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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Learning How to Care, Part 1: Celebrating Student Successes

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

This is part one of a two-part guest posting from my colleague, Kyle Hartung, who has worked in small schools for ten years as a classroom teacher and instructional leader in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of the Leadership and Instructional Team at Envision Schools, he coaches and facilitates professional development among school leaders and teachers.

A recent three-part entry, "Emotional Engagement in Education," from Edutopia.org blogger Jim Moulton provides some concrete ways to respond to student apathy and rally your school community through project learning and problem-based learning. He really drives his point home for me when he says, "For any of us, whether student or teacher, child or adult, to do our best, to achieve our highest potential, we have to care. Many of you have, at some point in your life, accomplished something you never thought you could do. Had you not cared enough to try, you would never have accomplished the goal. Your amazing accomplishment began with caring."

It is easy to talk about how students don't care about school. However, perhaps it is not that students don't care, but that they may not know how to care about their time in school. Many of our students have never had what they do in school inspire them or allow them to be better, or be relevant to their own happiness.

Experiencing Accomplishment

So, how can we teach young people how to care? Just as Moulton says, we can begin by providing them with experiences and opportunities to care about, opportunities that allow them to shine, excel, and feel a real and deep sense of accomplishment for their hard work. When we ask students to pursue inquiries or questions that only they can answer, they begin to see a reason for the work they do and see that what they do today is relevant to what they will do tomorrow.

However, teaching students how to care goes even deeper than the kinds of projects and assignments we ask them to do. We must give careful consideration to the way we act with students and to the way we build community in our schools. I agree with Moulton that amazing accomplishments are born from a place of caring, and therefore, we must care enough to teach students how to care as well. I'd like to use this point in two consecutive entries to continue the conversation about apathy and motivation in high school students. And I will provide some illustrative examples of what students who are learning how to care do, say, and think about.

Recently at one of our schools, all the twelfth-grade students participated in a formal public debate. The students did extensive research and preparation so they could argue either side of a controversial global issue; they did not know which side they would have to defend at the exhibition.

The morning after, the students and faculty gathered in their weekly community meeting. For forty-five minutes, the students individually celebrated one another's achievements and gave props to one another's work. As they relived the excitement and anxieties of the night before, they thanked their partners and teachers for their effort.

During the meeting, students made comments such as "You really impressed me with your research," "I know I was skeptical about being your partner at the beginning, but we worked great together," and "I never thought I would be able to actually do it." Teachers also took time to celebrate the individual accomplishments of students in front of the community and thank their teams for their dedication and hard work.

This experience is not an isolated one or possible only for high school seniors. It is a way of being together that begins in the first months of a student's experience at an Envision school. Last week, at our newest school, all the ninth-grade students participated in an alternative energy trade show, the culminating exhibition of an interdisciplinary study in mathematics, integrated science, and digital-media arts.

There were 300 people in attendance and you could feel the energy in the room as the students used multimedia public-service announcements, illustrative models of systems, and informational booths to sell the attendees on their energy proposals. Before leaving, the attendees voted for the most viable energy proposal.

Recognizing Their Successes

At a community meeting the next morning, we recognized group accomplishments in categories such as creative expression, scientific thinking, and persuasion. Also, we announced the winners, but all students felt a sense of pride and accomplishment on a job well done. It was clear, however, that it was never about who won or lost, but rather about the success of everyone sharing in a tremendous achievement. The students were able to learn as part of a public exhibition, and the public exhibition served to help build a community of people who care about the work they do together because it benefits them all personally.

How often in the educational experience do we provide students with an opportunity for a public celebration of their accomplishments, let alone create an expectation for such celebrations? These students are learning to see that their combined efforts say something to the world about what is possible when they do meaningful and relevant work together.

In the second part of this entry, I share more examples that reveal the benefits of our careful consideration about how we are with students and with the way we build community in our schools. Please share your thoughts about the efforts you have made or have seen that support teaching students how to care.

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Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great example of student success. Relevance is key to any student's success. In order for something to be relevant it must be cared about. For the first time ever our middle school is hosting a Student Achievement night. This evening is open to our small, rural community to showcase what our young members of the community are accomplishing in school. We are trying to give our students a sense of accomplishment and celebrate their hard work. I often think that students don't get the recognition they deserve. Many disciplines are focused on project based learning and we have noticed that achievement increases when our students are working together in self discovery. Through the use of technology and collaboration with their peers, our students are really caring about their end product, but more importantly they care about each other and the whole learning process.
I am a language arts teacher and have found through the years that when my students are thoroughly engaged in what they are doing, the end result is one we are all proud of. But to be engaged they must care about the work. This is no easy task, though. I recently had a high achieving student state to me that he was glad he had to interview his grandfather about the Great Depression for a project we were doing because it was a special time in which they cried together and really connected. This was no longer an assignment, but rather a piece of his life that he really cared about. Needless to say, this will be his Showcase Project for Student Achievement night.
Children, by nature, are social, and I have noticed that when I do collaborative project based tasks they become relevant to the students. But I have learned through experience that my students care about things that they see me care about as well. Building a sense of community within a classroom or school is difficult to do. It takes a lot of teacher collaboration, which is sometimes difficult to get accomplished with all the day-to-day realities of the job.

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