PEAT: Passionate, Engaging, Authentic TeachingAugust 7, 2018
This article is adapted from the author’s keynote address at the 2018 Western New York STEAM Conference at Daemen College in Amherst, New York.
As a special educator, I wear many hats—but overall I consider myself an educator, not a teacher. I believe “teacher” pigeonholes us into roles that hinder a growth mindset.
A teacher teaches, and usually covers a single subject. An educator worries about the whole student and what he or she needs to be successful in adult life. An educator sees the interconnectedness of curricula, social, athletic, and extracurricular pursuits. An educator aligns with like-minded individuals to create systems, protocol and procedures that help students pursue knowledge beyond the classroom.
I am an educator. I think about my students’ well-being on top of the specific curricular topics they learn. The educator wants students to excel in all subjects, to do their very best in multiple avenues and to persevere through challenge and learn from failure.
Today I’m going to talk about PEAT: passionate, engaging, authentic teaching. I believe this is the secret to success as an educator.
We need to focus our efforts on having true passion about teaching, period. The problem with being passionate about subject matter is that students come in with preconceived notions of what they will learn before they even meet you. You may be passionate about math, but your students may come in thinking, “Boring math again.” We need to focus on those universal practices that awaken the sense of discovery in our students. One big idea, one concept: That’s all you need to catch a student’s interest and inspire them to pursue that knowledge outside the classroom.
Too often, I think, we push our passions on our students. Turn that around. Talk to them about a video game or television show they like, and they’ll be more likely to listen to you as an educator.
I learned this lesson early on in my teaching career with L.H., the most passionate, beautiful student I have ever had the privilege to know. He couldn’t write, but he loved so many things so much. When he was moved to, he would give us a crayon and a piece of construction paper and ask us to be his personal stenographers as he waxed philosophical in verse or song. We needed to write feverishly—he would be checking. He’d address these to God, various fictional characters, and frequently my wife when he and I didn’t see eye to eye on a particular day.
L.H. was passionate about comic books. When we did vocational training, he only wanted to wash windows. The owner of Queen City Comics, local comic book store, hired L.H. to wash his windows twice a week in exchange for comic books. L.H. would swipe the window a couple times and then go to the door like he was done. His passion was comics, but mine was educating L.H. We practiced waiting until the job was complete.
What ignites our students’ passions?
More than anything, L.H. was passionate about food—especially Cheerios. One day, he forgot his box. While we started feeding the other students, L.H. grew more agitated. He swatted a spoon out of my hand, sending corn cascading across the table, then called me a name and flipped the table over. We evacuated the other students and went through our crisis protocol to address his frustration. “Calm down? Calm down!?” he shouted. “But Mr. Andrew! You don’t understand! Cheerios are very important to me!” These last words were screamed. I laughed, and then he looked at me funny and laughed too. “I want you to have Cheerios,” I responded. Finally, he knew I had heard him. He sat down and folded his hands.
I will never forget this moment. L.H. was right. I didn’t understand him and was not addressing his needs. This happens in the regular ed room, too: We plow ahead with what we think we have to do, without ever considering what would invoke the passion of our students. We lecture and present the materials in the same way that people have for the past century.
This needs to change.
Too often, we are not teaching to ignite our students’ passions, whether because of misconceptions about quality teaching practices, depleted funds, burnout or improper training. The result is lack of engagement, disenfranchisement with the system, and a miserable learning environment for everyone. If you find the passion in your students, you, your lessons and your classroom will benefit.
Engagement is instrumental to academic success. How do I get my students to do what I want them to do? An engaged student is more apt to persevere through a difficult task. An engaged student pays more attention to all subject matter. An engaged student participates more, completes assignments more quickly and thoughtfully, and has better problem-solving skills. How do we engage the child who we say “doesn’t care”? Specifically, how do we engage that child in STEAM education?
Research shows that student engagement is definitely a predictor of student achievement. We can’t control cognitive ability or home life, but we can control (or at least impact) engagement. Hands-on activities and technology promote engagement. So why are we still using outdated textbooks that are beyond our students’ reading ability? This is not a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Get students engaged in a topic, pique their curiosity, and they will read about it.
You don’t even need an assessment tool to see if students are engaged. Body language and attitude are hard to fake. Ask your students—they will be honest. And before long they’ll be engaged in the conversation about what engages them!
Authentic lessons give students a sense of purpose. They solve that age-old question: “Why do we need to do this?” Somehow teaching got to this point where students are sitting down with their hands folded, responding only when they are addressed. This is a way to teach robots, not people.
Authentic teaching relates writing, reading and math to the real world—their world. Working on angles? Take the class out to a baseball diamond with survey equipment. Writing about the environment? Encourage them to take notes and sketch pictures at a nature preserve. Adaptation? Dig for fossils. The human body? Models and dissection. U.S. history? In western New York, the grain elevators, Erie Canal, Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration site.
It isn’t enough just to show up in the classroom. We educators need to forge connections to the community and the greater global learning network. The resources are plentiful and free. Global conversations make learning real and classrooms from all over the world are reaching out. You simply have to make yourself available. This is the essence of making your room authentic and meaningful. And the more meaningful an activity is for your students, the more engaged they will be.
When it’s real, it’s easy to work hard
The best example of authenticity in my career is my continuing involvement with Student Spaceflight Experiment Project. In 2015, I started a cool after-school activity where we practiced scientific writing and produced proposals for experiments to the International Space Station. Out of the 15 students who began the project, three finished their proposals, and one proposal—to gauge the effect of space travel on seed potatoes—made the finals. Working together as a team, the three girls went back into the computer lab for numerous revisions to meet NASA’s demands. The more they worked, the easier it was to keep going. This was real.
The “Spudlaunchers” won the competition. There were press conferences, interviews, pictures in the paper, quotes in Scientific American. U.S. Representative Brian Higgins mentioned the Spudlaunchers on the floor of Congress. We went to Washington, D.C. for the State of the Union of STEM (soSTEM). Through it all, the learning never stopped, although it was a skill set entirely apart from the Common Core: This is how you interview, this is how you get on a plane, this is what you do when you travel. We learned these things together. These are foreign ideas to most adults, let alone middle school girls from the east side of Buffalo.
Anticipation, then a change of plans
The day of the launch at Cape Canaveral, the girls were whisked away for private VIP experiences. They were fed, photographed and schmoozed. They had their own tour guide, their own handler. They were shown the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. They would view the launch from a conference room with people who had built the Falcon 9 that would launch their experiment. T-minus 15 minutes, the Spudlaunchers were put in front of a grandstand with about 5,000 people. The crowd was hyped, the girls were hyped, the staff was hyped. We were ready to launch. Back in the balcony of the conference room with real NASA engineers we could hear the muffled broadcast start a 30-second countdown.
The girls were leaning forward on the railing, staring intently at a toothpick sliver on the horizon that contained 11 half-inch potatoes. Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. And then, at three seconds, we heard it: “Hold the count there. The launch has been scrubbed.” It was an authentic teaching moment, but of course, the girls were inconsolable. They would try again the following day, but there were no guarantees. We were advised to go on with our plans, but at around 10:40 A.M., to look east.
The next day, we didn’t think the girls would be thinking about the launch. But the previous day’s experience had really piqued their interest. They were on their phones watching live coverage and learning about the rocket. Our Uber driver worked for NASA and told them more about the rockets they had seen the previous day. He turned the radio to NASA’s broadcast of the launch. The same voice from the previous day was counting down once more.
The driver pulled over to the side of the highway. We got out and looked east. As the engineer got to 30, the girls embraced, just as they had the day before. Three, two, one…and then we heard the rumbling of igniting engines. We couldn’t see the rocket through the clouds, but we felt it. I even imagined I could hear it, though we were miles away. It would have been great to watch the launch from up close, but this was better. The girls didn’t have to share this moment with anyone. And it’s one they will always remember.
I have made it my mission to try to recreate these moments for all my students.
This PEAT concept is still in progress. I want to package and share it. This might not be easy, but no matter the subject, no matter the content, this is the crux of what we all do as educators. The future of our students depends on it.
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