This article is the third in a series of four blog posts featuring programs from PBS’ Spotlight Education week of educational programming. In this installment, former PBS Digital Innovator Amanda Haughs shares her thoughts and reactions following an advance screening of "NOVA: School of the Future”. "NOVA: School of the Future" airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide. Check your local listings. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using #SpotlightEduPBS and #TeachBoldly.
My first year teaching was in a Kinder class that I took over mid-year for a new teacher who’d decided to quit the teaching profession. I remember spending every day of that half year feeling like a complete failure. My Kindergarteners weren’t progressing much academically and I spent more time breaking up fights and tracking down escaped five-year-olds than I did teaching math or reading. Let’s just say there was a lot of crying – a lot of me crying, that is, not necessarily the Kindergarteners.
One day, while standing in the hallway with a quiet group of Kindergarteners lined up in front of our classroom, my principal walked up to me with a huge grin on her face, and told me that I should be proud. This was the first time all year that she’d seen this group of students standing in line so calmly and respectfully with each other. In that moment I realized that maybe I wasn’t able to get a lot of math instruction done in the few months I was there, but I was able to build trusting relationships, develop a culture of caring, and create a safe space for my students to be in everyday. And I learned something that my teacher prep program had not taught me – that education is not just about the academics. It isn’t about teaching facts and figures as much as it is about teaching children.
So how exactly does a student’s emotional well-being affect their learning? This was a question that spoke to me more than any other in School of the Future. The contrasting stories of students living in both East Palo Alto and Palo Alto was a reminder that students from all walks of life are dealing with emotional stresses that are affecting their learning on a daily basis; daily stresses that contribute to major inequities in our education system.
As a teacher working in an incredibly diverse school district, serving students from some of the wealthiest homes in the county as well as some of the poorest, I see my students reflected in the stories of those attending school both in East Palo Alto and Palo Alto. And, having grown up in Silicon Valley, not far from Palo Alto, I’ve seen the newscasts about teenagers committing suicide due to the overwhelming academic pressures they felt -- 10 in Palo Alto since 2009. How did our education system, and society, get to the point that an adolescent would choose to take their own life because they didn’t feel that they were doing well in school?
On the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, students living in poverty have a completely different set of stressors accompanying them to school every day. It is pointed out in the film that the “achievement gap [in America] is caused by an opportunity gap.” Some students go to school after having worked all night to pay their family’s rent, or having to worry about what color they wear to school, or whether they’ll make it home safely that afternoon. More often, students living in poverty do not have parents or relatives at home that can help with homework. They do not have many books at home to read or computers to study from. Some do not even have their basic needs met on a regular basis. These children are more likely to come to school more stressed and distracted than their peers. And right now, students living in poverty make up more than 50% of our public school population, a poignant statistic and one that needs to be considered by all educators; how are we changing our classrooms to meet the needs of a changing student population?
Amika Guilaume, principal of East Palo Alto Academy, says in the film that “if you do not envision your future, you will not work for it…” If students living in poverty are coming in to our schools already believing that they do not have a future, what do we as educators need to do in order to help them be successful? And if more than half of our students nationwide are currently living in poverty, how do we need to change our schools, change our classrooms, change our instruction to better engage today’s students, meet their needs, and help them understand that they do have a future?
I believe this is where personalized learning comes in, and the work of researchers like Angela Duckworth, Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck. It is important for us as educators to create a safe space for our students; a place where they feel physically safe, but also emotionally safe. Learning does not happen in a classroom unless children feel safe and feel as if they matter. One way that we can let students know that they matter is by making learning relevant for them. Acknowledging students’ strengths and their interests, and creating personalized and culturally-responsive learning experiences, empowers and engages students. Designing instruction around problems that students actually care about, and that are relevant to their lives, are validating and help spark emotional connections that can increase the desire to learn.
Educators also need to develop a classroom culture in which failing is okay and is a part of the learning process. Our classrooms need to be supportive environments where children can make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. All students are capable of learning and it is our job as educators to ensure our students know that. Students’ mindsets about learning and their emotional well-being must be nurtured just as often as their reading or math skills.
To better help modern students succeed, and to work towards repairing some of the inequities in our public school system, we need to remember that academics and emotions go hand in hand.