Shared Purpose Leads to Civic Action
The last year has been a journey of making sense and meaning of what exactly connected learning is and what it means to me. Along the way I’ve had the privilege of joining conversations with amazing NWP teachers about what it looks like and how it takes shape. I’m constantly comparing this framework to the things that I do as a teacher – wondering which principles already live in my classroom and how I might breathe life into others. What I’ve realized is that shared purpose is more than just collaboration among students, but that shared purpose can be something that emerges quite organically as students pursue their passions and engage with their communities.
I’ve taught in a variety of settings – ESL in South Korea and Eastern Europe, social studies, ELA, middle school, high school, urban title one schools, and most recently an affluent suburban high school. My experiences confirm for me that connected learning holds water. It is, in fact, a “no duh” approach. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But I do believe that it is absolutely necessary if we want to create meaningful learning experiences for our students that help them become engaged, passionate, and critical citizens.
I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took me longer than it should have to come to this conclusion. I can remember early bitter days in a boring classroom in which I unsuccessfully tried to fill my students’ heads with enough minutia that they might pass the required standardized tests. Sure, I used my “teacher toolbox” of interesting activities and strategies to liven things up, but that was MY toolbox and it was nothing more than a superficial, and very lame facade dressing up content that held no interest or connection for my students. I was clueless and frustrated. Looking back now I realize that my classroom was driven by fear and an attempt to control. I was afraid of the test and its devastating repercussions for both myself and my students and consequently, I was trying to tightly control the outcome. I needed to drop the reins and step out of the way. This didn’t happen overnight, but fear and stress are exhausting. I was tired. And my fear and guilt began to transform into rebellion. At first I blamed the system, but eventually I realized I had to start with myself. How could I become a better, more responsive teacher to my students and help guide rather than control their learning experiences?
My journey to becoming the teacher I wanted to be included the mentorship of wiser, happier teachers who understood how to spark student interest, attending a Masters program at Texas State University and participating in the Central Texas Writing Project’s Summer Institute. By the time I joined a team of teachers at a New Tech high school who were committed to designing engaging, project-based-learning (PBL) curriculum I had began moving my classroom to a place that honored students’ passions and interests and encouraged them to create things that they considered meaningful.
Becoming a New Tech teacher meant that I was able to continue experimenting with production-centered, interest-driven curriculum, but I now also had access to resources and mentors who were helping me learn how to best facilitate student collaboration and presentation skills. Using PBL consistently in every class had a profound impact. Students developed an independence of thought and action that I had not seen before. They advocated for themselves; they asked provocative questions; they supported and challenged one another.
When I was first introduced to connected learning, I had been living and breathing PBL for four years and to me these two frameworks seem completely in harmony. The PBL model is all about producing and students typically have a good deal of freedom in deciding how they want to approach the challenge which is anchored by content area curriculum; they collaborate in teams, and they must rely on various networks to accomplish goals.
At first glance shared purpose seemed implicit in the collaboration of a team project, but I will admit that sometimes that shared purpose is superficial. A student is not always going to be personally motivated or passionate about a particular project or challenge, sometimes that shared purpose is more about a grade or not letting your team down. But sometimes shared purpose comes to life. It takes root and grows. Here is how I witnessed that happen at a high school in Austin, Texas.
Eastside Memorial is the typical struggling, urban school. Punished because of scores, shut down, repurposed, renamed. It is no surprise that its students were disinterested and disengaged. Why care or invest in a system that ultimately values you as a piece of data? And more specifically, a piece of data that is a huge liability in the system of standardized testing. A system that cares nothing for inquiry, lifelong learning habits, or creative thinking. Because of this mindset of fear many Eastside students were forced into remediation math and reading classes, leaving no space for courses that they were interested in. Essentially, all they were learning was that school was boring and completely disconnected from the reality of their lives.
It took an entire year to acclimate our students to a new environment of PBL, an environment where they had choice and voice, an environment where they had to problem solve and be creative. An environment where they had to work together. It was tough. We were asking them to think, to create, to make decisions. Transitioning to this kind of engagement is not easy when you’ve gotten by with filling in worksheets and having a teacher tell you exactly how something should be done. We were asking them to come up with the questions to guide their design plans and they were frustrated because this was not easy. By the end of year one they had gotten the hang of it, but by year two they owned this process.
During my three years at Eastside I looped up each year so that I had the rewarding experience of teaching the same group of students from their freshman to their junior year. Sophomore year we embarked on a project in which teams of students looked at local media coverage of our school. It wasn’t pretty. Our local newspaper had printed several articles and editorials that painted a bleak picture or Eastside and its students and teachers. Our purpose: improve the reputation of our school. Teams went through a process of categorizing all of the great things that were happening at the school (robotics club, sports, internships, etc), then selected a specific news outlet and set out to contact them and ask them if they would write something positive about Eastside.
Many of my students were upset about the editorials written by a specific columnist, Alberta Phillips. One of those students decided he would call her and invite her to Eastside. He did this during class and I was able to listen in on his side of the 30 minute conversation. Wow. This student spoke professionally and politely, yet remained firm in his assertions of the positive things happening at Eastside. He understood that he was representing his peers, his school, and his community. The end result was a visit to the school and our class, a very positive editorial piece, but more importantly, the winning over of an ally. Ms. Phillips continued to watch the tumultuous story of Eastside and wrote as an advocate of the students she had come to respect and admire.
The students who participated in this project would go on the following year to write letters, protest, and speak in front of the school board when Eastside was in danger of being turned into a charter school. They were part of a galvanizing community movement that eventually spread the word and used electoral power to dramatically change the face of the school board, and reverse the decision that would have dismantled the Eastside vertical team of schools. A decision that had been quickly bulldozed through by the school district despite community outrage. The ultimate goal, the purpose, shared by Eastside students and the Eastside community was very real and the stakes were very high.
The Eastside story demonstrates the power of students working towards a common goal and making a positive change — making a difference — in their community. They had a shared purpose, they had encouraging teachers and mentors, but most importantly, they discovered the power of using their voices to tell their story and ultimately impact the story of their community.
Links to articles written by Alberta Phillips and students speaking at the Austin ISD board meeting are provided in the pages that follow.