For the past two weeks, our students have been learning about poverty in Rowan County. Poverty is a significant challenge for many of our students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. While individuals living in poverty can definitely change their circumstances, living in poverty can be challenging for many. Often poverty presents itself as hungry students in our classroom, high rates of absenteeism, and underachievement for students. North Rowan High has a high percentage of lower socioeconomic students. The school offers free breakfast to all students as a result of a this higher percentage of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. The challenge of poverty is something that our society continues to grapple with and finding solutions to end it are very challenging. Often, students living in poverty are part of an on-going cycle where many of their parents and even grandparents grew up in similar circumstances. I am so proud of our students for choosing this topic to study especially given that it hits really close to home for many of them.
This past week, our students heard from the executive director of the Meals on Wheels for Rowan County who shared a lot of information about poverty in Rowan County. Rowan County continues to see increased rates of poverty compared to surrounding counties. Further, there is a challenge with finding affordable housing in Rowan County, even with support, for many families. Our students also heard from the homeless student liasion who shared that last year, Rowan-Salisbury Schools have over 300 identified students who were classified as homeless as defined by the McKinney-Vento act passed by congress in the late 1980s. She reminded us that these 300 students were only the one that had been identified and that most likely the value is higher. Students learned about the services that Rowan-Salisbury Schools provide for students as well as their families.
Hearing from expert speakers such as these was amazing. But our students experienced an even more extraordinary experience when they visited Rowan Helping Ministries. Rowan Helping Ministries is our county's local homeless shelter and crisis assistance center. The organization does amazing work to support many individuals living in poverty in our county. While there, our students heard from Wayne. Wayne, originally from New Jersey, moved to North Carolina to change his life. He has previously been in prison for drugs and other crimes. He grew up on the "streets of Camden" as he put it. One day while in prison, he decided to change his life and moved to North Carolina where he could start new. He eventually ended up living in the homeless shelter in Salisbury. While there, Rowan Helping Ministries provided him with support to change his life's trajectory. At the time, a new facility was being built for Rowan Helping Ministries and he walked across the street to speak with the project supervisor for the construction company. After sharing his story, Wayne told the supervisor that he really wanted a chance to prove himself and change his life. So the supervisor sent him to the temp agency where he was hired. Wayne showed up early to work and did everything that he could to prove that he was a valuable worker. He often beat the supervisor to work. He never complained about the job that he was doing and rose quickly to be a valuable employee. After the project was complete, he took a position as a full time staff member with Rowan Helping Ministries. He is living proof that anyone who wants to change their trajectory can but they must be fully committed to that change. He spoke at length with our students and really emphasized the importance of focusing on their goals and finishing high school.
In addition to hearing Wayne's inspiration story, our students had the opportunity to volunteer and serve in different capacities at Rowan Helping Ministries. Most of the students had never visited the facility, let alone, serve others. Many of them helped pack bags of food for students to take home on the weekend. These are students who may not have anything literally to eat over the weekend. Several of our students remarked that they did not realize we had people living in our community who would have not food over the weekend. They also helped pack and distribute food for families who would not have enough food for the entire month. Again, many students shared that they did not realize that we had families living in our communities that they did not have enough food. Several students who helped sort and fold donated clothes that would be used for needy families. With each service performed, our students seemed to become aware of the needs of individuals living in our communities. Many students remarked that their favorite thing about the trip was serving others. I had several students share with me that they never realized how much of a difference they could make. After returning back to campus, many students asked about going back to serve again at Rowan Helping Ministries. We are coordinating to make this reality again. Interestingly enough, many said that they want to help on their own time as well. I was really astonished by this as some of these students had not shown a lot of interest previously in our topic. It seemed that learning through serving others helped to connect many of our students to our topic in a way that simply just sitting in a classroom could not. The students had experienced many of the faces of poverty and served in helping others.
As a I reflect on this experience for our students, the students were able to connect to our topic in a way that will impact their life for many years. I potentially can see them thinking about the experience of the trip and what they learned that day for years to come. I can see them sharing the story of what they learned during this trip with their own kids and grand kids. Further, I envison them becoming more empowered individuals who now know that they can make positive changes in their community through serving others. Here are a few things that our students shared about their experiences:
As I consider what the students learn, I am so pleased that we were able to provide them with an opportunity in which they learned so much more that they can apply to changing either the quality of their own life or the quality of another person's life by serving others because in the end, isn't this really what matters? I am excited to see how their final challenges will turn out this week. Our students learned more valuable lessons through serving that I ever could have taught them by simply staying in the classroom.
Three weeks ago, I had a major life changing experience an an educator. Having worked in public education for over twenty years, I was pretty sure that I had seen and experienced almost everything. But I was not prepared for what occurred three weeks ago. My colleague and I were in our classroom planning for our first challenge based learning (CBL) opportunity with our students. We had been planning for over nearly a hour and a half. As this is a new experience for us, both of us are burning the "candle at both ends of the stick" trying to ensure that we develop the best learning experiences for our students. As we were trying to put our already tired heads together, our principal pops in to check on us. She asks where we are in our planning process. We provide some cursory answers with the hope that she will soon move on so we can finish planning. However, she stayed and actually participated in our planning process. I found this somewhat unexpected and refreshing. Having worked in public education for over twenty years, I have had some amazing administrators and some great experiences. But I have never had an experience or administrator like this. Our principal instantly transformed into an instructional coach who provided guiding questions to help us plan for the upcoming challenge. Honestly, I was more intrigued by her actions than I was with finalizing our planning for our first CBL. She was genuinely interested in what we were planning for our students and asked questions that forced us to think deep. She provided some gentle reminders about things that we were overlooking. Due to the nature of her probing questions, we were able to create something much organized and effective for our students. She challenged us to think harder and with more intently that I thought was possible. Even more amazing to me, she was authentically listening to our responses and was invested in the success of what we were doing in our classroom. Again, I was not prepared to have such a profound experience especially at 5 o'clock in the evening.
As an educator, it meant a lot to me that my principal was so invested in our planning and success. She guided us in our journey in the same way that yellow brick road guided Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She was supportive and helped us to focus on our goals and identify resources that we needed for our students. As I reflect more on this experience, it makes me wonder what all educators could and would accomplish if they had a champion such as this invested in their success. Our principal spent over a hour with us to create something that she knew was there but we did not quite realize. She empowered us to think differently and create experiences that we never would have otherwise. In the past, most administrators have simply trusted me to do what I was trained to do. I figured that if there was a problem, they would contact me and we would "work through it." And I have been okay with this in the past. I now realize that I may have missed out on some amazing growth opportunities by not expecting this from my previous administrators. Further, I may have cut my expectations short of what I truly expected from my school leaders. I know that administrators are busy and have many things to do. However, that simple act of sitting down with us to plan our lesson has spoken volumes to me about how this principal views us. She probably had a million things to do both at school and at home. But she took the time, even late in the day, to sit down and help coach us through the process. I am still quite emotional at her investment in us. This was a really extraordinary experience for me and not one that I expected to have. Her actions that day spoke very loudly to me about how she values her teachers and staff. She truly seeks to help them get better. There is a book that I have used in the past, "If You Don't Feed The Teachers, They Will Eat The Students" which chronicles the importance of administrators investing in their teachers to maximize the learning experiences of students. My wish is that all teachers have a champion administrator like this who will invest in them like she did in us. It shows the importance of valuing others and the many positive things that can occur when administrators are invested in supporting their teachers.
We are nearing the end of our first rotation in our Design Challenge course. Our students have been working on their first challenge for the past two weeks. The students chose to focus on athletics/sports for their first challenge. Since our course is built around challenged based learning (CBL), students follow a process where they select their big idea, in this case, sports/athletics. In the next phase, they generate what is called an essential question that students connect to the big idea. The essential question is open ended, complex, and provocative (we defined this as a question that makes one think). We stress that essential questions are not simple yes/no answers that can be found by using google. Instead they are the questions that ultimately drive the challenge that our students develop.
We have stressed that the role of the teacher is very different in CBL. Traditionally, the role of the teacher is the dispenser of knowledge. However, in CBL, the role of the teacher is drastically altered. Teachers now learn along with students. Teachers are no longer the definitive experts. For example, I have learned that high school athletics receive no funding whatsoever from the school system. Instead. athletics must be raise their own money. This means that every uniform, bus ride, and piece of equipment must be purchased out of athletic funds. Athletics must generate their own income which is usually accomplished through gate admissions and booster clubs. Further, only a handful of sports contribute to necessary revenues of the entire athletic program. Basketball and football generally carry most school's athletic revenues. Without their revenues, other non-revenue sports such as tennis and golf would not be supported. I had never realized how important gate receipts and booster clubs were without being part of this CBL.
In our CBL process, we also work to provide experts in the field for our students. We had two guest speakers visit our class. One was a former athlete at North Rowan High who is now playing both basketball and baseball at Catawba College. He shared the importance of having AEDs available to athletes as well as being determined and always pushing forward. Another guest speaker was the district's athletic director who is a former Division 1 basketball player who has served as a coach, teacher, and principal. He shared the importance of making sure that high school athletes have access to quality athletic trainers who can assess and diagnose any problems that athletes may experience. He also stressed the important of safety in sports especially in football. One key component of CBLs involves onsite visits to facilities and organizations that are connected to the Big Idea. We visited Catawba College and spent a few hours with the school's athletic director and lead athletic trainer as they responded to various questions that our students generated. Several of our groups are working on challenges associated with making sports safer for athletes especially for concussions. When asked about what is necessary for athletes to be safe, the head athletic trainer responded the number one way to improve the safety of athletes is research. I found his response to be particularly interesting and not what I expected to hear. I would have presumed that the focus would have been more on better protective equipment. However, his response was spot on. If more research is done, then it is more likely that better ways to protect the athletes will be developed. He also added that we need to consider how to change the game so that athletes are not as likely to be hurt. This illustrates another particularly insightful way to improve the safety of athletes that I would not have considered if researching this challenge. We also explored what gender equality really looks like at Catawba College. The athletic director explained how he ensures that the sports, despite their differences, was treated alike. For example, if the baseball team takes a bus to Tennessee for a game, the softball team takes a bus to their game in Tennessee. In doing so, this guarantees that all teams are treated equally. We also learned about athletic scholarships. Catawba made it very clear that almost all colleges first look at academic scholarships to support athletes before evening considering athletic scholarships. Athletic scholarships are much more limited and there is only so much to go around for each sport.
Had our students not chosen this big idea, I never would have learned these things. Further they would not have either. In implementing Challenge Based Learning, our students get to see a seldom exposed side of their teachers. Teachers cannot be experts in all subjects and areas. I would also dare say that they should not be either. I feel that if our students are able to see their teachers learn along side them, then the students benefit from seeing that learning is nonstop. Our students see a cycle where we continue to learn and expand on previous knowledge while leveraging resources and other individuals to expand our understanding. In Challenge Based Learning, teachers work to support the learning needs of their students as a "just in time" model where students tell us what they need and we work to find the resources or individuals to support meeting that need. I left school Friday thinking about powerful it is for our students to see us, their teachers, learning alongside of them. I hope and pray that this will be a transformative model that will encourage students to realize that learning never truly stops for those who wish to continue to learn.
As a previous technology facilitator, I believed in the importance of teaching Digital Citizenship to students. They are the first generation of humans to grow up in a completely digital world. They have the potential to have their entire lives recorded and captured digitally. With this technology comes a tremendous responsibility to ensure that they understand the digital world and participate in it in a way that uplifts and benefits all of humanity. One of the best ways for students to really understand the lasting impacts, both good and bad, of their digital actions was to develop empathy for others. Empathy is so important for students today. We cannot over emphasize its importance with our students. In my experience, our students today struggle to understand connotations in our voices. I have seen my six year son struggle with this as well. To him, the statements "come over here now" or "stop doing that" are interpreted by the same way regardless of the tone or inflection that I put in the directions. However for those who understand that the tone and inflections of this command by a parent can often have very different consequences if not followed. In teaching Digital Citizenship, I stressed the importance of students understanding that their actions online impact real people. If we sent a flaming email, there is a real life person who receives that email. If we make bad comments about a picture of person that we see online, thee is a real life person who may be hurt by those comments. By teaching our students empathy, the condition of understanding how others feel, we often create experiences in which our students think through their actions and make better decisions. By helping our students connect with others, they see that their actions have a real world lasting impact. So we must #changetheequation in education and teach all students empathy. It is empathy that has the ability to change the lives of others.
When I took my new position as a Design Thinking instructor at North Rowan High, it was this idea of teaching empathy that really excited me. I have seen the tragic impact of what happens when students do not use empathy. They create challenges and negative situations for others. Sometimes this results in low self esteem, depression, or even suicide. With the proliferation of digital devices in our lives, we often forget that we are connected to each other. Over the past two weeks, we have introduced the Design Thinking module to our students. The first stage in Design Thinking is empathy. While Design Thinking is focused on solving problems, it is this brilliant incorporation of empathy that really separates it from other problem solving methods such as the scientific method. Instead of starting with the problem like most methods do, Design Thinking focuses on understand how the situation impacts others. It is humancentric since the focus on solving problems to benefit humans. As a result, Design Thinking has the potential to allow students to explore and practice empathy in a way that is conducive to them becoming caring adults who value others. Over the past two weeks, we have spent a tremendous amount of time on practicing empathy. Yes, practicing it. Many of our students struggle with understanding others and we have really focused on defining empathy as well letting students practice it. They have done various activities ranging from discussing gifts that each other have given. In this simulation, students ultimately construct a special item that means much to their partner. The students take the time to ask questions and dig deeper in understanding their partner's likes and passions. As our students completed this simulation, I saw students just light up with appreciation and gratitude over the gifts that their partners made for them. It was at this point that I realized that each partner felt that he/she was valued and important. It is these feelings that have the ability to change trajectories and help others develop positive self images. I would argue that of all the things that we teach our students from curriculum to citizenship, empathy must be at the core of what we do as educators. In the end, it is our understanding of how others feel and our appreciation of others that makes a positive difference. We must never forget the importance of this and continually stress this with our students. Having worked in education for over 20 years, I have a lot of students that I run into our community. Most never mention how the chemistry that I taught them benefited them. Instead, what they recall is how I understood them and encouraged them to work hard and pursue their dreams. I definitely count this as my greatest accomplishment as an educator.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.