Friday, January 30, 2015

Teen hearts and minds

Insights into the adolescent brain are always welcome.  It is both wonderful and challenging to be an adolescent and to teach and parent one, too.

This interview with Frances Jenson Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-prone, and Should Protect Their Brains, gives great insight about what is actually going on inside the developing mind of an adolescent.  Her book, The Teenage Brain looks like a great read.  

What most interested me in the interview was the advice about using media.  Teens (and preteens) don't yet have the ability to stop doing an alluring activity when they need to.  For example, they want to keep their phones under their pillow at night - texting and responding to "pings" and not sleeping.

Fortunately our teens have us - their parents and teachers - to help them when their brains are not quite ready to.  It's up to us to take the phone away, to set the limits, to help them remember that they can cope with setbacks, and to give them opportunities to practice good decision making.

A few things I have noticed about middle school children is that they are passionate about ideas, embrace causes with all their hearts, and thrive when given real responsibilities.  They deeply desire to be part of a close community and to be known - and accepted - for themselves, and forgiven for the mistakes they inevitably make.

The photo above shows preschoolers helping our middle schoolers take out the recycling.  Being in the role of a nurturer is something that most teens absolutely love.  Within the embrace of a caring community, teens can take intellectual and emotional risks.  When they feel confident that adults around them will provide the stops that their own brains can't, they are free to test limits within the bounds of safety.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Using a larger toolbox

This article from Huff Post about Union College's take on The Maker Movement and the Humanities: Giving Students a Larger Toolbox conveys elegantly what I was trying to say in my last blog post.  Valuable experiences for students' don't have to be boxed into only STEM-related or specific maker space environments.  The discussion around promoting the kind of learning that gives students meaningful and motivating experiences are right up our alley.  It is great to see that some colleges are expanding on what has largely been a movement limited to the primary level and some secondary science classes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Work worth doing

At the recent Next World Conference, Thomas Freidman hosted a panel on challenges in education.  Tony Wagner from Harvard's Innovation Lab said, "Content knowledge has to be engaging to kids.  If kids aren’t motivated, you can pour content knowledge in their heads and it comes right out the other ear."  Richard Miller, president and professor at Olin College said he hoped that "...students will leave school thinking about how they can change the world, not about what job they will get."

STEM projects are inherently motivating to most kids and there is a move in education circles to emphasize them as vehicles for igniting imagination, cooperation and innovation. We have certainly seen this to be true at Parker.  From the middle school's Engine Project, Rube Goldberg Challenge, STEM week and First LEGO League competition to designing water wheels in second and third grade, students love these projects.

There are also many projects beyond STEM that engage students.  It seems to be immersion and choice within a topic that are the most motivating factors.  Students, when given agency within a framework, gleefully embrace the biggest and most complex - or even small or tedious - challenges.

Witness the recent areas of study across the grades at Parker.  Students worked in and out of school, in their spare time, feverishly near the end, to build models of historic regional landscapes (2-3) or displays of historic change-makers (4-5).  Kindergarteners carefully researched, drew, wrote, and invited peers and parents to an exhibition about communities.  8th graders honed speeches and coordinated photographs, made soup and researched world hunger to mount their complex and compelling Empty Bowls event. 

Basic skills like reading, writing, and problem solving were practiced.  The content knowledge gained was topic-specific and rich in detail and nuance.  Students also learned those larger lessons that are embedded in the school's mission: passion, curiosity and confidence.  And they practiced values like responsibility and ethics.

In a curriculum designed around projects of all types, students get to do work worth doing.  What a difference it can make!