When I moved up to grade 4/5 last year after teaching only the early years in my career so far, one of the things I both looked forward to and most feared was how to engage students in their learning by making it real.
At the end of that year, I chatted with my kids about what experiences they got the most out of, what they enjoyed about the year. There were two consistent responses: the Poetry Slam and the Kids Conference.
Interestingly, a lot of the parents I talked to also had those two experiences as a stand out from their child’s year. This is important to me; if parents see enjoyment, value and focus in their children’s learning, it makes it much easier for them to support and extend the work of the teacher.
The poetry slam came about when my team was planning a poetry unit. We thought that ending the unit with a poetry slam would be a great way to share. When I explained this to my grade, I happened to mention that often poetry slams are held in public places, like an auditorium. One student asked if we could do ours in the local cafe and I said “Why not?”. My initial reaction was to say no because the teachers had discussed having all our grades share together, but when the students come up with a way better and completely reasonable idea, you have to drop your plans and go with it.
Throughout a really successful unit, the kids worked with a mentor poet, Cam Semmens, who coached them over four sessions. They wrote many poems, scrapped some and reworked others. They tossed and turned over their final performance poem. They practised the way their poem would be spoken and watched other poets slam (including this hilarious one by Nick Offerman entitled ‘A Slam Poem to Bacon‘).
They picked the date, called the cafe and booked their space (and submitted their milkshake orders too). They called up the local newspaper, were interviewed and organised a photographer to come down during the performance.
They invited their parents to come and watch, and nervously walked down to the cafe that morning to deliver weeks’ worth of writing. They beautifully performed their pieces and supported the students who had stage fright.
Read their blog post on the Poetry Slam here.
Often as teachers we talk about a genuine purpose for writing being important, but often forget to include this in our planning, and even more often forget to ask the students what would be the best way to share.
The Poetry Slam was one of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve seen in my class. Students were driven, they were excited, they were analysing their writing and helping each other do the same. They were desperate for conferences to get feedback, and soaked up every second of the mentor poet’s expertise that they could get.
Having purpose turns ‘work’ into ‘learning’.
After speaking at #DigiCon16, I was invited by Jo Clyne, a brilliant historian and educator, to have students present learning at the HTAV Kids Conference. This conference showcases ways that teachers and students are doing using technology innovatively to learn about history and geography.
In the midst of a history and civics unit, together Jo and I came up with a plan which resulted in a launch lesson with Jo, followed by a longer-term project where students worked in groups to tell the story of an individual or group’s experience of Australia’s Federation. Some of these groups were selected to present at the conference.
The whole class took the tram to ACU for the day and attended their first conference. They took notes and met students from different schools (including secondary students) who were all using technology in new and powerful ways to learn.
This conference was exceptionally powerful for my students; not just watching others, but seeing their own learning shared in a public forum was genuine, challenging and exciting. What they presented was something they were confident in and had worked hard on, and they got feedback from students, teachers and a university lecturer on how great their end products were.
As the dad of one of my student presenters excitedly mentioned to me on the day, “10 year olds did not present at conferences back in the day. That was for university professors.” This is not the case anymore. 10 year olds are more than capable.
The lesson I have learnt is that:
- It is possible to provide (and be open to) genuine ways for students to engage in and share their learning with a wide audience and in meaningful ways.
- Not only is it possible, it is vital.