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When Learners Become the Teachers

District Seeks Student Voices for Reform Initiative


To explain how he learns best, Lee High School sophomore Elijah Kibbe described studying all the ingredients for ice cream treats before he started working at Dairy Queen.

“The first day I got there I messed up everything, even though I had studied how to make a Royal Oreo Blizzard,” Elijah recounted on a recent student panel. “I still messed up every time I had to put the cocoa fudge in the middle. … I didn’t have experience that you have to put the machine to 80 when you make the Oreo Blizzard, or you have to put the machine at 20 when you make a strawberry shake.

“You can have all the information in the world, but if you do not have any experience in it, you can’t do anything with it,” he concluded. “That’s what I learned.”

What Elijah was putting into his own words, said Philadelphia educator Ginger Fifer, who is partnering with the district on education reform efforts, is that teachers should not be “the sage on the stage” but “the guide on the side.”

Five Lee High students mentioned relationships, experience, and the need to figure things out for themselves as what they value most in education, during an hour-long student discussion session at Kent ISD. Students shared thoughts with Godfrey-Lee teachers and administrators; educators Fifer and Alex McDonnell, both teachers at a private school in Philadelphia; and Andreas Bustamante, a postdoctoral research fellow at Temple University.

McDonnell said Elijah’s emphasis on “doing” things already had him thinking about how to make education more experiential.

“His Dairy Queen point was brilliant,” McDonnell said. “It reaffirms what I do try to do: have students play the role of expert.”

Philadelphia educators Alex McDonnell and Ginger Fifer are helping the district embed the “6Cs” into education
Philadelphia educators Alex McDonnell and Ginger Fifer are helping the district embed the “6Cs” into education

Human-Centered Design

The panel was part of Rebel U, the Godfrey-Lee staff’s annual professional development day. The district is undergoing a human-centered design process, funded by the Steelcase Foundation. It has grown to include work to embed the “6Cs,” as described in the book “Becoming Brilliant,” into education.

The 6Cs include collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. Students’ input is being used in determining how to make those skills best fit into instruction. The project involved partnering with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of “Becoming Brilliant,” whose team includes the Philadelphia educators.

The student panel was meant to examine ways to leverage student creativity to build on the district’s new learner profile, which gives all C’s the same strength in how to approach instruction.

“We learned a lot today from what the kids are saying they want and see as valuable that align really well with the 6Cs,” said Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach, noting that students and teachers are becoming close to being on the same page with learning goals.

Student Voices in Learning

Junior Luke McGee said he likes interactive projects, like making a video or music about what they are learning. “I feel like that’s the way I personally best learn, when you able to interact and create something off the top of your own head from what you’ve been taught.”

Students said they love the chance to create things; they want ample opportunities to work one-on-one with teachers. They love the small, close-knit district that operates like a family.

‘You guys could explain why you need to find y. Why? Where did y come from?” — Senior Adela Campos

They said they don’t like to ask questions in class — though that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. They said meaningful moments have made learning stick with them in various ways, mostly because they involved real-world experiences.

Let students need lead the way when it comes to technology, Elijah said.

“We have a (recording) studio at our school. Nobody teaches us how to use the studio. Nobody’s like, ‘Here’s the class and here’s the assignment.’ If that were the case, I’d probably never be in the studio. When you have that chance to go in there and learn for yourself and go through trials and errors on your own, I feel like you become a better person.

“I feel like it becomes more enjoyable to learn because you are doing it on your own,” he added. “Sometimes it gets boring just listening to somebody talk and just writing papers a lot.”

‘Push Us to Keep Going’

Teachers asked how they can know when letting learners struggle is too much. Students said as long as teachers are accessible, they appreciate a challenge. But they also don’t like to make mistakes.

“I do not like to struggle. I will scream,” admitted senior Jacky Garcia. “I am terrified of failing.”

Students also said they want to use different methods to reach solutions, and want to know the “why” of things. In math, said senior Adela Campos, teachers often move too fast.

“You guys could explain why you need to find y,” she said. “Why? Where did y come from?”

Admittedly, teens are an indecisive bunch, Adela admitted, when asked if they feel they are being prepared for the future. She said she wants teachers to help them learn about opportunities.

“As we keep growing we and learning about ourselves. It kind of comes down to talking to us. Take some time out of your day to help us figure out what we want to do.”

And finally, they told teachers, don’t give up on them.

“Push us. Push us to keep going,” Adela said. “Keep pushing us to go the extra mile. If we know you guys are there for us, we will keep going and have more motivation.”

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How to Reform Education? One District Considers Students’ Needs

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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