Empower Foreward and Introduction
As an educational system, we need to pay closer attention to how we are using the time our students have with us. We need to rethink what we want our students to get out of this time. Do we want them to spend 6.5 hours per day copying notes, filling out worksheets, listening to others talk, and being compliant? Or would we rather them spend much of that time exploring their interests, taking charge of their learning, creating meaningful projects and artifacts, interacting with their peers, and developing life-long skills that permeate outside the walls of their 7th grade math classroom (my subject)? For me, the answer is simple.
Don't be fooled - I'm not saying this is easy. But there are always ways that we can inspire our students to be creative and innovative. For me, I'm currently having my students design their own project to demonstrate their knowledge of Ratios and Proportional Reasoning. I started my project by leading my students through the design thinking process, where I forced them to think deeply not about the mathematical content, but about their experiences with projects. I wanted them to think about what they feel makes a good project and what doesn't. I want them to think about ways they can express their learning that go "outside the box". And then I give them the time to do so.
This is the second time I've run a project like this. When I first did it in the fall of 2017, I was worried. I was worried that my students wouldn't be interested. I was worried by students would miss the mark. I was worried the project would fail. But I tried anyways. And guess what - it worked; somewhat. I had some groups that took the "easy" way out and created a Kahoot or Quizizz to play with the class. I had some groups create comics and music videos or scavenger hunts. I had some groups that did a great job at demonstrating their mathematical knowledge, and some groups that focused too much on the "flash" and not enough on the content. But the bottom line is that we all learned something. We learned how to integrate real-life experiences and mathematical content. We learned how to manage our time. We learned how to self-evaluate. We learned skills that transfer outside of the walls of our math classroom and into all aspects of life. And the best part? Now that we're into the second project of this type, I haven't had one student ask me, "how is this graded?" It isn't their focus. The learning and the authentic demonstration of knowledge is.
Easily the proudest moment I had with this project - and maybe in my teaching career - was with my group that made their own "business". They decided to have a bake sale and to present on the math needed to run their "bakery". At first I thought they were going to create a fake business. But then they shared with me their plans to have an actual bake sale. Outside of school. All of their own organizing. To be clear, I had no involvement in the planning of this bake sale. That credit goes these students and their very dedicated and supportive parents who did whatever they could to help their children take charge of their own learning. The ran the bake sale at a local business on a Friday afternoon and raised $150 profit, and donated it all to the local animal shelter.
If you want to talk about students being empowered and applying their interests, I don't think you can get much better than this. Did they have the perfect project? No. They could have explained their math better. But did they learn something? Yes, absolutely. And to me, that's all that matters. They took their interests and applied it to their learning. To me, that's empowerment. (Side note: this same group is currently working on another interest problem where they're surveying classmates about their choices in soda and chocolate to demonstrate knowledge with proportional reasoning. I'm excited to see how this turns out!)
Empowering your students isn't easy, and it doesn't happen overnight. I still have a long way to go in working out more and better ways to empower my students. But the important part is that you try. It doesn't have to be perfect to start. Just try, and see where it takes you. I promise, you won't be disappointed.