How do I deal with elementary schoolers??? I’m a high school teacher! That was my instinct heading into the first week of our first-of-its-kind internship with Katherine Smith Elementary. During this 4-week internship, fifteen rising 4th, 5th and 6th graders would be answering the driving question: “How can we make Edcite a better website for teachers and students?” As I mentioned, I am a high school teacher. I’m more used to students who roll their eyes than students who give their teachers hugs (thanks Kevin!). I was worried about how I would relate to people who are about half my height and don’t speak sarcasm as a second language. Despite these apprehensions, I worked throughout July with the ‘Junior CEOs’ to teach them about design thinking and help to make sure to add an Edcite perspective as they worked on their projects.
After four weeks working with these incredible young interns, I learned a lot about teaching and what authentic student engagement (at any grade level) looks like. I also learned that I had really underestimated the creativity, passion and maturity of these interns!
Lesson #1: Always Set High Expectations
I re-learned from these students that high expectations matter and result in high achievement. From the start, the staff at Katherine Smith was clear that they didn’t expect us to run a summer school camp where students were playing around with a few technologies but not really producing anything. We wanted this to be legitimate professional experience for these students. This was clear off the bat when we conducted group job interviews where these students (who were in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade at the time) had to answer some tough questions like “Describe a time when you have had a conflict with a teammate and how you resolved that.” These 3rd, 4th and 5th graders answered questions that I would have struggled to answer in high school with poise and maturity. As we began the internship, they continued to amaze me.
Lesson #2: Give Students Open-ended, Complex Tasks (with a Supporting Structure)
Think about a job in the real world: for example, my work with Edcite. If I am trying to decide what math content is going to be most interesting to teachers, I am not presented with four neat, multiple choice answers, one of which is correct and the others are wrong . I have to evaluate a lot of information and come up with a complex answer that I am always re-evaluating to make sure I am not missing something. A good project should capture this ambiguity and complexity of the real world. Our driving question for this internship did a good job of giving students a purpose without closing off possibilities for them. We could have presented a narrower question, but doing so may have eliminated some of these interns’ great ideas.
On the flipside, students do need structure. This is where the framework of design thinking helped to ensure students would have a process to go through, whatever their idea. We also had in mind some potential project ideas just in case students got stuck or felt they were out of ideas. The structure and backup plans ensured success for all of our groups of interns.
Edcite provided all of our interns with mini-ipads that they used throughout the internship. I was amazed to see students use these to create video games, explore educational sites, record how-to videos, blog about their experience, present their work to others using a Smart TV, and collaborate. I consider myself a technologically savvy teacher but seeing these students in action showed me how much more can be done with technology.
Again, there is a flipside. Students can also amaze you with what they can do that isn’t work on an ipad. For this reason, we set very clear expectations around what students were using their ipads for during work hours vs. times when they were on break. Making these expectations clear and tying them into their role as Edcite employees ensured the interns were productive (and still got to play some Clash of Clans).
As I head into my fourth year teaching high school, I am re-energized by the lessons that the Junior CEOs taught me. In my civics class, I plan to start units with driving questions and use mock trials and simulations (as well as real world civic action projects) to put my students in the shoes of professional lawyers and activists. Though high schoolers may roll their eyes at times, they want to be trusted with that level of responsibility and pushed to do well with high expectations. In my computer science class, I want to introduce my students to design thinking as a framework that unlocks what they can do with what they are learning. I will also cap each unit with a project where students have to demonstrate mastery and bring in industry professionals to give them feedback on what they have done. Most of all, I look forward to continuing my relationship with the Junior CEOs themselves, who will no doubt continue to inspire me and reshape my teaching.