Maybe today a child will learn the importance of a good partnership or they’ll finally finish their script and start filming. Maybe today their collaboration is paid off and they’re ready to publish their blog or test their prototype. When students are given purposeful work that is fueled by passion, they will stop at nothing.
This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton, I’m coming to you from the 2023 Deeper Learning Conference and I’m just so stoked to be here among so many wonderful people. Deeper Learning does things a little differently, and the opening keynote consists of three stories of deeper learning told by a student, a teacher, and a superintendent. In this episode, you’ll hear from the second storyteller, teacher, Kristin DeLaTorre.
I am so excited to be here. Let me start by saying that I am truly honored to share this space with so many amazing educators, and as honored as I am, it would be much easier if you were all seven because that’s really more my wheelhouse. I’m a second grade teacher. My name is Kristin DeLaTorre and I am a proud second grade teacher at the Conservatory School in North Palm Beach, Florida. I have three beautiful daughters and a loving husband. I have been in elementary education for 19 years, which is like a lifetime, and for the last 7 years I’ve been pushing really hard to bring deeper learning into my classroom, my school and my district. I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, New York in a very middle class family. I had a wonderful childhood, and Levittown is really small, so your whole world exists on your block. It was magical.
My father was a retired police officer, he’s back there. He retired when I was only two years old. Growing up, the only life I ever knew was with a parent that was disabled. Every adjustment and opportunity that goes along with that shaped my life into who I am today. I saw a parent in pain, a parent who persevered every single day and watching him, I learned how to be strong. My family consisted of a very loving and loud Irish Catholic household, and I am one of four children who drove my parents absolutely crazy. I think like that’s the job of the child, you just drive your parents nuts. And it should be noted that my siblings were very smart, and so I never really felt like I quite measured up to them academically.
So like I said, we lived very modestly and I took on my role as the sweet older sister. My younger brother was a Marine, and unfortunately we lost him early in life, and then a short year and a half later, we lost my father. So again, I had to be strong. Being strong in the face of life changing adversity has allowed me to follow the path that I’m on today, and it is my strength to do what I know is right for my students that has allowed me to stand up to district board members, curriculum planners, and sometimes even my own administration to do what’s right for children. Following my path has allowed me to walk down my halls each day, knowing in my heart that I’m doing what’s right.
Now teaching is a profession unlike any other. It’s our job to make lasting positive impacts on our students, but as a child, I felt like I was invisible at school. I wasn’t a shining star in any redeemable subject, and I played the part of the invisible learner very well. Growing up, my schools were a place of conformity and status quo. My traditional education may be the same as yours, was a thing that was given to me, handed over in a finished package, lacking any joy or excitement. I moved to South Florida when I was 10, and honestly, not much had changed. Only this time I was new, and so I mattered even less. I have very limited positive memories of my educational experience as a student. My strongest memories are of teachers not believing me capable of creative work. The opposite of encouragement.
The reflection of myself that I saw on other people was of an okay student. So that is who I became, average, fading into the background. I worked just hard enough to stay out of academic trouble most of the time, and I was never supposed to be standing here. I shouldn’t be here. I had never planned to speak to a group of innovators about the future of education. I never loved school or learning, and I floated through school my entire career. I was invisible. I’m here today because there are two heroes in my story. Teachers in my much later years who saw me through a different lens. These two are my models and I’m here today because students shouldn’t have to wait so long before they feel like they’re being seen. I’m here today because I didn’t want my own children to share my story.
What I’ve noticed about implementing deeper learning in my classroom is that students have fallen in love with the action of learning. They show up every day, passionate, completely engrossed and in love with what we’re doing. I get emails from parents whose kids are out sick, crying because they can’t come into school that day. Really. One day our, remember I’m from south Florida, so one day our entire AC went out in our building and parents were coming and kids were flying to the office to get picked up early. And my students would reluctantly walk down to the front office and then they’d march right back into my classroom because we were getting ready for a much anticipated exhibition. Their work was too important. Their work mattered too much, they had to be there. They were truly needed, and they felt important. I’m not going to lie. This work is hard. I’m working longer hours for sure. I’m researching, curriculum planning, and so why teach this way?
For me, this is the only way to teach. Every educator needs to find their why. So what’s my why? It’s the contagious enthusiasm and the spirit of inquiry that drives learning each day, the creativity that flows out of them, the undeniable pride that comes with each success, when they realize there are so many ways to be smart, and that each way is not only valuable, but actually necessary to the success of the collective community. The fact that I’m truly excited to wake up and go to work because I know that today will hold something amazing. Maybe today a child will learn the importance of a good partnership, or they’ll finally finish their script and start filming. Maybe today their collaboration has paid off and they’re ready to publish their blog or test their prototype.
When students are given purposeful work that is fueled by passion, they will stop at nothing. They come in early and work in the mornings. They work through recess or editing that one last thing with their computers and backpacks on during dismissal. And these are second graders. This work celebrates student agency, the future that awaits. My students will call for a different set of skills, skills easily taught and refined through this type of deeper learning. Albert Einstein said that “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” But that’s not what schools are doing right now.
When you walk into my classroom, you need to leave behind any preconceived notions about what a classroom looks like and how it should operate. Students are up and moving, working in teams, gathering supplies, planning and constructing. They’re actively learning while developing solutions for engineering challenges, or working in collaborative groups, demonstrating their knowledge and skills by creating public products for a real audience. It can be messy and it can be loud.
Now, doing this work isn’t always easy, and sometimes you will get it wrong. Last year, I had a fantastic young student, [inaudible 00:09:48] right there who joined my class already carrying loads of school invented labels, non-reader, learning disabled, troublesome. He quickly learned how to survive in school and how to disappear, and I allowed it. He stood at his first exhibition on world cultures and played. I eventually, being frustrated, sent him out, which was the wrong move for sure. I had failed him by not adequately setting him up for success. I didn’t meet him where he was. What he needed was to deeply feel the joy of being successful. Ron Berger, who stood up here in 2018 says that, “The work of excellence is transformational.” Once a student sees that they are capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility, there is an appetite for excellence.
From that day forward, I made it my mission for him to proudly stand at our next exhibition and teach others of all ages, and he did. The exhibition was on extreme weather and landforms. He built a composite volcano out of Magna-Tiles and it had side vents and everything. Our strategy going forward was for him to be hyper-focused on one concept that excited him and learn through hands on creativity. So on exhibition day, not only would he have a tangible product to show, but a wealth of knowledge to share. Once he felt capable of doing excellent work, everything changed for him.
This environment has afforded students a unique and authentic learning experience where students are seen and feel successful. Now, as an educator, I strive for my students to have an impact beyond our four walls, to truly make a difference in the world. These experiences will stay with students far beyond their school year with me. This deeper learning allows for students to feel the rain while others are just getting wet. Over the years, my students have formed organizations such as Little Hands, Big Messages, The Changemakers, and currently we have The Little Caregivers. They’ve worked alongside … Oh, I have to mention too. So this is all work that these students have accomplished this year, so from August until now. So every logo that you see up there, they’ve worked with and touched.
They’ve worked alongside the Challenge Athletes Foundation, raising funds for adaptive athletic equipment, fundraise for Hip Africa to help provide holiday meals, raise thousands of dollars for The Water Project building wells, and providing access to clean water in rural areas of Africa. They’ve also raised money for victims of hurricanes and wildfires. They’ve created a garden called Pollinators Paradise to help improve our school’s ecosystem. That was an earlier slide, where we worked alongside land planners, local community members, horticulturists. And this year they’ve even designed their own website, posting blogs to help educate others about the amazing work that is being done. They’re becoming proficient bloggers and excitedly check their blogs for comments from our community. Because after all, there’s no student voice if there’s no one there to listen.
They write and film their own green screen videos to help engage with a wider audience, learning the importance of drafting over critique, striving for progress over perfection. By making their work public, they have brought awareness to the future of green energy, the world water crisis, residential schools in Canada, immigration and Indigenous cultures, along with the significance of their own culture. Ultimately, through deeper learning, they understand the power of their work and the undeniable force of their collective voices. The learning is student centered and students see their work in the real world impacting change and having value. We all need to feel passionate about our work to go into the school building feeling inspired and seen.
I hope that more students will experience this kind of deeper learning, that more teachers will step outside of their comfort zone, push against the status quo, and get the support they need to do so. My mentor and former principal, Teresa Stupas, used to say, “Don’t worry, be crappy.” If you’re just starting this work, understand that you will mess up, you will fail at something. But wouldn’t you rather be failing forward than standing still? Maybe you’ve already been doing this work, and if you are, keep pushing. Keep learning. Surround yourself with people who inspire you. All it takes is one authentic learning experience that ignites the fire within your students and inevitably within you. All it takes is one teacher to change, to see their students clearly and to see where their passions lie, and to provide transformational learning experiences. So let’s go forward, disrupt the status quo and make every student feel visible. Thank you.
High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel. Huge thanks to Walter Cortina, Kristin DeLaTorre and Andre Spicer for sharing their stories. And to Michelle [inaudible 00:15:50] for introducing them. You can learn more about this episode storyteller and find their social media links in our show notes. To find out more about the Deeper Learning Conference, visit their website, deeper-learning.org. Thanks for listening.