Student Engagement

Learning How to Care, Part 2: Building Academic Identities

February 29, 2008

This is the second part of a 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.

In part one of this entry, I shared two stories about the impact we've had on students' motivation by publicly celebrating their accomplishments. Here, I will continue to explore what happens when we carefully consider the way we are with students and the way we build community in our schools.

Experiencing Education

To continue with examples of what students who are learning how to care do, say, and think about, I would like to share something written by a parent of one of the ninth-grade students who participated in the alternative-energy trade show exhibition described in part one of this entry.

She posted a blog entry called "Finding Excitement in Science and Engineering" that talks about her feelings on attending this event. She describes the exhibition in detail and discusses the quality of the experience her daughter got from it. Her conclusion captures the essence of what we are working toward: "I learned to memorize and study for tests and for some subjects, and then promptly forgot the material the moment the test was complete. In comparison, these students are experiencing education, not attending it."

It is through experiencing education and these community events that our students learn how to care about school. It's about not just their academic achievements but also the building of their academic identities through the kinds of work we do with them.

One of our graduating seniors expressed this point well when she told me, "Before I came to Envision Schools, I never really cared about my work. I used to turn in my papers and just expect that I would get a decent grade. Now that I've come here, I care about my work. I think about what I want it to say, what I want it to mean to people. I've been able to come to terms with who I am, and how I learn -- and what I want out of my education just by doing projects."

Having a Vision for the Future

Last week, I was outside after school on a Friday afternoon. Two graduating seniors were standing on the street corner having an animated conversation. Within earshot, and most certainly listening, were small groups of ninth and tenth graders. The seniors were talking with each other about having passed their classes in the fall term and about beginning the preparations for their graduation-portfolio defenses.

Their conversation strayed to talk about graduation: the family members and teachers who will be there to see them, what they will wear, what they will do, and what they will say when they walk across the stage. One of them declared to the other, "I am going to sing at graduation." The other student got excited and asked, "Really? You're going to rap?" The first student responded, "No. I am going to sing."

These students' comments are not rare; rather, they are sentiments we hear in the halls and classrooms and in conversations all the time. These students have a vision of who they are and what they want, and this vision is powerful. Many will be the first in their families to go to college, and they own a discourse about graduation and going to college that is unprompted. For them, graduation is not merely a rite of passage or just something that will happen in five short months. It is an event that will galvanize their four years of struggles and accomplishments, and it will demonstrate to the world their capacity to care about their education.

These experiences and conversations show the impact school can have when it means something to students and when their time after high school is filled with promise. It is not only the adults and teachers they know telling them this is true; they are telling one another how true it is. By experiencing education, and not just "doing" school, students feel compelled to sing their own songs, and in the process, learn how to care.

We must create school communities where students can know what they want out of their education, can know how they learn best, and can know who they are. We do this by providing them with consistent opportunities to learn how to care about what they do in school.

When they care, school becomes personally meaningful and relevant to their lives, and students can paint a portrait of who they wish to be. This is done through our own embodiment of caring in all we do as teachers and leaders. When we act this way, students can truly experience their education. But if we lose sight of our need to care, we lose our reason for doing what we do. This is true in our lives and in our schools.

Please share your own thoughts and reflections about the kinds of school communities we can create to support students in learning how to care about and experience their own educations.

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