random sidebars, but stories around the math) really help. Some use think-alouds; others use graphic organizers. However the approach, we can at least get kids to remember the important elements so that they can create their own stories.

2. Silence Can Be Your Friend

Learn to feel comfortable with a little silence if you don't get any response from a question posed. Sometimes we ask a question and don't get an immediate response. We want to jump in or, worse, reproach the students for not thinking. Let's wait a second before we do that. How do we know that they're not thinking? Sometimes the things we teach take a while, and we have to reframe things we already know. If this is the case, then we may not have the words immediately for what just happened. Thus, let's wait a few seconds before punishing our students for their silence. If they really don't get it, ask the question in a different way, and see if the first brave soul gives the class something to snack on.

3. Encourage a Sense of Independence

Reinforce your students' independence by constantly reiterating that they had the answer all along. We ought to find the right balance between praising student work and having them constantly seek our approval for their work. One of the tricks I use, besides the constant barrage of questions I throw at them, is my reaction to answers that sound like questions. "Why are you asking me?" I'll fire back. How they respond to that reveals a lot about their own self-confidence in the work they do. If they respond with, "I was just checking," you get to nod and walk away. If they respond with, "I wasn't sure," you get to interject, "Was it the right procedure? Did you check it? Did you ask your partner? Did it work either way you tried it?" From there, they start to get an understanding that they have the power over their own education.

Freire's seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed challenges the notion that learning is a one-way transfer, a notion with roots in philosophers like John Dewey. Decades if not a full century later, we're still struggling with how to give students that ownership. Doing so takes lots of work, but if this generation of teachers lays the groundwork for the how, then the students will be the teachers who build upon that. Let's do it right.

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Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Stories are as strongly recalled in student journals as hands-on labs. Seriously. So I make an effort to find the story of the discovery of a concept in science, and to include sensory details. I use desk lamps for particularly important stories - the low light helps with changing the atmosphere of the classroom to be warmer and to let in imagination.

Listening to students is so much more interesting than listening to myself lecture. I use a 'Socrates Cafe' format to start new projects with, with an open ended question like "What do you think about the state of the world? What can be done?" The deets on this are at http://takeactionscience.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/socrates-cafe-how-do-y...

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