Friday, March 4, 2016

The Power of Experts and Audience

This school year our staff at Liberty High School is exploring different ways to create deeper learning experiences for students. We've been using the work of Dr. Jal Mehta at Harvard University to frame our thinking:
This exploration has inspired several of our teachers to create more lessons for students that create engagement with industry experts and authentic audiences. Here's a taste of what's been tried:
  • AP World History students conduct an independent research investigation including an interview of a Subject Matter Expert (e.g. professor or author)
  • Creative Writing students interview senior citizens at the Liberty Community Center as inspiration for a character sketch
  • Art students engage in a Kansas City competition and winning original artwork is published in banners on the Boulevard
  • Business students create a marketing plan for KCP&L to pitch to the company
  • American Literature students connect with a Kansas City Highway Patrol Officer to learn about modern slavery in conjunction with a study of Civil War literature
  • American History students publish writing and engage in discussion on the New York Times Room for Debate website
There are many more examples and I'm energized by the creativity and resourcefulness of our teachers to think about how to create meaningful learning opportunities for our students. Working alongside some of these teachers to launch these projects has been eye-opening. Opening your classroom can be vulnerable and pressure-packed, so is it worth it? I have to say ABSOLUTELY, but here are a few pieces of wisdom I would offer.

  • Reach out and try. We've found an incredible amount of people that have expertise to share and that want to be involved in our school.  Many feel honored that we contacted them and have connections that bring relevance to the skills and content we are infusing. Don't be afraid of 'no.'
  • Focus on pride, not perfection.  One of the biggest fears I've encountered is our teachers worry about what outsiders will think if students share work that isn't perfect.  Ultimately,we feel as though any mistake our students might make is a reflection on our teaching.  Don't let this be a barrier!  Of course, we want our students to produce quality work and we should do all we can to set the stage for success, but in the end, they are adolescents; they will make mistakes.  The mistakes sometimes produce the best opportunities for learning. Challenge your students to do work you can all be proud of in the end.
  • Have a plan B. Things inevitably don't always go as planned. A Skype we had arranged with a Senator was canceled 15 minutes prior to class because he was called into session.  We couldn't get the technology to work for a Google Hangout scheduled with a military pilot. Most teachers like to have a plan and know it's going to work, so this can add a layer of anxiety to working with outside experts and audiences.  Go in with a plan B and use it as an opportunity to model flexibility!
  • Involve your administrators.  Connecting learning beyond the school walls is engaging and exciting, but it's wise to inform your administrator of your ideas and get their input and support. They will appreciate it should any unexpected concerns arise. 
Audience is powerful, so reach out and try!  Here's an email excerpt we received from the Kansas City VA after a partnership with English teacher Kelsie Kleinmeyer.  Her students studied The Odyssey and explored challenges modern soldiers face with the Homecoming.  It's one of my favorite examples of what can happen for our students when engaging with experts and audience!


Hi Kelsie,
Wanted to follow up on last night's event. It was very well done and the Jackson County Executive, the Honorable Mike Sanders, put together a great task force. They listened to concerns and issues from Veterans, mediated, and brainstormed ideas, along with contributing factors that could detour any such idea, to present.  I did make mention of the project your students took part in and that some amazing ideas came from the project. Actually your entire project was nearly a mirror of what took place last night.

Each sub-group overwhelming agreed that a community based outreach/transition center would be the top priority of ideas to go back to Mike Sanders and the Jackson County Executives and those in office that can effect change. This would be evidence that "your students" came up with an idea that was "very" similar to an idea brainstormed by top level executives, city officials, service organization representatives, top level Veteran Administration staff and other influential professionals from across the area.  I think your students truly got the bigger picture with this project and I am so proud of them.

Might just end up being something we can look back on many years from now and have pride that the next Generation made a difference for this generation of Heroes.

Honored,
Joseph L. Burks
Public Affairs Officer

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