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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"My mom is a hero," Alfredo said, cutting me off one sentence into a picture book about Martin Luther King, Jr. His chubby second-grade body perpetually squirmed on the rug where my 32 students were seated. "She brought us here from El Salvador by herself. Me, my two sisters, and our baby brother. We walked."

"My mom is a hero too," said Catalina. "She brought us from Mexico. But we came in a truck."

"The desert was hot," Alfredo cut her off.

"The truck was hot," Catalina said. The two began to argue. I closed the book. Other students had started telling stories about grandparents and parents who had immigrated. Some listened to each other and engaged in conversation; others talked over each other.

This was my first year teaching, a year when the majority of my lesson plans looked completely different when they were implemented. I had failed to activate my students' prior knowledge and ask them what they already knew about heroes. When Alfredo cut me off, I recognized this.

"Ok," I said. "Why don't you write down the names of all the heroes you know. Let's see who is on your list."

Students wrote furiously.

"Now, what makes a hero?" I asked. Twenty voices shouted out, and I couldn't understand anything. I clapped, trying to regain control. "Talk to your neighbor about what makes a hero. Write down four things you both agree on." I set my timer. "You have five minutes. Go!"

We generated a long list that included the neighborhood grocer (who had given free food to the family of one of my students after they were burglarized), our principal, many relatives, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We talked about honoring our heroes, how we tell stories about them and remember them as a way of respecting them.

"Let's have a party for our heroes!" shouted Alfredo. "I want to bring my mom to school. Can we have a party? We always have assemblies for famous people but not for boring people even though they're heroes, like my mom. Can we, please?"

Again, the lesson plan took another turn.

"What do the rest of you think?" I asked my class. They cheered, as you might imagine. Of course they liked parties.

"You'll have to make invitations," I said. Sneaky strategy; I planned to extract more writing from them.

"We can do it! We'll do it now!" They shouted.

"And you'll have to make speeches and tell everyone who comes why they are your heroes," I added.

Again, same response. They were up for the challenge, these second graders who were barely reading and writing. I was always trying to find ways to get them to do more, to ignite their intrinsic motivation.

"We could make a class book about them," offered Catalina. We'd done this earlier in the year when we'd learned about endangered animals.

"Ok," I said. "You guys have great ideas. Let's do it!" Cheering.

I leaned the book about MLK on the blackboard. "We'll read this later this week, ok? And today we'll start planning our party." Applause.

Our celebration of "Heroes Everywhere" was a huge success. More than 75 family and community members joined us one evening for snacks, stories, poems, speeches, and a lot of applause. There were tears, hugs, and very proud parents. "I've never had a chance to come to my daughter's school and feel like I was welcome and respected," said Catalina's mom. "I also never knew how much she recognized what I've done."

This is corny, but I'm going to say it: My students were my heroes that year; those who took the risk to shout out and tell me what was on their minds, who offered suggestions that led to authentic learning, and whose spirits yearned to appreciate the heroes in their lives. I remain always grateful to my students, for this was only one of hundreds of instances in which they taught me more than I taught them.




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Marlene Forney's picture
Marlene Forney
Believing, Web2.0 Centric, ICT advocate

I saw your blog post referenced in several sources. Read it for the 1st time today and was very moved. The results of your 'spontaneity' allowed for authentic learning (assessment be d*d) and transformation - the impact on one's life as a result of a learning experience.

Thank you for sharing from your work 'in the trenches' [TEACHING]

Nathan Cashion (Brainslides.com)'s picture

This really is a beautiful story. Thank you for being a perceptive teacher. I had a similar experience as a student in a college biology course that was overwhelming. (I wrote about it here: http://www.brainslides.com/2010/02/letting-the-student-become-the-teacher/)

How do you recommend planning for lessons like this? You most likely had no idea about those powerful experiences in the lives of your students. How can you develop lesson plans around prior knowledge when you can't be sure what relevant information or experiences students have already had?

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

How do you recommend planning for lessons like this? You most likely had no idea about those powerful experiences in the lives of your students. How can you develop lesson plans around prior knowledge when you can't be sure what relevant information or experiences students have already had?[/quote]

Nathan: Thank you for the great question and appreciation. I guess the thing about activating prior knowledge is that that's how you find out about student's past experiences. So what you plan for is to ask, in various and appropriate ways, for what they know. In this case, I think my lesson plan would have been better if I'd entered the lesson asking them what they thought a hero was and if they knew any heroes. I think the key is to build the invitation, the questions especially into lessons that begin a new unit/concept/project, etc. And I think it reflects a mindset that teacher benefit from developing--that their students (even very young ones) are repositories of much information and knowledge. Sometimes I think we forget this and look at them as fairly blank slates.

Tammy King WIDA blogger's picture
Tammy King WIDA blogger
ESL/bilingual education specialist and blogger for the WIDA Consortium

Elena, I couldn't agree with you more. Your blog post reminded me of similar lessons with my English language learners. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to activate all students' prior knowledge - but especially English language learners (ELLs). Often our background knowledge differs from that of our students - and as you mentioned in your post, our students come from varied backgrounds. I've been blogging about ELLs for WIDA for several months here: http://widaatwcer.blogspot.com/

Sherice's picture
Sherice
English Teacher from NC

You blog ia truly one of those "teachable moments" that we all aspire to have. It was a beautiful and motivational story. By activating that studetns prior knowledge you opened up a new level of learning for him. That singular event was a transformation.

Sherice's picture
Sherice
English Teacher from NC

You blog ia truly one of those "teachable moments" that we all aspire to have. It was a beautiful and motivational story. By activating that studetns prior knowledge you opened up a new level of learning for him. That singular event was a transformation.

Amy's picture
Amy
Elementary Teacher

I work with English Language Learners and see the need to activate and really "build" their prior knowledge as many of them just don't have it. I enjoyed reading your blog about how your lesson took a turn in a different direction. I'm sure your students learned a lot that day and it sounds like they really opened up. I am eager to see that with my students. They are usually rather quiet and reserved. It's encouraging to think of the opportunities that I have to lead them in learning more and being authentic learners.

Patricia's picture
Patricia
Kindergarten teacher from MN

I really liked your blog because students seemed so much engaged in the lesson. They certainly learned more that way, through informal discussions with you and their peers and finally through the party than they would have traditionally. It was great to see your young students taking charge of their learning! This is definitely authentic learning.

LaurenS's picture
LaurenS
Kindergarten Teacher in GA

I loved reading your blog!!! I have had a few times just like this where my lesson did not go as the lesson plan was written. It instead turned into a great learning experience. I have learned to look at these moments and look for a learning experience.

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