After a few solid weeks of school we have finally hit our rhythm. Expectations and routines are established and learning is in full step. Tomorrow we will begin our study of Europe and the many ways that the themes of geography interact to create the rich history and present day life of the cultures, countries and people of Europe. As I reflect on our first month and our study of foundational concepts of geography, here are a couple of thoughts about our journey thus far.
Kids need to learn to struggle to discover ideas.
The second week of class I created an activity that asked students to explore the atlas and different map types. There were short reading passages to support the information and provide some reinforcement of the key facts I needed them to consider as they formed ideas, and this chart, which I created to help students organize their information and ideas. The third column stymied the bulk of my students. “What you do you mean ‘why is this map important’ Socko?” I modeled the first row using vegetation maps and rephrased it by asking the students why someone would look at a vegetation map. Asked the question four times that day and got the same answer, “…so I would know where to go to buy corn.” Instead of giving in and just giving them the answer I paused, disagreed, and challenged them to find an answer that had nothing to do with a farm stand or a fruit salad. Several minutes, and ample grumbles later, a few ideas started churning. By the end of the activity most students were able to tell me why an economic activity map alludes to more than just trade in an area. Connections were being made and thinking and reasoning were happening. This is not an example of a very exciting lesson plan, but rather an example of the critical nature of letting kids struggle with their thinking. I could easily have given them the answer, or given them a reading that provided the answer, but what would this have done for them?
My students have learned that simple questions, or tough questions attached to the highlighted answer, just won’t happen in my classroom. “Think-abouts” are common activities. I provide a question and challenge my students to think about, then write about, what their ideas might be. I always tell them that the questions are hard, and that the effort is the only requirement. Over the course of a few weeks I have fewer students shutting down, and an increasing number of students that don’t bat an eye at all, they just start thinking and writing. They are learning to struggle with their ideas. Hopefully by the end of the school year they will understand that this struggle is actually the learning.
Kids are motivated by pride, not grades.
We have created a grading culture. I get it. I was the type A, competitive student from the minute that the letters started going on my report card. I looked forward to report card day! As I consider how my class could shift to being something larger than a letter grade, I constructed the “Wall of Awesome” in my classroom. I told students that only work that was their best work would be considered awesome and find its way to the wall.
Our first potential “wall-worthy” assignment was based on National Geographic’s 7 Billion video. After watching the video students identified the main points of the video. I then challenged them to research these facts and find supporting data. For instance, one of the facts shared was that at the time of the video’s production, 38% of the people on earth lack adequate sanitation. I asked students to find more information and detail about this fact. Working with our fantastic librarian, and guiding them on their research skills, students found incredible facts. They then were asked to represent their findings on one slide. The only parameters were to choose a strong fact, make it look nice, and cite their sources (including crediting sources for images). I then told them that all students received full credit if they completed the project, and that those that were extra awesome would earn additional credit. Every student completed the project. Even better, every kid took it back and redid their work when I told them it was not extra awesome and potentially not wall-worthy. I know that I am fortunate not to be teaching a high school class where the letter grade is high stakes, but as I see it, I am teaching kids that they are all capable of the elusive A. I am teaching kids to have pride in their work. I am teaching kids that having pride in their work and putting forth a best effort is awesome. Surely this will have as much impact, if not more, than directly teaching them the perils of letter grades. And look at my Wall of Awesome!