Teaching and Learning with a Purpose

Last week we hit the October wall.  I’d never actually heard of that term until someone mentioned it in the comments section of my last post; once I read that, everything made sense. Essentially, the October wall is when students become so overwhelmed with their inquiry projects they lose motivation.  My students were unmotivated and off-task, alot.  So I shut it down, and it stayed like that for a few days.  I honestly didn’t know what else to do. But it didn’t feel right.

Today I read the following quote:

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Over the past few days, I’ve stared fear in the face. I’ve questioned to depth of my soul why I teach, and everything I know about teaching. In the end, I knew what we needed to do.

I was stuck.  Or more accurately, we were stuck.  Once you shift to an inquiry classroom, you’re in this together, whether it works or not. Without addressing what had happened, we couldn’t move forward.  Nor could we simply move onto something else and ignore why things fell apart.  And going back to how we used to do school was unimaginable.  Instead, we needed to sit down and discuss what happened.

I asked my students why they thought things fell apart.  At first there was silence.  Finally, one of my students suggested that they had so many ideas they wanted to pursue, it became overwhelming.  Another student suggested that we didn’t have a clear goal.  When we raised money for Invisible Children last year, we knew exactly what our goal was and when it needed to be completed.  Many students nodded their heads in agreement. Throughout this conversation, I let my students take control & responsibility for fixing the problem.

Finally, one of my students asked, “Are we going to continue working on this?”  This was the crucial question.  My students were sad & disappointed that we had stopped.  The truth is, so was I. This is the first time I can think of that both my students and I have been heartbroken that school wasn’t working well.  We all believed in the importance of what we were doing.

Okay. What should our goal be?  Students still wanted to complete the Common Craft type videos we started working on. Maybe a certain number of views per video should be our goal?  Maybe.  But we can’t actually control that.

A few more ideas were suggested, and through the interplay of ideas, one student asked, “Is there an anti-trafficking/slavery day? Maybe we can start one?” I told them to Google it.  There is.  It’s January 11th, three months from today.  After this, the plan quickly fell into place.

Our Focus? Raising awareness of human trafficking.

It’s estimated that 27 million people are slaves in our world today.  Most people think that slavery disappeared when it was abolished. It wasn’t.  Slavery still exists.

Some of these slaves live in Canada. Even typing this sentence is shocking to me. However, most Canadians have no idea.  We tend to think we live in a human rights panacea.  And this is where our story begins.

My students and I have spent several weeks learning as much as we can about slavery in Canada and beyond.  Rather than learning everything I could about slavery over the summer, something I would have done previous years, and then teaching it to my students, we’re learning about this together.  My students are the ones who decide what content is important to our project. My role is to model for my students how to learn.

One thing I’ve learned from past experience is not to do so much research up front.  What you do with your research dictates the focus and depth required.  Either way, students tend to have more information than is needed, which is not a bad thing.

Originally, we started our unit by watching Call & Response, a moving juxtaposition of music and journalism.  My students loved it.  A number of them downloaded the music from it onto their ipods; a development I did not expect. As well, we’ve watched parts of International Justice Mission’s video on slavery.  I chose to start with videos because my students need to see the truth.  Visual truth is much more powerful than me telling them a story.  In a sense, people who fight injustice don’t fight for a cause necessarily because someone’s told them it’s the right thing to do, often it’s because they’ve seen and heard another person’s suffering and are moved to alleviate it.

We are also studying Patricia Mccormick’s Sold, which tells the story of a 13 year old girl, who finds herself trafficked by a relative.  45% of the people who become slaves are trafficked by someone they know.  This is a poignant and powerful story.  A number of my students finished it within a  day or two of receiving the novel.

Our plan.

We are creating a social media campaign to raise awareness about slavery in Canada and other locations throughout the world.  Today we established that we are creating a Facebook page, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube accounts with the tag Slavery Still Exists, as well as a blog that numerous students will contribute to over the course of the semester.  The blog will chronicle the thoughts, feelings and growth of my students, as well as house all of the media we create.

Over the next three months we hope to raise awareness around slavery, what can be done to stop it, and the worst products to buy.  We hope this will culminate in classrooms and people around the world participating in anti-trafficking/slavery day with us on January 11th.

A number of my students have already created anti-slavery photos and uploaded them to their facebook pages.  They are the photos in this post. When school blurs into real life, students begin to take initiative in their learning and education.  They begin to identify with the victims they are learning about; it made me realize that some of the girls being trafficked could easily be my students.

Our Dream.

It was only six years ago that trafficking a person became a crime in Canada.  But very little has been done in this area.  From what my students can tell, no systematic plan has been created to address trafficking in Canada.  Often victims are treated like criminals because they have “immigrated” illegally and are often deported back to their home country to a life of poverty.  We’ve discovered that Canada is a “destination” country for trafficking.  Traffickers smuggle slaves into Canada, then over the US border because our current legislation against trafficking is, essentially, toothless.

We believe there should be a different option.  In 2000, the US passed The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which is the largest piece of human-rights legislation in U.S. history. It created the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking and modern-day slavery, targeting both the domestic and international dimensions of this crime. The law has a three-pronged approach:

  • Prevent vulnerability
  • Protect survivors
  • Prosecute human traffickers

While the law seeks to prevent trafficking overseas, and has devoted significant money to the cause, it also seeks to create a new life for those who have been trafficked. Assistance for victims of trafficking, under the law, include housing, education, health care, job training and other social service programs, to help victims rebuild their lives. A second important measure, is the establishment of the T visa, which allows victims of trafficking to become temporary residents of the U.S., with the possiblity of becoming a permanent resident after three years. The T visa signifies a shift in the immigration law policy, which previously resulted in many victims being deported as illegal aliens.

We believe it’s time for Canada to have legislation like this.   Currently, Canada offers a temporary residence permit, which is granted for 180 days.  Very few of these TRP’s have been granted over the past 4 years.  And from what my students have found, only 5 people have been prosecuted for human trafficking, since it became illegal 6 years ago.  We find it hard to believe that there have only been 5 traffickers in Canada during this time.

We hope raising awareness of this crime will move Canadians to pressure the government to create laws that actually matter and make a difference.

Beyond these initial plans, we’ve talked about lobbying our city officials to become a fair trade city.  My students talked passionately about the importance of fair trade, as one of my students furiously googled all of the information for us.  There are 16 fair trade cities in Canada.  None in my province.  That needs to change.

My students and I decided last year that we were tired of wasting our time in a school structure that was mostly rote memorization detached from anything happening in the outside world.  Instead, we want the time we spend at school to matter.

What are you doing on January 11, 2012?

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing — Edmund Burke

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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26 Responses to Teaching and Learning with a Purpose

  1. Your previous post “At a Crossroads” resonated with me and I was going to respond there; I am glad I waited. I arrived at those same crossroads many a time and eventually did choose a different path. I was somewhat dismayed to find that rote, follow the rules, we have a policy that covers that, that’s the way we have always done it etc. is very much alive in the “real world”. This is a real problem. While there is much talk about producing citizens with critical thinking skills, creativity, innovation and all the rest, the most likely scenario one will face in the “real world” is more akin to the experience of traditional schooling only worse. The only way this will change, is if enough people do what you and your students are doing. Seek out and do something that matters. There are so few opportunities (when you look really closely) in the world of “work” as it exists today to do that. There are signs that things are changing; people will eventually take a stand. The classroom is a fairly safe place to practice, and if the old institutions can not, or will not change one can hope that students with experiences such as those you are helping to provide, will fuel new institutions. Steady on.

    • I agree that there certainly is this “status quo” mentality in the real world. I hope, if we teach students it can be different, and they experience that it truly can, then the status quo will become less and less. I too see signs that things might be changing. I wonder if the occupy Wall Street idea is part of that? Thanks for your encouragement!

  2. Jill says:

    Hi Shelley! I’ve been following your blog since the summer, when I first discovered it, and I must say, I really admire your bravery. I am curious, however, about parent reactions to moments like the ones you mentioned in previous posts, as students become frustrated or the project seems as if it has been derailed. How do you deal with that? How do you make clear that learning is occurring, and that process is more important than product? I read your posts as a teacher, and I feel both relieved and energized by your perseverance and your human-ness, exposed; I read your posts as a parent, and I could see myself being frustrated with my child’s teacher, fearing that she isn’t learning anything, and that she won’t be ready for what awaits her. How do you handle that? What role does rigor play in your classroom? It’s such a loaded word, but I’m curious to know your perspective on how you address the value of what you and your students are doing at times when its value might be questioned. I’d love to hear back from you! — Jill

    • I think I’m pretty fortunate in that I’ve been at my current school for 8 years. During that time I’ve established myself as a teacher with pretty high standards for my students. Because I have that reputation, I find I don’t receive many questions about the rigor of my classes. Most of my students would likely consider me the “hardest” teacher at our school.

      This is also the third semester in a row that I’ve had these particular students, and during that time we’ve created a Holocaust museum & raised $23,000 for schools in Uganda. So these particular parents have seen us achieve some significant goals.

      However, if I was faced with a parent questioning the learning occurring in my room, I’d take them to the objectives in our curriculum and talk about how they are being met. I’d then talk about how what we’re doing actually prepares students with skills far beyond what the curriuclum requires, and why these skills are important for their child in today’s world.

      The point you’ve mentioned is really important. I think a teacher needs to be well aware of how they’re meeting objectives and preparing students, so that they can have conversations like this with parents, students, and other teachers.

  3. This is so totally what I dream of in a classroom – for myself, as a teacher, and for my children, as a parent. You are dead-on, Shelley, in your last paragraph – we have to make the place where our students spend so much time matter.

  4. maoconnor says:

    Hi Shelley,
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reading about your journey!! You are not alone in your struggle–it is challenging not to give up!! I have a different role (secondary consultant), but you continue to be my inspiration as I work with educators to move their view of teaching to one of meaningful learning. Thank you for sharing your “wall” experience as we had a professional development day last Friday that left me totally discouraged (again). I have dusted myself off and am on my way to one of our schools to continue to challenge the status quo. Thanks for reminding me to take a deep breath and to problem solve together–this is worth every ounce of energy we have:) Marian

  5. onepercentyellow says:

    What an inspired and inspiring classroom. Interesting that you and cschafer are doing the same work. Check out her post here (Thanks to @murphi30 for sharing how to link… hope that worked!)
    It’s really amazing what students will produce when they recognize that they are doing important work. Make-work assignments for assessment have little use in the real world. To the parents wondering if their kid is learning anything – yeah! Life skills! How to work through discouragement and move forward in a project, or in your life for that matter. It’s kids that have the chance to be in this kind of classroom that recognize early on that they are the generation that will take over the world.

  6. April Bond says:

    Wow! You’re amazing, Shelley. I am so impressed and inspired by the meaningful work being done by you and your students. Thanks for your honesty and this refreshing perspective on education. Best of luck and keep the stories coming – I appreciate the opportunity to learn from all of you :) Most sincerely, April Bond

  7. Yes! I’ve always believed that the only way to get people truly invested in politics is to allow them to experience the strength of their political voice. What a fantastic way to live the change!

    • Thanks! I’d love to live in a world where this is what every student’s education looked like. It might radically change what is acceptable in politics, something we definitely need.

  8. Rayleen says:

    Thank you for blogging these real life teaching moments. Too often we,as teachers, feel that we are supposed to know all not make any mistakes. I believe that taking risks, and learning from them is way more powerful for students than having all the answers. Having your students work through the reflective process in order to find out where things went astray was very powerful for them as learners. They now have now developed problem solving skills that will take them far in life.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. It motivates me to write in my blog, even though I’m not a good writer. But as one article said, “write poorly but write….the more you do the better you will get” So here is hoping that some day my blogging will be as interesting and moving as yours is.

    • Thanks, Rayleen. I think you’re right. The more you blog, the better you tend to write. I can say that’s true for myself. If I look back over the past year, I think my writing is much better now. It also gives me much more credibility when I talk to my students about writing because they know I write almost every day.

  9. Altitude says:

    I’m excited and encouraged to hear that you and your students are moving forward with their project – it sounds like it not only has the potential to be personally transformative for your students but transformative at a local and national level as well. Keep up the good work (which goes for your students as well!)!

  10. Nicole Waite says:

    Shelley, as a student teacher it is truly inspirational to hear about educators as yourself creating these envionrments that students are able to thrive in and learn not only the curriculum but as you talked about above those skills that are so important for our students to have. Thinking back to my high school experience, I remember the typical delivery of material and test to make sure i knew the content. I wish there were educators like you in my school because your projects sound amazing and inspiring. Your students are truly blessed to have you as a teacher. I hope that I am able to impliment these inquiry based learning strategies into my classroom because they sound like an amazing experience for both the teacher and the student!

    • Thanks, Nicole! I think the important thing to remember about inquiry is that it takes time. It takes time to learn how to do it. It takes time to make it happen in a way that is meaningful, and there will likely be a few disasters along the way:)

  11. Karen LaBonte @klbz says:

    Like others, I empathized with your previous blog post, and now I’m joining in to cheer you on! One of my truths about teaching is that there are few practices more important than telling kids the truth and asking them to tell the truth in return. We teachers can get so acculturated to being In Charge, or the ones with The Answers, that we can forget that “I don’t know” is the most authentic invitation to learning that we can give our students.

    I recently heard Mike Wesch say that he wants his students to take on real and relevant problems. How does he determine if something is real and relevant? If he knows the answer or sees the end of the project, it’s not real, and if his students wouldn’t work on it without credit being involved, then it’s not relevant.

    Even if you had opted not to continue, the simple act of taking the situation to the kids and talking it through together modeled the real world, where real learning usually doesn’t happen on a schedule. Your days in the professional dark hole sound hard, yet here you are, back on the journey. Nicely done.

    • Thanks! I’ve really appreciated the encouragement I’ve received from so many educators throughout this journey. I think Mike Wesch has it right, and I hope that we continue to see educational structures transformed by “real” education.

  12. Stephen Ransom says:

    Wow… I can’t wait to read/see/hear how all of this evolves. I know it will be a powerful learning experience for your students and you. Your transparency in the process is beautiful to see. I’d guess that many of those reading along wished we’d had a teacher willing to embark on such meaningful, relevant, and important learning adventures. Kudos to you for your passion, willingness, openness, and persistence in challenge. What a great model for your students as well.

    • Thanks, Stephen. It’s been a long process, and I’ve learned a lot. There have been so many things that I couldn’t have predicted, but we’re about a week away from being finished our first videos. Being so close to the end is exciting!

  13. Steve Goldberg says:

    Hi Shelley.

    I’m a PLP person myself, and I learned about your classroom from Will Richardson’s recent tweet.

    I’m looking to start a middle school for empathetic global citizenship that will (I hope) have students do something quite similar to what you are doing with your slavery unit. Details about my school are at http://trianglearning.org

    I’d love to help you and your students in any way I can. I’m a pretty good researcher (I’m actually a lawyer and a teacher), and I’m good at editing student work, so if it would be helpful to pair me up with some students, I’d love to help between now and Jan 11.

    Sounds like an amazing project!

    -Steve Goldberg
    email: MrGoldberg [at] gmail.com

    P.S. What subject(s) do you teach and how do you have the curricular flexibility to do this???

    • Thanks, Steve! I’ll pass this onto my students. We’re doing this project as part of our English curriculum. My curriculum is based largely on communication skills, so this fits in perfectly. I’ve created my units in such a way that students are developing their skills with a global audience in mind, rather than just their teacher.

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