Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An Open Letter to My Students

Last Sunday our seniors at Northeast Hamilton walked across the stage and received their diplomas. As I watched them give their speeches and receive their awards, a couple of things struck me.

1. After four years at NEH I feel like I will be graduating as well.

2. Mr. Hocking's (@phock66) speech about embracing change applied to more than just the seniors - it's exciting, it's scary, it's inevitable.

Much like I'm sure the seniors felt, I am excited, nervous, sad, scared, anxious, and a whole other range of emotions about leaving in just a couple short weeks. I have eaten lunch with the same people, sat in the same seat, taught the same classes (to an extent - I never did have a year that was exactly the same as the last), and grown up and matured along the way - just like my students.

As I prepare to move on to my next adventure, I can't help but feel like I too am going on to "college". My new "college" is actually Prairie Lakes AEA, but I'm headed into a new environment with a lot more people, the "campus" is a lot more spread out (across NW Iowa), and I'll be making new friends, meeting new people, and growing as a professional under many people that I greatly admire. All while greatly missing the friends and

So in light of my own new journey, I wanted to share my version of a "graduation speech" in an open letter to my NEH students:

To my students, who have taught me so much over the last four years:

It seems that more and more over the last couple of years I find myself explaining to you not just the ideas related to our classroom, but the ideas that are coming out of education. Why we are studying the United Nations MDGs for sub-saharan Africa instead of learning the major cities of each country; what the future of our earth is in terms of globalization, competing markets, and what that means for our schools and education instead of the ins and outs of price floors and ceilings, the importance of sharing your work with a global audience and getting outside perspectives.

I hope that after I leave you will take these lessons and demand for yourselves the education you deserve - no matter where life takes you, which school district, which college, remember that you deserve a world class education. You deserve to be prepared for a world that is centered around innovation, creation, and collaboration. I hope I played a small part in pushing you in that direction. I know that I threw some different concepts, weird lessons, and "unique" learning formats at you, but even if it wasn't always your favorite way to learn I hope that I helped you see part of what could be out there for you.

Remember that your learning is just that - YOUR learning! So continue to find ways to apply math and science and history and language to areas that interest you, to explore different paths, to be open to creating your own way of doing things, and to NEVER be afraid to fail - because that's how you LEARN! You deserve a voice. Continue to use it. If the first way doesn't work, try again. What should you change? What could be done differently? Don't ever be afraid to reflect and learn from mistakes. I did - not every lesson was perfect, but I kept working to give you the best that I could.

To my 6th graders - you have taught me patience and perseverance. I saw so many of you have these qualities, and I think you'll agree sometimes needed them myself! ;-) I appreciate the way you are always willing to hep one another solve problems, and I know that each of you will continue to grow and mature into amazing individuals.

To my 7th graders - I have watched you guys grow up a lot this year, and am always amazed at the growth I can see from the beginning of the year to the end. Your class reinforced for me the ideas that diversity and individualization are key elements to the learning process. You also impressed me with your ability to take a project and make it your own - whether it was blogging, web designing, or Minecraft-ing. You guys taught me a lot about myself as an educator and as a person.

To the 8th grade - While I've only had you for a year you taught me a couple of key things. 1) Make sure you have fun in everything you do - dancing to Aicha is sometimes an appropriate way to end a class period, and 2) Trust is one of the most important parts of education - you guys trusted me, even though we were still getting to know each other, with some big, new projects and concepts this year, and I appreciate that. Whether it was reading Slave Girl or Gamifying our course, you went with me and we learned together.

My 9th grade - Squeakers, Cheeseburger, Giblatar (how the heck do you spell a word he made up???), and the rest (I wish you all had fun names) - I have probably some of my funniest memories from your class, and I think that is the lesson I will take from you. Keeping a good attitude about myself, finding humor in even the stressful times, and taking time to celebrate as many birthdays as possible - because it's about the people and the relationships you create, not just the work that needs to be done.

To the sophomores - Oh sophomores, what am I going to do without you? You're the only class that I've had all four years. Your class will forever remind me of things like being accepting of others' points of view, the value of COLLECTIVE LEARNING, how to enjoy trying new things (think of the mussels that Bryce brought for our country project), and the value of learning together - your random questions and ideas often sparked cool projects/lessons and opportunities for me to learn right along with you.

Juniors - Even though I didn't have you in class this year I feel like you guys really taught me that through teamwork awesome things can happen - I know it wasn't ideal to do prom with me on maternity leave, but the way you guys brought it all together reminded me of how much more we can accomplish when you work together. You have so many different personalities, and I will miss all of them - no matter who makes up a group (all the different types of people), you guys figure it out.

Seniors - I always feel slightly disconnected from my seniors, especially first semester, after not having had you in class for a year. I told you on our last day together that I felt like we had grown up together - that we started together (high school for you, teaching for me), and we were ending our journeys at NEH together. I hope that I can face my new challenges with the grace, dignity, and poise that I saw in each (most? ;-) ) of you throughout our time together. You are a talented group of individuals who have amazing opportunities ahead of you. I hope I can live up to those changes and challenges just like I know each of you will.

And finally, to all of you, I hope that I have shown you that it's not just about being "good at school". So many times you told me you'd rather memorize vocabulary or fill in worksheets because it was easy or because you knew how to get an A that way. You know what? Those activities are easier for me, too, because I could have copied them out of a book and never thought about it twice. I would have driven me nuts as a student (something I told you many times), because I was one of those kids who was "good at school". But I promise you that those times that I made you THINK about things instead of memorize, when I asked you to design rubrics with me instead of me handing it to you, when I asked you to tackle content on your terms or asked you to define quality work WILL help you in the long run.

If you came to me in 10 years and said, "Mrs. Keehn I don't remember a single date (I'd tell you to Google it), but I do remember having to create something" or "having to push through something I didn't understand" or even "I remember the time you told me you didn't even know what this would look like in the end because it was up to me to determine and it took on a life of its own", I would consider my time with you successful.

Thank you for all that you have given me. Now that I'm done being sappy let's make these last couple weeks something to remember!

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's Almost Over - Lessons from 2012-13

As I reflect back on my time in the classroom this year I can't help but think about the changes I'd like to make for next year. However I won't be making those changes for next year - at least not in my own classroom. There are a few lessons from this year that I will take with me to Prairie Lakes, though. They are lessons that I think we all can learn from.

1. It's okay to start small sometimes. If a project seems overwhelming, you don't have to attack it all at once. Break it down, pilot it on the small scale first. This one came from Scott McLeod (@mcleod), and I think it's important to remember that you can still accomplish big things even if you start on a small scale. 

2. Great things can happen when you take a chance on something new. Inspired by Bettendorf's PD model this year I "gamified" my 8th grade class for the second quarter. I watched kids grow and push themselves in ways that I had not previously seen. They were doing homework on Friday nights for fun. They were pushing me to keep up with them in terms of information and content and activities. My husband (@keehner87) then took the model and adapted it to his classroom setting. 

3. It's okay to fail - in fact, it should be encouraged. Failure is how we learn, learning from that failure is how we improve, and it is a natural part of the path to greatness. If you can learn how to fail, you can learn anything - because when you truly "learn how to fail" you also learn how to persevere, improve, and ultimately accomplish great things. When a lesson doesn't work the right way, I reteach it or at the very least make changes for next year. If a student doesn't get the material, we look for ways that s/he can get the information another way. Learning to fail is just as important as learning to succeed, and this is an especially important skill if you follow #2 - taking chances on something new.

To be continued...