Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 23: Community Involvement in Learning

     This has been one area of my teaching that has always been a bit lacking. It is hard to make connections with the community when you are stressed about trying to get through the content. I know that is not the best excuse, but when you have to make decisions about what is going to help students out, some good things fall by the side of the road. I always felt if given the right conditions, including the community into the classroom would be an easy and welcomed fit, I just was not really sure how to make it meaningful for students. Enter the 20 Time Project!!
     The 20 Time Project came about because I wanted students to complete a semester long project that would allow them some freedom within guidelines. I had read about it on line and dove into the project a few years ago. I made a mess of it at first, got better and now feel that we are truly humming right along. Before I continue, let me briefly (if that is all possible for me) to explain the project. 20 Time was born out of companies like Google that would allow their engineers one day a week (20% of their time) to work on anything they wanted to as long as it was related to Google. This gave us such great tools as Gmail, Goole Earth and Sky and many other great Google products. The idea of radical autonomy with some general guidelines was then adopted into the classroom and education inspired by writers and speakers like Daniel Pink. It was a way to allow students to do something rather than just sit and soak up information. They had to produce something at the end, ie a TED Talk style presentation. So I ran with it and two years later here we are.
     So as my little 20 time project has evolved, I have included another class to the mix, Contemporary World Issues (not just AP American Government and Politics). This class is perfect for this kind of project as it really is not the traditional multiple choice test type class. It really lends itself to the project based learning. 20 time is PBL. So, I made it a goal for me personally this year to have the students branch out and make contact with someone beyond the walls of school. I really had no idea what this was going to look like or how this was going to work, (Shhh.....don't tell anyone!) but I did it anyhow. I think sometimes we get so scared and caught up in not messing up as teachers that we do not venture out of our safe zone and that prevents us from growing as educators. Just do it! Find a way to make it work! Show the students it's okay to have something totally flop and then make adjustments to make it work. Isn't that life?
     Things have gone far far better than I have anticipated with connecting to the community so far. I have students connecting with the local government in Lake County, Ohio; major automakers like Toyota and Ford; agencies like the UN and NASA; police departments all throughout the nation from Los Angeles to New York; major companies like Google, BP, and IBM; and many others. I even had a student attend a conference on her topic and she took 6 pages of notes. Seriously?!!  This has only been in the first 5 weeks of school!! The best part is how the students have reacted to this connection. One company refused to answer any questions from the students about their project. The students called them and they hung up after a brief conversation. I told them to try someone else. I also told them that this happens sometimes and to not take it personally. The best thing I have seen is a student who almost bounced out of her seat with excitement when a company emailed her back about her project. (And it had legitimate answers to questions! Score!!!)
     This kind of connection to the community and the real world was exactly what I was looking for! I am seriously amazed at how easy it has been (especially when you admittedly aren't sure what you are doing!! Ha!) for students to make contact. Although I have to credit them, they have really ran with it and been a lot more persistent than some adults I know. So S/O to my students for working this part like a BOSS! Boom! I don't know where to expand this too, maybe just refine it and make it better, but I do have one ambitious thought. What if I could actually bring some of these people in to be interviewed by the groups? Since most students have different projects (although some are similar) I don't know if this would be too complicated. Hmmm......time to ponder that......

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