by Sara Jones, PTAC Member
It was hard for me to find the time and energy to write this blog post. Each of us only has so much energy, and like many teachers at this time of year, I’m running on fumes.
We find the energy for the things that are important. But, there are always sacrifices.
We find energy to make sure all of our students’ needs are met.
We work to make sure each child’s emotional and physical needs are met so that they can learn. Then, we work to make sure their academic needs or met. As our students have become more needy, we have to expend more energy to give them what they need.
Sometimes we steal energy from our own families to give to our students. We know they love us, and we hope they’ll forgive us. Sometimes we steal energy from ourselves. We sacrifice a little of our own physical and mental health so that our students are OK. Sometimes we sacrifice too much.
I often reflect on all of this. Each day I race against the clock to get everything on my to do list done before finally heading home hours after students have left. As a high school social studies teacher I try to steal minutes to plan lessons that will be relevant and engaging for my students, grade assignments that students have completed, and stay current with new technology that can enhance my curriculum. There never seems to be enough time to do all of that while still teaching the content of my courses, allowing students to understand how the world is interconnected, and helping them recognize and remedy misconceptions.
My day begins at least and hour before the first bell of the morning and several hours after the last bell of the afternoon. And because I am always looking for ways to become better at what I do, I often spend weekends and always spend at least part of my summer on professional development opportunities that I seek out.
I’m not complaining. I’m happy to do what needs to be done for my students to be successful. It’s why I became a teacher. I love my job and I love my students.
But, the longer I have been in the classroom, the more I have been asked to spend energy on things that don’t really help my students. I’m frustrated. My students deserve better.
My students deserve the best me. They deserve my energy to be focused on them and their needs instead of assessments that rank and sort them, but don’t help them learn. They deserve my energy to be focused on them instead of new initiatives, mandates, and procedures that will be forgotten by next year. They deserve my energy to be on them instead of completing paperwork that will be spend more time being filed in a drawer than being read.
My students deserve an education system that allows me to spend my energy on them.
Some claim teachers are not using their time effectively. Those of us in American schools know that we need more time to do our job effectively. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, US teachers spend more time in front of students than teachers in any other country in the world.
Like most of the teachers I know, I am very good at what I do. Imagine how much better we could all be.
Imagine if I had more time and energy to collaborate with those other teachers to share our best practices and work together to create amazing lessons. Imagine if we had the time to give immediate and meaningful feedback on all the assignments our students are working on. Imagine if we had time to read current research about how children learn and books about how to be better teachers - not just during the summer, but all year so that we could immediately put what we learn into practice. Imagine if our policy makers decided to prioritize the mental and physical health of teachers so that they could be better for their students.
Imagine how much our students would benefit.
Imagine how much better their education would be.
by Kimberly Riviere, PTAC Member
When I was 16, an opportunity to travel abroad opened my eyes, heart and mind to the world. Today, as a French teacher, I aspire to open my students’ eyes, hearts and minds to the vast world in which they live.
We know that global awareness is an important 21st century skill, but how do we provide opportunities for students to gain this critical cultural awareness?
Traveling abroad has always been a powerful way to accomplish this goal. Traveling to France and Quebec with students has been instrumental in providing my students with a new lens to view the world. Engaging with local people, sampling their foods, visiting their cultural heritage sites has always shown my students that our similarities are greater than our differences. Each trip lights a spark for travel and cultural understanding for students fortunate enough to participate, but each trip only reaches about 30 students.
Knowing the strong impact of these travel experiences not only on myself, but also on my students, I wondered how these abroad experiences could impact even more children. The answer: technology.
Trips which once impacted about 30 students, now reach hundreds of students in my district. Students back at school can follow along with the trips through daily travel blogs complete with photos, videos and even virtual reality experiences of everything from sites visited to foods tasted.
Students in my classroom used inexpensive Google cardboard Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to experience parts of the trip like never before. They can almost have the experience of being atop the Eiffel Tower, on a boat off the coast of Southern France, or in the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City.
VR allows students to experience features of the trip virtually, but the greatest excitement came from video conferencing during the trip. For the first time last year while in France with 25 high school students, we used FaceTime to connect live with district French students back at home in Pennsylvania. I turned over my smartphone and a pair of earbuds to students on the trip, and magic happened.
The traveling students became cultural ambassadors and took our district middle and high school students on live tours of our French partner high school, through quaint villages in Provence, and even through a centuries-old olive tree grove. Those who were fortunate enough to be on the trip guided and shared, while the videoconference was projected in classrooms back home. Students in Pennsylvania were able to ask questions about Francophone culture and history; they could ask their traveling classmates about what it is like to be abroad, how much their language skills had improved, and any other questions that piqued their curiosity.
I stood back and watched my students on both sides of the Atlantic engage simultaneously. I have to admit that it gave me goosebumps.
During our March 2018 trip to Quebec, students teleconferenced again. However, this time I was determined to extend the impact of live distance learning to even more students. As a result, I reached out to Anthony Grisillo, a colleague in my school district for help.
My traveling students used Google Hangouts to call into Mr. Grisillo’s library at the Glenwood Elementary School. I turned over my smartphone and pair of earbuds to my students and once again I saw the magic of live global connection. From the top of Mount Royal, two Glenwood alumna, current sophomores in high school, shared 3 clues about their location with the elementary students. The 4th graders spent some time researching and succeeded in figuring out that my sophomores were in Montreal. With Montreal’s skyline as the backdrop, the high school students were able to answer questions from the elementary students and most importantly, inspire them to get out and explore their world.
Traveling cultivates an appreciation for what we do and what we have, but it also opens our imagination to other possibilities, providing us with another lens to view our world. While there is no true substitute for the first hand experience that travel provides, technology promises to give students a taste of the travel experience in ways that weren’t possible before. For many of our students there are two main obstacles to travel abroad: financial restrictions and/or a fear of the unknown. Technology now permits our students to get a taste of that experience without incurring fees nor fears.
Thanks to technology, our students can now connect live and inspire their classmates from half a world away. Vive la technologie!
by Jayda Pugliese, PTAC Member
At its simplest, “STEM” education is where children learn real-world lessons by applying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that connect school, community, and industry. Many teachers typically recognize their passion for STEM education prior to entering the teaching profession; however, my journey to becoming a STEM educator was different than most.
In 2009, I began my career in North Philadelphia as a middle school special education teacher. I always believed that teaching students with disabilities was my calling, because I myself have a disability. I am profoundly hearing-impaired. Throughout college, I focused on building myself into an effective special educator; practicing the art of IEP writing and reading special education law, because I absolutely “knew” that this was what I wanted to do with my life. This mindset was developed through my own struggles in school. I always felt one step behind my peers, academically and socially. As a special education teacher, I would now have the opportunity to be the change I needed when I was a child.
In 2011, my principal needed me to temporarily fill a 7th and 8th grade mathematics teacher vacancy. This position wasn’t my first choice, but I agreed to take it. I knew our school was out of options. Ten teachers had previously taken this position and resigned within a few months because of the challenges it posed.
Over the course of those four months, I struggled. Yet, I was determined to succeed giving those middle school students opportunities to see mathematics differently. In the process, I learned something about myself I hadn’t expected; I love STEM education. The experience changed me. It made me realize that I should utilize my talents where I feel most passionate. By August 2015, I decided leave special education to teach 5th grade Mathematics and Science in a public school in South Philadelphia.
Being relatively new to the STEM world, I was not entirely sure how to approach STEM instruction at first. As a special educator, I always built lessons that allowed students to make real world connections to the core content. I approached the general education setting with a similar focus. In developing projects for my students that allowed them to serve others, they began to see the curriculum as a means to connect to the world outside school. Students were able to see how school lessons could benefit their school, their community, and their world.
Service learning provides students with opportunities to apply knowledge in practical situations. They develop skills while seeing the way learning in school can be applied to help others. They see the relevance in their learning. These projects increase student self-confidence, personal responsibility, and foster valuable workplace skills and habits.
My focus on providing this type of opportunity to children has become the core of how I teach. This school year, my students partnered with the nonprofit organization, Pawsthetics, which helps provide prosthetics for animals in need. Using the 3D Printers in our classroom, the children in my classes were able to design, print, build, test and donate a usable prosthetic for a bulldog in Connecticut. Last school year, students designed and printed a prosthetic hand for a four-year-old girl who was born with a deformity. Her family otherwise would not have been able to afford this device.
My classes also explored social entrepreneurship by using 3D printers to create ornaments that were sold as fundraisers for local and international charities. In each of these cases, all of my students; even my special education students and English Language Learners, are developing the critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity skills that will be vital in their careers. Even more importantly, they are building capacity to be empathic, caring individuals.
Working with new technologies does not guarantee a successful STEM learning experience. In fact, many educators often seem to consider STEM from a perspective in which success in science and mathematics is increasingly important, and technology and engineering are only integrated when appropriate. When teachers begin to divide STEM into individuals subjects it ceases to be true “STEM” learning. Multi-disciplinary integration is key.
There is still no clear consensus among educators on the definition for STEM. However, there are several recurring competencies which are widely accepted as being developed through STEM education. Some of those include developing critical-thinking skills, generating real-world connections to content, and practical use of 21st century skills.
Building these competencies requires a shift in how we teach. Teachers need to move from the more traditional approach of direct instruction to a hands-on, constructivist approach. I have found the following classroom strategies to be helpful in fostering these skills:
Here are some ways that you can get started in using STEM and service learning to develop 21st Century skills and competencies in your students:
1.) Start Small and Plan Big. Start with your students. Have conversations with them. Learn about their passions, about the problems they see in their world from their point of view. From these conversations, try and locate something small in the community which your students can participate. Planning and communicating is key. As teachers, we are the ones that need to figure out how these projects are able to connect to instruction. Whether you are teaching measurement, simple machines, coding, or soft communication skills, there are always learning opportunities which exist when involving the community that can connect to the common core standards. Once you have identified a problem together, invite them to be change-makers. Help them realize that what they believe and what they say matters.
2.) Build Empathy. Ensure students fully understand the purpose for their project. Some key questions to ask are, “Why is this project important?” and “How is this project positively impacting others?” If our goal is to build empathy in our students and to help them see the issue from others’ points of view. Help them realize and believe in their capacity to contribute to the community.
3.) Ideate through Collaboration. Allow students opportunities to come up with lots of ideas they believe will help solve the given problem. Some will be feasible, and some will not. It is important that every student believes their voice is being heard and valued. During this period of brainstorming, have students sort through the ideas to identify which can be used to create solutions to the problem. Help them think critically about each possible solution without imposing your opinions about them. If they start to believe this is a teacher-driven project they will lose ownership over the learning.
4.) Failure is a Learning Opportunity. Not all service-learning projects are going to work the first time. When conducting these lessons, there is always a chance that failure will occur. Maybe your students are unable to construct the irrigation system they wanted to in their community garden. Maybe your students designed something on the 3D printer and it came out unusable. Maybe your students helped build a community structure, but it quickly disassembles. Failure is a normal part of the design process. It allows us to examine our ideas and to make them better. Model for children that failure is a learning opportunity. It is one of the most important skills you can give them.
5.) Involve the Community. My most successful service-learning projects have been successful because I have involved community members, experts, organizations, and charities. Be resourceful and use connections to give your students as many opportunities for success as possible. Use social media accounts like Twitter to reach out to those who may be able to help your students. You will find many willing experts and teachers who would love to discuss your service-learning lesson ideas.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee