Taking the Plunge

Nick Covington
December 14, 2018
This is the kind of learning that is possible if we unencumber our classrooms from complicated instructional strategies...

“M” practically ran into my room with her phone in her hand. It was our short passing period, but she was bubbling with excitement and had something she just had to show me right. now.

M is a nationally competitive diver with global ambitions. For her Economic Engagement Project M wanted to know about what it takes, from an economic perspective, to be an Olympic athlete and research the financial impact of the Olympic games:

What are the economic benefits of the Olympics?

How do athletes pay for training and travel?

Do they pay for their own equipment?

Is it like a job or something they do on the side?

How do they get “paid” for their athletic work?

So she just reached out and asked one of her heroes

…waited for a response

…and her hero responded back.

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Excerpt from E-mail Response

A semester in the making, this changed everything about M’s project. She had originally wanted a wider audience with a published video to YouTube, but after she received the reply, she immediately asked to present her research to the class so we could all share in her passion, ask questions, and respond and react in real time. Which we did, of course, and her knowledge and enthusiasm was as infectious as she had predicted.

We ended the class period not only with a greater understanding of the economic consequences of the Olympics and the financial implications of athletic participation — her intended goal — but everyone within range of M’s voice was impacted by the chain of influence from her role model into our classroom.

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Outline from M’s Presentation
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To quote M to the class: “I was so hyped about this!”

This is the kind of learning that is possible if we unencumber our classrooms from complicated instructional strategies — often meant to impress a false sense of urgency or keep students too busy to misbehave — and make room, give time, and provide support for students to engage in the most fundamental and natural processes of learning:

What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?” — My Pragmatic Journey…”, 8/16/2018

We should be asking ourselves critical questions if a curriculum— however standardized or standards-based — fails to make room for these immeasurably valuable experiences:

Further, we should be careful that our guiding documents — designed to structure our limited time with students and build a path to a particular and often predetermined outcome — don’t also impose unnecessary ceilings and walls that prevent them from exploring and discovering what lies beyond.

How can the depth, the complexity, and the personal and iterative nature of this learning process possibly be captured and faithfully reflected in a letter grade, who would even want that?“What Matters?”, 12/5/2018

There is a certain hollowness to a curriculum filled with endless standards to be mastered, the ensuing litany of assessments, and the rubrics against which to measure them if this kind of classroom learning and sharing isn’t possible for students — or if it happens only within a narrow range of acceptable content. What question on a common assessment could any of us have asked that would have accomplished the same level of engagement, affirmation, joy, and depth of personal connectivity as the questions M asked and answered for herself? What question do you think she will ask and answer next? And after that?

Up today is a presentation about “A Renewable Future”, in which a student reached out to green energy organizations in our state and interviewed a professor from Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. We continue to take the plunge and the chain of influence and connectivity grows.

Thanks to Burton Hable.

Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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