Typhani Harris | July 2016

Lock Down the Buzzword Bling

Welcome to the Teacher Locker Series where we are unlocking secrets and revealing the perfect combination of resources to have an effective and successful start to the new school year.

During this series, we will be giving out secret combinations and be opening the locker of preparation, so let’s take a look at what’s inside the Teacher Locker this week:

Lock Down the Buzzword Bling

When someone talks about Bling they are referring to an imaginary sound diamonds make when hit perfectly by the light, and today we bling everything: We bling our wrists, we bling our phones, I’ve even heard of Bling water. Go figure.

We bling in education too. We take the latest, shiniest trend word …and we bling it out. We use it everywhere, meetings, lesson plans, casual conversations.  I mean, we literally drink from the blinged water of the educational buzzword bling fountain.

As an instructional coach, I have sat in many meetings, conferences, and interviews where I feel like I need sunglasses to shield my eyes from the shine of the latest buzzword bling. This got me thinking: When are we going to stop blinging it and start bringing it? How can we take the buzzwords and actually apply them as examples of great education? Let’s take a look at three of the current buzzword bling and explore how they are used, how they are abused, and how they can be applied in real classrooms.

Student-Centered: Learner vs Learning

The Glossary of Education Reform defines student-centered as ” a wide variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students.”  This means that the learning experiences are driven by the student, which is awesome.  However, I prefer the term learning-centered because it promotes the act of learning as the focal point, instead of a person.

A learning-centered approach helps us to step away from the teacher-preacher model. We are not preachers standing before our congregation speaking the word on Sunday morning. It is important that we bring the learning to the forefront. Sometimes it needs to be teacher driven, especially in high school where so much involves high stakes testing or AP testing, and we are trying to get kids into college.  Most times it can be student-driven, but all times it needs to be learning driven.

The foundation of learning centered is that students gain knowledge then transfer that knowledge to apply it to a situation.  There are many ways you can bring learning centered experiences into your classroom. Before you begin any topic with your content, ask yourself how can students learn to use this right now?

Build your assessment with that in mind and then plan your unit backward including opportunities for the student to use their learned information in their communities, with their families, and with their friends. Be transparent with this, it will keep them from asking “why do I need to know this.”  Another way to create learning-centered classrooms is through Project Based Learning.

Project Based Learning: Is it PBL or is it just “P”

This one is a real struggle for me because people will throw around the buzzword bling Project Based Learning when really they mean Project Based Assessment. A true project-based learning experience means you hand the students a topic, issue, problem and they design how they are going to solve it and along the way they are learning the skills and techniques of the content. This is not easy. This takes a lot of preparation to build a true project-based learning experience because it is a long term learning opportunity with the content information embedded within.

The Buck Institute for Education defines Project Based Learning as, “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”  This means students are designing their entire learning experience from beginning to end, again, not easy.

This is NOT you giving a bunch of information, you design the project and then the students completing it.  This is students and teachers together questioning, planning, researching, creating, improving, and presenting, as opposed to the teacher questioning, planning, and researching and then inviting the students to join by creating, improving, and presenting.

This is important because it is giving students the opportunity to engineer their own learning experience (totally learning-centered), but it is also difficult because the students are the designers. This is not a teacher driven experience.  If the teacher teaches content then creates a project for the students to demonstrate the content, that is not true Project Based Learning, that’s just a Project. Which isn’t a bad thing, project based experiences are great, but just be careful not to call it project-based learning if you are not actually doing project based learning.

Project Based Learning is the epitome of a learning-centered approach, it is literally stepping away and saying ..ok, here’s the problem, how do we solve it, and what do we need to know in order to solve it, how can we prove we have solved it?  For example, take a  health class. The teacher brings the nutrition and health status of the school as the Problem.  “Here are the stats of our school what should we do?”

One student might say “we should do a health campaign,” another might say “let’s create a health fair.”  Now the students decide what is needed, research and learn the information, build and produce the health fair, and then deliver it to their school audience.  All along the way learning the health content…this is Project Based Learning.  Now, we can go more “real-world” like the water crisis in Jordan or the economic crisis in Venezuela, but that might be too big to start.  Although it is great to encourage and foster global citizenry,  we can’t start there, it is too far removed.  It is important to make these experiences relevant to the students’ current world.

Literacy: More than an Essay

Literacy is another buzzword that is often misused.  Literacy often translates into writing essays in class. This is not literacy.  Rebecca Alber from Edutopia, defines literacy as, “being able to make sense of and engage in advanced reading, writing, listening, and speaking.”  This means students can comprehend various subjects and be effective well-rounded communicators.

If it is science then they should read, write, and communicate like a scientist, if it is art then they should read, write, and communicate with an artist. As a dancer, I have to be able to read dances whether it is during a performance or through notation, I have to read the dance.  As a dancer, I have to write artistic statements, critiques, and notation.  Notice, these are not 5 paragraph essays.

We need to stop thinking of literacy as an ELA skill like writing essays across content areas, it is about reading, writing, and communicating as a content specialist. Please don’t make student write a traditional 5 paragraph essay in your math class, that just makes more work for the English teachers.  Instead, determine how students can prove they are literate in math, how can they read math, how is it appropriate to write about math, and how to communicate through math, and then do that.

When students start to become literate in reading, writing and communicating in your subject then you can harness the learning-centered approach, and true Project Based Learning.  For example, when students are literate in the subject then they can start to generate appropriate questions and experiences for demonstrating knowledge in that subject.   A quick and easy implementation of content literacy is having students design test questions. Have them build questions with appropriate answers.

Gather all the questions (check them first) and give them as an assessment. Then have the students grade them as content specialists.   If this is done as a group activity, then they can carousel the reading of the exam and each group is responsible for grading the question they asked.  Through discussion and debate, students will communicate as content specialists.

Buzzword Bling

When we strip away all the bling, we realize this is just good teaching.  Sparking curiosity, having students design their learning experiences, encouraging questions, disagreements, and demonstrations by tapping into learning-centered approaches, Project Based Learning, and Content Literacy.  So it’s time we stop with the Buzzword Bling and start Blingin’ out our classrooms with experiences that drive student achievement.

If you want to learn more about the current Buzzwords and how to apply them to your classroom then join us for a FREE live webinar!

To save your spot for our Webinar and download your Buzzword Cheat Sheet

Join us TOMORROW July 26th @ 7pm (est) for a FREE webinar where we will explore these Buzzwords a little more, as well as investigate how to use and apply 21st Century Skills, Engagement, Real-World, and Cultural Responsiveness.

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.