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Monday, August 4, 2014

Creating a New Structure to Grow 21st Century Learners

I confess that I don't have a green thumb. Maybe it is karma. My first memory of planting anything was as a five-year-old in my Sunday School class. We planted popcorn seeds in quart-size milk cartons that had been cut in half and filled with soil. It was a Bible lesson based on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed and how we have to protect God's word (the seed) when it is planted in our hearts (the soil). I remember the sheer joy I felt when the green stem broke through the soil. I was careful not to overwater. I had done everything right.

The problem was that I thought I was growing "popcorn." No one told me otherwise. And so I waited patiently over the course of what seemed like an eternity waiting for popcorn to bud. 

My granddad was a farmer and when he planted watermelon seeds, he got watermelons. When he planted cotton seeds, he got cotton. I fully expected popcorn.

I remember Mrs. Dazzlebright (not her real name) proudly handing our little plants back to us to take home. (I'm convinced to this day she switched some of the plants up. There was a kid whose plant never seemed to take off; however, on the final day of our lesson he suddenly had a green plant. I'm sure she had a few spares growing in her home just in case). I remember thinking, It's too early. It can't be ready to go home. There isn't any popcorn!

To my dismay, I was told that our lesson was over and we could take our plants home to continue to watch them grow. Best case scenario my plant might grow into a stalk one day, and produce corn. Those chances were slim to none. Suddenly, I realized my plant was doomed. I would not see popcorn explode from its leaves.

And so I did a horrible thing.

I was sitting on the front row next to my mom. As my dad reached the pivotal point in his Sunday sermon, my foot began an involuntary swinging motion. With one fatal swoop of my foot,  I kicked the plant. It wasn't a tap. It was a hard kick like when you're playing kickball. The container, dirt, my helpless plant flew across the linoleum and landed in front of the pulpit. My dad stopped momentarily and bent down and picked up the now empty carton in his hand and held it up. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Shame engulfed me.

Without missing a beat, he picked up the tiny plant that was now free of the container. He gently held the plant in his palm. In one hand he held the empty carton and the other he cradled the plant. I don't remember his exact words but this is how my adult mind remembers it, This plant is helpless without the safety of its holder. It will not be able to grow without the soil. It needs a second chance.

A movement called Genius Hour is sweeping the country. Based on Google's 20% philosophy, kids are given time within the school day to investigate what they are passionate about, design their own learning, and share with the world. Instead of teacher led tasks, kids innovate. Create. And grow. Genius Hour: Where Passion Comes to Life!

I was able to witness Genius Hour first hand on an elementary campus in my district, Cottonwood Creek Elementary. There was a group of English Language Learners writing a song and playing instruments in the hall. I saw fifth grade students supporting first graders to build a Lego castle. I saw a group of boys outside filming a "how-to-play football" video. I saw children creating a video game and learning to code. Technology was everywhere!

Kids were social. Talking. Learning.

Where were the teachers? They were visibly in the background. Watching. Supporting. Encouraging. But the children were clearly in charge of their learning. The principal was in the halls asking questions and calling each child by their name.

And that's when it hit me!

I had bought into the theory that children are suppose to grow "popcorn." We teach the curriculum, practice, reteach, nurture and love. We do everything "right." But what if we've been doing it all wrong? What if we need to turn our education system on its head? What if 21st century learning happens in a different container, using different tools, and the outcome is something we have yet to imagine?

Sir Ken Robinson says, "The current system was designed and conceived for a different age. We alienate millions of kids who don't produce in the old system. They don't produce in an academic system." In other words, they don't grow "popcorn" and are kicked out into the world without proper knowledge and tools to function in a 21st century world. They need a new container. They need a second chance.

Changing Education Paradigms Ted Talk

Confession Reflection:

1. What are some examples of "popcorn" or academic expectations that have been placed on our learners? i.e. high stakes testing scores, being "book smart"
2. How do we treat learners who don't produce the results we expect? i.e. Special programs, medication, more work
3. What are some barriers to changing our current system? How can these be overcome?
4. Why is it important to nurture and grow today's learners using a new paradigm or container? What are the dangers if we don't?




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