Making Learning Real and Relevant: Student Voice in Action

In my upcoming book, Social LEADia, I share the following story:

A History teacher at my school, Sheri Burke, asked me if I could help her create a website for a special project she was creating to honour war veterans. Of course, I said yes and then, before we could meet, she canceled. While she waited for time in my schedule to open up, a student in her class, Victoria Shi, volunteered to do it instead and to help the students in her class put the resource together. You see, Victoria had created a personal website for the purpose of showcasing her photographs. I was not in any way disappointed that a student was going to assume the role I was going to play–I was ecstatic! Every classroom has at least one Victoria; a student with a special talent for something which, when given the opportunity can help the class and the teacher in some way when it comes to technology and/or social media. Some teachers identify experts in the class (some even get badges) and any questions about a particular tool or platform go to that student. This not only frees up the teacher, but empowers the learner.

What made me think of this is that last week, I met another student like Victoria. Her name is Iman and she is a grade 10 student in photography teacher Amanda Bonomo’s class at my school.  Amanda was looking for an authentic opportunity to have her students connect their photography to their lives and to connect with the contemporary photography and art scene.  When she first asked about what tool we could use for a culminating activity, I immediately thought of a blog or a website. It was in passing that Amanda mentioned that one of her students actually had a photography blog and it was very much like what she was thinking about.

I asked, “Can we invite the student to our planning session?” and Amanda agreed.

This is how the planning session went.

Begin with the End in Mind

Amanda and I determined our learning goals. What did we want students to know, understand, and be able to do? (based on the Overall Expectations for her course)

  • create a positive online artistic presence
  • Tap into current visual art/photography scene
  • Develop an artist statement that explains the connection between student art work and who they want the world to know. 

Invite Student Voice into the planning and process

We asked Iman to share what she had created and how it might connect to our learning goals. She did show us her website, which we really liked. For a grade 10, she already has a more positive online presence than most people.  I am comfortable creating websites and thought that this was where we were going to go with this culminating activity.

But then she showed us her Tumblr account and why she chose to use Tumblr: it is one of the only tools that allows credit to the original artist or photographer.  Amanda and I were both completely outside of our comfort zones. I am versed in many social media tools, but I had never used Tumblr. Truthfully, I thought the site was blocked and I had no idea kids were still using the tool, as my own daughter hadn’t used her account for years. I realized how many assumptions we make when we create assignments without student input.

She showed us how to import a theme, add images, add pages, and customize the look. Within minutes, I felt a little more at ease because my understanding of blogs and Twitter helped. (a + means add a page for almost any app) Iman emphasized that we need to ensure that “Safe Search” mode is turned on so that inappropriate images don’t flood the feed. She showed us some of the artists and photographers who she followed and admired. She showed us that Tumblr had a built in blog where the reflection part of the assignment could go. And unlike a website, Tumblr was a perfect tool to showcase photos.

As Iman demonstrated, Amanda created her own account so she could understand it better and show her students the example and we asked lots and lots of questions.

The plan was that Iman would provide a brief demonstration of the tool to her classmates and create a video tutorial if required. If students want to use another tool, they are welcome to.

This experience has left me in awe and wonder.

How amazing that a teacher was not only open to including a student in our planning but also stretched herself out of her comfort zone to make meaning relevant for her students.

How amazing that a grade 10 student was able to have her personal passion for photography be validated in school. How often does this happen?

How awesome is it that students are using social media to learn and share their learning (a characteristic of Digital Leadership)?

Most importantly, Amanda didn’t need me to go into her classroom to support her throughout the project, because she had empowered Iman as a co-learner and a co-facilitator.

I attended an Ed Tech Summit this weekend and Trevor Mackenzie, in his closing keynote, shared a powerful story about how tapping into one of his student’s passion for graffiti art made all the difference in the world to him and changed the trajectory of his academic life.  He also shared this statement by a student, Paul Sinanis, which is a good reality check for us as educators. 

How are you connecting learning to real life for students?

How has a surprising discovery about a student’s passions made its way into your instruction?

 

 

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