Teaching Students (and Ourselves) To Be Agents of Change

A recent New York Times Magazine cover referenced a series of articles about failure as the path to success. On a few occasions I have reminded our faculty that if we expect our students to make themselves vulnerable to the failure (and triumph) posed by change, then they themselves should feel compelled to do likewise. I soon realized that by exhorting them in this way, I myself must be open to the same challenge—and ideally, first.

Last week I stumbled into my own foray into this arena.

As many of you know I teach 8th grade French. I love the opportunity to work with students at this level, because, among other things, it allows me to learn from them directly. This was never more the case than last week when we commenced preparation for our first semester exams, and I began constructing a method for that preparation. Habit led me to a conventional system: a printed “analogue” version of all information we would be studying, compiled by way of a time-consuming process of printing, cutting, pasting, and copying. But then, there it was, the 10-page sum total of everything I needed these students to know, written down on something I could hold – something tangible. It includes exercises and lists and many components of practice for students.

When Cristin O’Connor and I stood before the class to discuss the period of time we had to prepare for the exam, we decided to offer them the choice of determining how they wanted to prepare. The decision was unanimous, and there was nothing analogue about it. For their study tool they chose quizlet.com, an online apparatus that allows students to digitally create their own flashcards, something my class did by dividing up the content and inputting their delegated sections onto the site. A compelling mix of quizzes and games then makes interactive activities of the designated material in a virtual community of the participants.

Quizlet.com was invented by a high school sophomore six years ago and now boasts 1.6 million registered users, including our 8th grade French class. The site includes 5 million existing flashcards spanning nearly every topic imaginable, but as it happens, the 15-year-old founder of Quizlet.com was preparing for a French exam when the inspiration struck him. His teacher had assigned him 111 animal names to memorize, and he realized that it would be more efficient to write code for a memorization tool than to use the conventional techniques available to him in 2005. Just over a year after serving as his program’s guinea pig, Andrew Sullivan released the site publicly to much acclaim. In April of this year, the 21-year-old pulled a move familiar to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs by opting out of his university education (MIT, in Andrew’s case) to serve the growing company full-time.

Lest I be seen as an advocate for dropping out of school, I am compelled to examine why four such disparate and talented (in some cases young) men would have done so. It seems clear that education, even at its finest – MIT, Harvard – sometimes loses its brightest acolytes by not keeping pace with the evolution (revolution) being created by their young agents of change. My own young charges were a compelling reminder to me that if the existing construct doesn’t work, a new one will be created. This creative process is what I want to celebrate and advocate in this Menuscript article, and at this school. We should all demand it from ourselves as well as from our students, even as we risk failure in doing so. Next week will be the moment I discover if my students’ risk pays off when they take their French exam and either benefit or suffer for their choice.

I think we are up to the challenge to make the classroom even more interactive and dynamic, to allow students some voice in the creation of their study materials, and indeed even in some cases, of the content. By the time our students enter their high school worlds, they will be taking some percentage of their coursework in a blended environment where the material exists online, in the classroom, and in the spaces in between. We need to try and meet them there, while never sacrificing what we hold dear at Tuxedo Park School: the human interaction, the public speaking skills, the firm handshake and eye contact, the important words of please and thank you. They will need all of it.

Watch this for more on this topic:

The intro is a bit long before he gets to his thesis, but Sir Ken Robinson is worth the time and investment.

About Kathleen McNamara Head's Up!

an educator in Independent Schools for over 28 years
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