Being an educator caught me by surprise. I had a different route in mind when young, even though my older sisters were both teachers and I admired their work. During college, while an apprentice at a summer theatre company in Western Massachusetts, I was assigned to (or “gifted” with) developing a day long theater experience for kids coming out from Boston. Under a canopy of trees with a lively bunch of tweens, suddenly I found myself in a role I had not expected, and absolutely loved.
Today my inspiration comes from a vision of young people engaged in a world that extends beyond classroom walls. Of course I admire what occurs inside schools and universities. However, not all environments operate equally.
Some learning spaces are devoted to preparing students for what comes next: “Get those middle school students ready for high school!” “Get those high school students ready for career and college!” I propose that if we do the best job creating developmentally appropriate, challenging and engaging learning experiences for students where they are , then we will be preparing them for what comes next, and prepare them more effectively. The overly pressure-cooker atmosphere of always getting ready and never being present and in the now can shut down the nascent curiosity and desire to learn. What we can end up with is students (and teachers) going through the motion of drill and kill style lessons to meet pre-determined outcomes (different from what we actually see as generating deep learning and understanding), writing papers that end up in drawers, and preparing for tests.
What gets me excited are learning spaces built on curiosity and discovery – including the teachers in this dynamic as well. For any academic subject, at any grade, we can take into account student interests, skills, talents, and self-determined areas for growth. We can knock down a few walls by considering how what we are learning in class relates to what is going on around us – either to our school, neighborhood, larger community, region, and to the world. Indeed, those connections are ready to be made. From the youngest grades, we can draw upon the inherent caring of children that continues through their years as adolescents, to be active contributors to society. To care for people, animals, and our planet. To take what we find out in school and bring it to life in ways that benefit the common good. This is the WOW moment, when we all answer Why am I learning/teaching this? And we all become inspired lifelong learners.
I am inspired when learners and their wonderful teachers connect the knowledge, skills, and dispositions from their studies in science, math, technology, the arts, social sciences, literature, writing, physical education, and languages (and all the other categories) to an authentic applied purpose. We know they have learned when they transfer classroom content into a new construct. This is authenticity. Through application students raise questions, gain deeper understanding, and typically develop meaningful reciprocal relationships with people they meet, people in the community.
What can this look like?
- Kindergarteners designed a child-friendly hospital emergency treatment room for their regional hospital. They created a wall mural of their happy self-portraits, had a chalk board, safe toys, and their own authored book with photographs about how they made the room. This eliminated the use of restraining devices by nurses and doctors on children arriving to the emergency room. And the teacher met and exceeded her academic markers for math, reading, writing, and social studies as they engaged with their community.
- Third graders became “water warriors” as their studies of water expanded to create water saving kits for every family in their school. One document they created with 23 water saving tips was mailed out with the water bill to every household in their community!
- Middle school students, as part of world studies, collected oral histories of recent immigrants in their community. This led to partnerships in the school garden, visiting poets for language arts, and a community gathering that built understanding (and had great food!).
- High school math students take pride in becoming proficient at preparing tax returns for low income individuals and families each year; all students achieve certification by the IRS. ( This is college and career readiness – in fact I could benefit from this certification!) Hundreds of tax returns prepared free of charge, with students so eager to participate every year.
Let’s get practical. How can this happen? A few ways to get started.
- Come to the Character.org Conference! Be surrounded by other educators striving to meet the needs of children to grow beyond any confinements, as contributing members of communities—at every age.
- Become familiar with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17, and at least one will connect with what you have going on in your class. Make that connection. Let students know they are part of something bigger, viable efforts to connect people and create opportunities for all that extend around the globe. I have seen students’ eyes get bigger and bigger as they come to know they can make life better, reach others, and protect our planet and all it’s inhabitants. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
- Become familiar with the five stages of service learning – investigation, preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration. You may be surprised that you already follow a similar pathway to learning. Find the ease of using this methodology with a particular approach outlined in many articles easily found on my website cbkassociates.com/resources .
- Reframe what you do. For example, rather than teach lessons, consider that students learn from experience . So reframe your language, and replace lessons with “learning experiences.” This notion has become transformative to many educators I reach around the world. And for every unit or concept or set of learning experiences, pause. Give yourself some time and “blank space” to consider What is my real overarching purpose in engaging students with this learning process? For too long our authentic role as educators and what truly inspires us has been put to the side with the urgency of test scores and more test scores. Take some time and make some space to pause. And think about your purpose. Let this shine a light on what you create for your students to grow and flourish.
I am inspired by you – and all the educators I meet who go above and beyond to educate our children and teens. Keep in mind that “education” comes from the Latin, educare , to draw forth. That’s our job. To draw them out, to lift them up, and provide opportunities so youth can make our world a better place for us all.
Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., CBK Associates, travels the globe inspiring educators and learners to participate in the world around them. She has authored eight books, including the award winning The Complete Guide to Service Learning and Going Blue: A Teen Guide to Saving Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers & Wetlands with Philippe Cousteau. In addition to service learning, she has developed a range of curricular programs, including for “Growing Community Leaders” for elementary children in after school settings, and middle and high school advisory programs. In addition to conference keynotes and workshops, Cathryn spends over 200 days annually providing onsite consultations to promote best teaching practices, engaged learning, character and social and emotional development, and adult and youth leadership. Learn more at www.cbkassociates.com and drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Cathryn Berger Kaye is a 2016 National Forum for Character Education keynote speaker. Want to hear more from her, but can't attend in person? Sign up to live stream the event to catch all the keynote speeches, six breakout sessions and more!