We went straight to a few outstanding teachers to zero-in on what’s working for kids in school NOW. Tim Dove, a social studies teacher at Phoenix Middle School and 2011 Ohio Teacher of the Year; Diane Runyon, a fourth-grade history teacher at Edison Intermediate in Columbus, named the 2011 Ohio History Teacher of the Year; and Natalie Weter, a teacher at Gearity Professional Development School, the 2010 Ohio Teacher of the Year.
Q: In the classroom, many say teachers are fighting a war against video games and action-packed films. Kids have access to so much interactivity and have learned to expect so much, do teachers feel the pressure in the classroom to make it exciting?
TD: Do teachers feel pressure in the classroom to make it exciting? I would hope so. What I think teachers really struggle with, is immediate feedback. In a structure where you have a classroom of 30 or up to 150 students, giving immediate feedback is very difficult. So what we really need to do is start thinking about is how we can look at their work and give them the feedback they need in order to continue their depth of learning.
DR: I notice that students today expect immediate gratification. Their patience level is lower than students in pre-computer days. I teach history, by making the people in history interesting so they can see that they were real people with real-life problems. It is like telling one long story, where choices are made and the consequences of those actions shape the future. Just like today.
NW: I wouldn’t use the word pressure, but I think in good teaching you are always looking for ways to engage your students and make learning meaningful. I think all good teachers need to look at how they can incorporate 21st century learning into lessons so that students, whatever age, feel fully engaged and excited about learning and not just like passive students.
Q: How do you motivate kids to learn?
TD: Without sounding horrible, the motivation is in playing mind-games! Just to get kids to think beyond the obvious or to think beyond what they initially read or hear. The other thing is to get a kid to understand that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. They’re thinking about a whole lot of stuff — our job is to show them how what we’re teaching connects to that stuff.
DR: I am a very hands-on teacher. I spend very little time with direct instruction. My students are working on many different projects that speak to their own personal learning style. Whatever will make the biggest impact and provide them with a total understanding of the big picture.
NW: Children are engaged by what’s meaningful to them and what’s relevant to their lives. It doesn’t always have to be technology, but that’s certainly something they are familiar with and excited by and curious about. What I have found to be most successful is motivating kids to solve problems related to their lives. So our students become not just students, but hands-on problem-solvers.
Q: How do teachers themselves stay current and motivated for how swiftly technology is changing things?
TD: You have to see it as your friend. For example, we were trying to find a way to have kids give us input quickly, anonymously, about value systems so we could figure out how to chart it quickly and use it as data for our discussions. But we didn’t want kids getting nailed for having an opinion that was a minority opinion. [We found a system online] for free that used cell phones for texting. In a lot of schools, they try to keep kids from using their phones. And we were like, “Well, bring your cell phones tomorrow, we’re going to be using them in class.” And the kids were flabbergasted. We showed them how it worked, and then we had these graphs that we got off the net in real-time and we could use those to continue the conversation of what we were studying.
NW: Through professional development — in the summer we are in book groups, we are reading, sharing resources online. Our district has a series of development activities. So we are learners ourselves. I always tell my students, “I’m going to school too!”
Q: Students become eager to explore when they feel connected to the subject; what are some of your techniques for connecting students to what you are teaching?
TD: One of the things I keep coming back to is historical imagination. I try to give kids a sense of how to think about what people understood, or didn’t understand, not as a way to justify what they did, but to understand why things happened the way they did, and most importantly, how we can protect ourselves from really idiotic things in the future. One of the fun things I do with the middle school kids is ask them if this [famous person] is someone you would have hung out with at 12. That’s an easy and cool way to connect kids to people we have decided as a culture is important for them to know about.
DR: I integrate my lessons across the curriculum. When I am teaching Ohio Native American tribes in Social Studies we are reading Crooked River by Ohio author Shelley Pearsall, in language arts. I take the experiences from their reading and bring activities to the classroom, which will make the experience more real. Such as, making ghost beads or grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle to make a poultice. The students try to figure out how they would survive in the wilderness, they present their survival plan and as a class we decide who would survive [and we ask,] “Why do some ideas not work?”
NW: Teachers are facilitators. Just asking questions and letting them work together leads to learning. For both the student and the teacher — when you see how children approach a problem, you can identify trends and misconceptions that might get in the way of learning and then you can address those.
Q: How important is it for teachers to investigate the material they are teaching and ways to get active with it in the classroom?
TD: It’s critical. But you don’t have to be the “sage on the stage.” You can validate the kids and what they already know. In any classroom you’re going to have your History Channel freak, and to not invite those kids to be part of the conversation would be ridiculous. Because that’s another place you can find information.
DR: The teacher must be proficient in the subject that they teach, but if as a teacher, you bring passion to the subject you teach, your students will benefit from your excitement of the subject. If your class feels you hate what you are teaching, they will also lose the passion for the subject.
Q: What doesn’t work in the classroom anymore?
TD: One, assuming you know everything. Two, memorizing dates or having the sole purpose of the class to memorize things. There are certain things that I think people need to memorize — in social studies, I think you have to have a mental map of where things are in the world. If you want to be taken seriously, there is some base-line stuff that you need to know. But to focus your entire day at school on that kind of learning doesn’t work.
DR: Straight lecture!
NW: I think what doesn’t work is homework for the sake of homework. I think homework needs to be practice and I think it needs to inform the next steps of instruction. I tell parents that I don’t give a lot of homework. There’s nightly practice with math, but it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. When I collect it, I don’t correct it and give it back, I make two piles — they get it and they don’t quite get it. So the homework helps me know what I need to do next in the classroom.
Q: There isn’t a single strategy that works with every student. Do you agree that students should have the opportunity to construct their own learning, for instance, writing songs, organizing “read outs,” etc.?
TD: Kids at times should have opportunities to demonstrate their learning in different ways. At the same time, once kids identify what their strengths are, then another part is rounding out their education. So if I identify that I’m maybe musically inclined and that’s how I see the world, that’s great. But if I also identify that fact that maybe my visual-spatial isn’t as good, what is it I work on to get better at that? It’s not going to be my primary mode of understanding the world, but a lot of things that happen in the world happen in other modalities. We need to make sure that kids are able to function in those modalities as well.
DR: You need to identify students’ strengths early in the school year and embrace a method of study that will provide the best results. I use many different types of strategies, which touches all learning styles. Some students like to write about what is happening, some might want to draw a picture instead. It is all about understanding the ability to convey to the teacher what is happening.
NW: The first thing I did last year with math was to give the end of the unit test. I thought, “Let’s just see, maybe we don’t even need to waste time with this.” I gave the test, scored it, gave it back, and then had the students write goals. And at 8 years old, they could say whether they could tell time or needed to work on money or measuring or get better with subtractions. And then we made action plans, and they would say, “I’m going to practice at home with my mom for five minutes every day.” They actually identified their own needs and their next steps. Absolutely students can construct their own goals and next steps, and they should. If they don’t have an understanding of what their goals are, how are they going to get there?
Q: Some say good teachers are the lead learners in their classrooms and that this helps break the hierarchy and develop authentic relationships with students. What do you think about that?
TD: If you’re not modeling for your kids what a life-long learner is, then you’re missing the boat. You have to set up a learning community, in which the teacher is one — but not the only — lead learner in that community. You also need to invite kids to be a leader in that community. And one thing I tell parents is to not divorce the responsibility of educating your kids with schools. It works when there’s a strong triangle of support and cooperation between student, parent and teacher.
NW: I’m always presenting myself as a learner. I think they need to see you that way. One way I assess their learning is having them create a test for me. And if they stump me, I have to run ten laps or five laps around the gym. So they want to make it as hard as possible, but they also have to have the answer key, so they are researching and learning while they are trying to stump me.