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How to Teach Students Passion—Not Teach for the Test

Last month, I got to speak to the Cobb Education Consortium. It was filled with educators and administrators (from K-12 and higher education) who were chosen from Cobb County to be a part of a leader development process over a year’s time.

That day, I met Monica Alicea, a leader with a PhD, who has chosen to remain in the classroom, teaching gifted students at Cheatham Hill Elementary. As I spoke to her, I realized Monica was a person who had not lost her “why” for her vocation. And because she still loves students, she has found a better way—in our current school system—to avoid merely “teaching for the test.”

She enables her students to work in the area of their passion. And when they do, they actually feel the class is “easier.” They love attending school.

What? Are they serious?

In Her Own Words

photo credit: Royston_Kane Sarah First Day of HS via photopin (license)

Let me offer her own description in a note she wrote to me recently:

“I teach first through fifth grade gifted students. One day one of my 5th graders said to me, ‘Target class is easier than regular 5th grade.’ Target is what we call our gifted program. At first, I was devastated. I always reflect on my teaching and what I am doing in my room. I thought about what he said and pondered why he might have said that. I questioned whether or not I was challenging my students. And then I thought about my teaching philosophy and style. I implement a service-learning framework in my classes. My front door has a sign on it that says, ‘This is a passion-driven classroom, enter with enthusiasm!’ My students are able to find their passions and do what they love. These students chose to be in my room because at the end of 4th grade we give students a survey to determine the type of classroom they want to explore. The students have initiative, are problem-solvers, and they are working on a project he or she is passionate about. They investigate, explore, research, present, and they get to make a difference! We do Mystery Skypes and Skype with experts in what we are studying. We take virtual field trips (using Skype) and have collaborated with classes across the country who are studying similar things. This year we collaborated with a class in California because we were both studying Gender Equality, Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDGs). Your book (Marching Off the Map) resonated with me and validated what I am doing! I am a pioneer, who integrates technology, who allows students to study what they are passionate about, to be problem finders and problem solvers. When they are learning like this, it doesn’t seem hard; it is exciting, invigorating, and fun! Thank you!”

I believe what Monica’s done is transferrable to any student, of any age. The key is to be willing to take a risk and try a different pedagogy.

Breaking It Down

Let me take a moment and break down what Monica is doing that’s transferrable.

1. She sets a tone in her classroom that is passionate.

2. She exposes students to problems to help them identify what’s wrong.

3. She allows them to initiate work in an area they feel passionate about.

4. She introduces them to “experts” and outsiders who can guide them.

5. She exposes them to peers in other parts of the U.S. who share their passion.

6. She lets them choose what they’ll participate in and how they’ll do it.

7. She empowers them to explore, experiment and present what they’ve done.

8. She serves as a “consultant” more than a “commander” in the classroom.

So, let me ask you a question. How could you change your methods in your current, less-than-optimal situation that could ignite students to learn and grow? Is there a way you could translate some of Monica’s methods to your context?

I believe passion lies inside of every student. Our job is to find it and mobilize it.

Thanks, Monica, for your example.

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1 Comment

  1. Luke Henke on May 15, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Dr. Elmore,
    I tried a different pedagogy this year and engaged students with a 20% time project. The idea is to give students a day each week to explore a topic they would like to learn about instead of being directed by me. I teach high schoolers and saw some take the tremendous leap to creating or doing something unique that they were passionate about. I had one student proto-type a USB powered blanket for emergencies in cold weather, a group of two came back with an app and a website a week after I mentioned the projects, and another taught herself string theory. The problem I ran into was that somewhere between 5th grade and 9th grade, so many students seemed to have little or no motivation to try something, anything out. They did not have a direction for their education. They were consumers, caught along for the ride. I used some of your right questions ( to hopefully move them into a forward-thinking position. What problems do you want to solve? “I don’t know.” Then, I tried to reach a little further back: What did you want to be as a child? “I don’t know.” What are you passionate about? “Nothing.” What do you like to do in your spare time? “I don’t do anything.” When questioned further, it was a combination of sleep, Netflix, games, Snapchat, and now Fortnite. Granted, it would be much easier if I had students who never had to leave passion at the door somewhere in middle school. Yet, I am having a hard time throwing open the doors of creative, innovative thought once again for them. These 9th graders had a chance to view some upper elementary/middle school science fair projects and they were ashamed because they knew that their work has been sub-par in high school and that they had been outclassed. After reading the article, I see that exposure to the problems may help them. Incorporating experts is key to solidifying the reality of the problems. I think that this next year I will have to not be so open with them; I went too broad. They need a little scaffolding to tackle the problems in and around their lives. Part of me wonders if it is dopamine-induced stupor caused by screen addiction that I am fighting. Regardless, I’ll continue to brainstorm ways to wake them up.

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How to Teach Students Passion—Not Teach for the Test