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Monday, April 30, 2012

Eighth Graders Tell Teachers How to be Engaging

Go read this great post on the Edutopia Blog. An eighth grade teacher asked her students to tell her how to be engaging. The responses to Heather Wolpert-Gawron are quite profound. She helpfully assigned them to ten topic areas that I suspect will sound familiar to educators of all stripes.

1. Working with their peers
2. Working with technology
3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning
4. Clearly love what you do.
5. Get me out of my seat!
6. Bring in visuals
7. Student choice
8. Understand your clients -- the kids
9. Mix it up!
10. Be human

I wanted to share some thoughts on and implementations of some of these ideas from my years of teaching geography and GIS both in the classroom and online. First off, I want to share something I learned very early on: if an education methodology works with young people, it will work with adults. You might change the terms, depth and exercises the adults do, but solid methodology can span the ages.

I used to be involved with a Women in Science and Engineering program up at Salem State College. It was for middle school girls and each instructor had about 20 girls for about 45 minutes. The goal was to complete a hands on experience that introduced the girls to what we women scientists "do." I usually had three 15 minute activities. One was explaining how GPS worked. After my "song and dance" I'd point out the the four satellites we had in the classroom (they were always up near the ceiling). Each one had a piece of yarn indicating how far away it was from the GPS receiver. Four girls would each take a piece of yarn and figure out the one place they all must meet. That must be the location of the GPS receiver! Who ever was sitting in the chair at that location found a prize underneath it. (Typically, I taped an "I Love Geography" pencil under the chair.) I've used the same activity with adults. I'm not sure which group enjoys it more.

Now, on to the ten topics from the article.

1. Working with their peers

I'm a big fan of a loud classroom. Talking is thinking and talking to peers on the topic at hand is thinking together. Whether the goal is to come to consensus on an issue (Is global warming for real?) or to create something new (A commercial to encourage better care of our watershed) the process of discussion is sometimes more valuable than the final product. I think so much of these discussions that I taught a seminar online, I found technology that let my students talk to one another. They really got to know one another and they worked on their oral presentation techniques. I was especially proud of my "English as a second language" student who went from writing down and reading her comments to speaking off the cuff.

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning

Connecting work to the real world can be so rewarding for students. While the epitome of GIS project work is to "do a project" in the community or for a local agency or non-profit, there are other ways to connect to the larger world. I taught a lesson on user interface design. (Note: too few GIS people ever even get one lesson on this!!!) Once the students learned some basic concepts, I turned them loose on actual mapping websites. Which websites? Sites their owners/developers/hosts wanted critiqued. I found them by posting a note on my magazine's blog (with permission). We could only tackle three of the six requests that came in. I'm pleased my students allowed me to share their audio conversations with the submitters. Some owners/developers/hosts made changes to their mapping websites the very day they received the feedback. I let my students know they were changing the world even as they learned the material. I was pretty jazzed, too.

7. Student choice

Student choice can be a challenge. With too much freedom, some students are overwhelmed. With too little, they can't find something to match their interests and needs. I like to give different kinds of freedom in different kinds of assignments. Sometimes students are free to pick a topic within a broad GIS application area such as "resource management" or "health GIS." Other times I give them choices on how to present their work via a paper, a video or another way. 

10. Be human

The "be human" suggestion is a good one. The tag line is "have a little fun yourself." And, the opposite is true. Be prepared to goof up in a variety of ways. Among my goof ups:

  • The link is bad.
  • The instructions to download the software didn't work. 
  • I gave overly critical feedback to a student. 

I was pleased I learned early that it's ok to say "I'm sorry" to students. That's both being human and giving students a real world experience. People, both teachers and students, goof up. Educators  need top model good behavior when we do.

How do you embody these engagement areas in your geography or GIS classes or projects?