I thought I knew it all

by Ariel Jankord

Working in the urban core has been a challenge to say the least. Learning rote spelling, reading, writing, and math is not engaging to most kids, but within the city making these subjects engaging is a challenge on a “whole nutha level.” While I always described myself as an innovative and engaging teacher I hadn’t felt successful this year. I was stuck going through the motions because the shock of my new culture. My innovative ideas were squandered in student inexperience with technology and lack of problem solving skills. My “engaging” lessons led to complete and utter chaos. By December, I knew I was going at it all wrong, but wasn’t sure how to change my trajectory. Starting in January, I scoured twitter, and read about genius hour, project based learning, and STEM. I was looking for anything and everything to engage these kids without resulting in complete chaos.

It’s not them it’s me! At first, I felt myself nor my students could handle these things. However, I knew they NEEDED genius hour, PBL, and STEM. Over spring break I connected with an inner city after school program that was already making it happen! At Operation Breakthrough I got a glimpse of inner city kids in a maker space and technology lab. They were building skeletal systems with K’nex and taking apart DVD players. This gave me the desire to learn more. What I quickly realized was I needed to rewind and take a few steps back. My current kids didn’t need to change, they needed to be taught well. The kids were capable, but they needed guidance.

After a couple of months of rebuilding foundational problem solving skills and basic iPad skills/procedures, I began dipping my toes in the water with a few STEM projects. Instantly, I noticed kids BEGGING to work on their projects. Kids were going home and “practicing” so they were ready for school. (Flipped learning initiated by the kids.) I was feeling the surge of excitement that every teacher feels at the beginning of the school year and it was March.

As students worked in groups I began to see students put their collaboration and problem solving skills to the test. All the dialogue we had been practicing, the emotions we had been identifying, and self-regulation strategies we learned became applicable. The first STEM project we did I “invited” (or begged) two other adults to join because I was just sure it would turn into chaos. I didn’t have enough faith in the system, in myself, and I’m most ashamed of not believing in the kids. During that first STEM project those kids showed me that they were more than capable and it just fueled me to keep learning as well.

Grouping kids is a hot topic and one that is super important for all of the above. Some pairs or groups that I thought would be perfect didn’t turn out to be quite so perfect. For example, one little girl, sweet as sugar, was in a group with a burly guy who isn’t always tactful with words. These 2 have been in same class for several years and I thought she was maybe accustomed to his “roughness.” It turns out those opposite personalities that I was trying to balance became a disaster quick. They were able to finish the project, but I learned that I needed to be more careful with grouping. Shortly after this life lesson I attended a summer conference where Ginger Lewman, author of Life Practice PBL, spoke on Project Based Learning. She suggested 2 ways of grouping depending on the project: ability level or interest. After several more STEM lessons and dabbling with Project Based Learning, I agree with her more than ever!

To be completely honest, I fell in the trap of thinking… I know how to do this teaching thing. But I learned this year the journey is never over… I vow to keep learning and connecting with educators who are passionate about helping kids tap into their potential. I’m committed to doing what is necessary to prepare students for THEIR future!