In this panel discussion, aired as part of a MOOC on Deeper Learning, students share their experiences and insights about teaching, learning, and schools. Rob Riordan of the HTH Graduate School of Education moderated the discussion and edited the transcript for publication.
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As a student, what is the work that you’re proudest of?
Currently we’re learning about forensics and reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I’m excited about this project because it’s very integrated, and it’s something that I’m passionate about. In humanities we’re going to make short mystery stories based on Sherlock Holmes, and in math/science we’re going to have an exhibition of a crime scene. We’re going to be masters in one area of forensics, and we’re making stop animation videos to educate our audience.
In math, we just got into a new unit of finance. So the project is about more or less planning out a future, looking at things like mortgages, insurance, everything that adults deal with in finance nowadays. I’m really proud to be doing it so early on.
We just finished up a project in biology, focusing on our own topics that we wanted to study, related to genes and nature versus nurture. My question was, does stubbornness run in your family, and is it genetic? We all found our own solutions with the guidance of our teachers. It was a struggle because we didn’t really know where we were going, but I find that the best way to learn is by going through the hard times.
We did a project on disease prevention and where disease originates. We did oral history in humanities, and it integrated aspects of every other class into the project. I love when projects are integrated. Personally I like to make movies and edit, so this project was a really great way to edit, interview, get public speaking skills, and find information about our family members that we might not have known before. A portion of the project is actually being exhibited in an art gallery at the UCSD grad school, so I think that’s something to be proud of for everyone who worked on it.
This semester we went to Cleveland Elementary School and read to kindergarteners. After that, we asked them a few questions based on their favorite animal or their favorite environment, like rainy or icy or windy or desert-like, and we’re making a story for them based on different biomes, which is very based on the students themselves.
Last year we learned in biology about the effects of alcohol on the body, and then in our performing arts class we made a performance about what we had learned in biology. I love performing and I love sciences, so I got an opportunity to combine these two things that I really love. At the exhibition I got to show my family members and people in the community what I learned in my biology class.
Summer Howorth in the audience asks what are some keys for teachers to consider when deepening student engagement in learning?
When projects and classwork are integrated, that’s definitely a key. Each student can find something in the work that they like, and it makes them want to learn better. For me, when we integrated art with biology, I was able to get into biology a lot more because I love art. Integrated projects make it less stressful on the students. They have one project they’re thinking about, not seven different ones.
There are a couple of things I would think about. First, if teachers give a kind of broad guideline for the project and have the students do something that they’re interested in, it’ll keep them going the whole time because it’s something they’re passionate about. Second, treat the students like adults. Obviously if the students feel like they’re worth it and feel like they’re adults, they will act more like adults.
Student choice is really important when it comes to getting engaged. For example, in our humanities class when we read literature, we often have a choice of three to five books to read, and we’ll get into reading circles and discuss that book. So that is great because we’re not all reading the same book with half the class bored out of their mind. Of course this applies to just about any class in terms of different choices that students are making.
Letting students know how this is going to benefit them in the future is important. Students may say, “How are we ever going to use algebra in the future?” but if you really let them know that and use real-life problems, it’ll help them understand and really get into it.
For the oral history project I mentioned, the teacher did an oral history interview before he introduced the project. It really gave us inspiration, and we realized it wasn’t just a project that he threw together in a couple days. He really invested his time, and I appreciate that because it shows that the teacher wants to learn with you. Along the way he got brilliant tips from students, and he improved on his oral history as well.
Another benefit of doing the project himself is that he can begin to understand and anticipate the problems that students might have.
Exactly. The first day of the project when we were editing on iMovie, he said, “Oh, by the way, there are a couple things that you can do so that you can edit the video and still keep the audio.” It was a really well thought out project, and he had already given it a test run.
Gail in the audience asks, “How do you find collaboration with peers? Is everyone eager to collaborate? Are some students reluctant? How do you move forward with a group if others are reluctant?”
It really depends on the classroom environment. I’ve had classes where there are lots of students who do not want to participate, and it makes group work very challenging. I’ve also had classrooms where the environment is that everyone participates, and you are more or less looked down upon if you don’t. So instead of looking at it as, “Oh I don’t participate. The other group members will do the work,” it’s more about how can I chip in? That’s something that a teacher can kind of control, or even students. The environment makes a world of difference.
Of course you have to have the right balance in a group, but group work may be beneficial for some students who at the beginning are not very motivated. The leaders in the group will eventually realize that this person just needs some more motivation and maybe needs some more tough love. Even when students are reluctant, it is a work in progress, and we can find ways to build off of that and make it a positive thing.
Collaborating productively is a leadership skill, and working with peers is a huge aspect in our education. You get the perspective of other people, how they think about the subject or the project. It can be very challenging for those who like to work independently, but once they get into it, it becomes very beneficial.
Here’s a question from Bart Miller, whose sixth graders are starting on their first self-directed exhibition projects. What would you suggest for someone just getting into projects and trying to foster self-directed learning?
I’d say that you’d want to put purpose into the projects so that the kids know what they’re doing and what they want to do.
It’s really great that the sixth graders are already doing self-directed exhibitions. What I found in projects is that there need to be two things. One is critique. Critique is a big part of making sure that students keep improving and they don’t just get stuck. It’s not just the teacher telling them they have to do more. Students are telling their peers that you could fix this and you could do this, and that makes them want to do it. The other thing is having a facilitator. If there’s someone who knows that they’re going to help everyone keep on track, or five people who know that they’re going to help everyone keep on track, it goes a lot smoother.
In my first exhibition in my freshman year, my very first try at it, what really benefited me was presenting in front of my class. We practiced in front of the whole classroom and we got feedback from each and every student. They gave us a rubric and it was very helpful to get pointers on how we could improve.
The biggest thing is making sure that the project really connects to the students. You can’t really do a project that has no connection to yourself and that you’re not proud of showing. Sometimes teachers tend to give deadlines and benchmarks and create topics that kids don’t really connect to. As a student, you really have to learn how things connect to yourself and make sure that what you’re talking about really makes sense to yourself before it can make sense to the audience. For example, we did this oral history project where we had to interview an immigrant. My mother and my father are both immigrants, so when I was conducting this interview, I really had to put myself in their shoes and it really connected to my own family experience.
One thing that helped me my first year was lots of communication between the students and teachers, students and students, even teachers and teachers—checking in with one another, making sure everything is explained as clearly as it can be. Communication is very key the first time and every other year after that. But that first time is crucial.
A member of the audience asks, “Are you students on the panel typical of students at your school? And if not, what would other students who might not be as interested in school say if they were on the panel?”
I have days when I’m not engaged in the lesson, but what I manage to do is I go home and I don’t just give up. I don’t just say, “Oh, well I don’t understand it. I never will understand it.” I think that’s the important part. It’s not like you’re the perfect student and you’ll always get it the first time. But what I’ve tried to do in the past, especially with larger projects, is connect it to something that does interest me. And I find that does help.
I am not the perfect student. Last year was very hard for me academically. I was going through a lot of personal issues, but what helped me was the push of teachers and staff who show me that they care about my education and they see my potential as a student. It’s important for teachers and administrators to know that they have a huge impact when they care about their students, because the students can actually feel that.
The students on this panel are invested in our learning, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the students don’t care. It’s just that we’re all different. I am especially motivated because my parents never went to college, and I always have wanted to achieve the best I can life. I mean we only get one life, and you learn so many life lessons through school. What we do here shapes the rest of our lives.
I love what Dora said about the staff and teachers. They have to be involved. That’s what makes great schools different from regular schools. As Daniel was saying, we are taking the time out of our day and we’re here. I think at great schools most students would be willing to do that, volunteer, get active and really participate in everything they can. I really think it has to do with the motivation of the teachers.
Here’s a great question from the audience. “We can learn a lot from failures, too. Tell a horror story. What does it look like when things go bad?”
For Dia de Los Muertos, we made paintings about loved ones that have passed away or have contributed greatly in our lives, and in groups we had to set up altars in our hallways about those people. Everyone had to bring in one thing, and my best friend brought in things, but no one else in her group brought in anything. So we went around trying to find things in the school that we could help put on that altar. She was very invested in that project, and she was of course really sad that her group didn’t bring anything in, but I think that with all her hard work she really deserved a thumbs up for that one.
While you’re thinking about horror stories, think about another question from the audience as well: What makes a great school?
Two weeks ago we had an exhibition where we had to do a performance, and one of my friends just completely lost her lines. She literally stood up there for a whole minute trying to remember what she was trying to say. And she just couldn’t so she just simply walked off the stage. And sometimes with stuff like that you learn from your mistakes and you have to just pick yourself back up. As for what makes a good school, I will say one of the things that makes my school unique and special is that it’s a small school with only 400 kids, and my principal greets every single student every single morning, and all the teachers know all the kids’ names no matter what grade they’re in. It’s that strong connection between the students and the teachers that really makes a great school.
In the ninth grade we had to make a solar oven, and it started out great. I had finished my final product, and the morning of the actual tests, it started to fall apart, which of course is everyone’s worst nightmare. This leads to my point about great schools. My school is very real-world related, so when we have projects that go wrong at the last minute, we have to think on our feet and fix it. I definitely think that incident is going to help me with future real-world projects.
A couple of weeks ago we had history week, and I had a partner I’d never worked with before. We were doing a presentation, and he told me all the information he had put in was correct. When it came time to present, my partner was absent. I read one of the slides, and my teacher nicely said, “I just want to let everyone know that’s not necessarily accurate information.” It put me in a really difficult position because I didn’t put that information in. Now I know that for future presentations I need to check in with my partner and say, “Can I see where you got this?” But I think what makes our school great is the teacher and student relationships. I thought that High Tech High was not the best learning experience for me, so last year I tried to transfer to a new school. I ended up coming back less than a week later because I missed so much the relationships I have with my teachers. They really do care about us, and that’s something that makes our school really special.
What makes a great school to me is that the kids are interested in what they’re learning. For me, I’m interested in my projects because they connect to society and have a real-world purpose.
Last year I had to collaborate with a group, and I had to do most of the work, honestly. It was a bad experience, and the day we had to present, I lost the project. So I ended up crying my eyes out, because I put so much effort into it. I really learned to choose wisely who I want to work with. As for what makes a good school, I consider my school a great school honestly. They don’t let you fail here. They’re really on top of you about your work, and it’s not that they’re holding your hand. It’s that they’re pushing you and showing you that you could do so much if you’re really not trying hard.
What is the best piece of feedback or assessment that you have ever received from a teacher?
For the Dia de Los Muertos exhibition, I made a painting about my grandma and what she liked to do and how she impacted my life. My art teacher gave me some feedback, and my painting came out so much better than it was before.
Some of the most helpful and meaningful feedback I’ve gotten is from students. I have done things before where I’ve had to teach a peer about something and at the end they said, “Now I get it.” I think that has been the most helpful for me because I then realized if I can teach it I know it so much better and I kind of have that insight to what teachers feel like when a student says I understand it.
Kathleen Cushman in the audience asks if any of you can describe a time when you found yourself drawn into an area of learning that previously had not interested you at all?
I’ve had this happen to me multiple times, and a big part of it is teacher engagement. In math right now we’re studying finance, and in the beginning I didn’t think I needed to do it at all. Then the teacher told us that he saw some people thought this was irrelevant, but he said, “You know, this is in our everyday life. I want to show you the best way to handle your money and teach you math through that and really help you for your future, because we’re all going to have to go through this.” So that really opened my eyes and I thought wow, he really cares about us, and I’m learning about something that will affect me in the future. I thought it was great that he sat us down and told us that.
I was very not interested in math for most of my elementary and middle school years. Coming to CAT, Mr. Barrett got me really interested in wanting to learn more than Algebra I, which I was taking at that time, and he really just told me how you can use it for real life. This is what career path and options you can have. It got me motivated and wanting to learn more, and I showed potential that I never knew I had for math.
In humanities we were learning about Mayan and Aztec civilizations, and at first I wasn’t interested. Then our teacher started showing us interactive videos and documentaries about the way they lived and the way they communicated, and then she put learning in our hands. She told us, okay, you guys can now go ahead and make a short slideshow so that you can educate your peers. As soon as I felt that my learning was in my hands, I was interested in researching and really finding out how they lived and how they communicated.
Everybody gets a final word. What’s the one last thing you would like to say to our audience?
My advice to the teachers is to set goals for your students instead of standards. I think goals are more motivating for the students to hear.
I think the biggest thing is fostering a real relationship with your students on an academic level and a personal level as well.
To rephrase what Erina and Paris said, it is a very big part that the teachers are on the same level with the students and are connected and communicating with them.
The teacher-student connection is definitely something to keep in mind. If students are finding that the subject is dull, find a way to really engage and talk to your students. It’s very important because sometimes they might be too shy or they just don’t feel comfortable, so it’s really important to try and reach out to them.
Throughout this conversation, we’re talking about teacher and student involvement, almost as if there’s student involvement and there is teacher involvement. But the two go together. It’s so important that the teacher has that constant collaboration. People are asking how they can make sure a student is learning in a group project. It’s just the constant teacher collaboration with the student. That has really hit home for me this year, especially with internship and school work on top of that. So to all the teachers out there, make sure you’re talking to your students constantly. It really helps.
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Dora Aguilar is a junior at City Arts and Tech High School in San Francisco, CA
Erina Chavez is a junior at High Tech High North County in San Marcos, CA
Daniel Cohen is a junior at High Tech High North County in San Marcos, CA
Ana De Almeida Amaral is a seventh grader at High Tech Middle Chula Vista, CA
Paris Gramann is a junior at High Tech High North County in San Marcos, CA
Gibran Huerta is a junior at Envision Academy in Oakland, CA
Trey Lewis is a junior at High Tech High North County in San Marcos, CA