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Omada Teambuilding

Over the years I’ve found that something amazing and profound seems to happen when you connect yourself to one end of a 10mm rope, the other end to a stranger, and then climb 40+ feet up a tree.  How could it not?  Not only do you have to overcome any fear of heights you might have as you make a vertical ascent up a tree, but once you’re up the tree, you need to accomplish some feat involving balance, cables, and crossing an open void between earth and sky.  To top it all off, you have to trust that the person at the other end of the rope – the person you might have only known since that morning – will support you and hold you up in case you fall.

When I took my students to Omada Teambuilding in the first full week of school this year, there was an almost tangible moment during the day when the entire ethos of my classes shifted – from a group of individual students participating in my Adventure Co-op, to a community of students who were beginning to care and support each other.  It is because of this shift that I take my students here every year.  Although I know there are many effective tools and strategies to establish community within the classroom, I have found no better way to quickly and effectively create this community than by throwing my students into situations where they are forced to problem solve together and work together as a group to reach certain objectives – both on the ground and in the trees.

I’ve come to realize that allowing students to work together in an environment of supervised ‘safe’ risk provides some of the richest soil to cultivate trust and community within a classroom.  With support and encouragement from their peers, students are able to conquer fears and connect with each other in ways that are very difficult to duplicate in the classroom.  On top of this, as the teacher, I get to see sides of my students that may not be easily seen between the four walls of my classroom.   I see the leaders and those who get discouraged easily.  I see the encouragers and those who thrive on risk.  I see how students interact with each other in both positive and negative ways.  In short, it allows me to be a better teacher and helps create the community and trust needed to learn effectively.

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Several weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to share about the theoretical framework that informs what I’m doing in my Adventure Co-op at the BCTELA (BC Teachers of English Language Arts) conference in Surrey, BC.  Three other learning centre English teachers and I presented a workshop entitled “Re-engaging the Disengaged” where we spoke on different strategies we’ve found effective for engaging students.  Although there is much more I could’ve shared, time was not so generous, and I could only briefly mention the biggest ideas that support some of the new ways I’m thinking about learning and teaching.  The (edited) notes from this workshop are below.

Risk Taking

I think I discovered why my students didn’t choose the creative assignments I created in my first year of teaching at the learning centre.  Choosing new, creative assignments involves risk and risk can lead to failure.  And many of my most disengaged students have been told that they’re failures by the school system, their parents, friends, and/or society.  A key goal of my co-op is to deconstruct the idea of failure.  To do this we played a computer game called “bloons” (www.bloons.com).

  • Students experienced failure, but continued trying – they learned from their mistakes.
  • These ideas have started to be embraced in my class.  I told one of my students he had to do part of an assignment over again, to which he responded, “Hey, I failed!” with a big grin on his face!

Assessment

I’ve stopped giving grades for student work.  How can I expect students to take risks if they’re getting marked on what they do?  Rather, I provide written/verbal feedback for student work so they have the opportunity to improve.  I’ll collect marks at the end of the course when students have had time to learn and practice how to read, write, and think.  This way of assessing takes the emphasis off performance (which can often lead to hoop jumping) and focus on real learning.  When we went over this in my class it was almost as if someone had released a steam valve in my class – the pressure was released.

UBD

Another key part of my co-op is rooted in UBD – understanding by design.  When I go hiking I have a destination I’m aiming for – I always know where I’m going.  Unfortunately, until this year, my course was like walking through a thick fog.  Not knowing the purpose behind why you’re doing something is deflating and de-motivating – personally, I get stressed out if I don’t understand the purpose behind an activity or task.  The same should apply for my students.  As such, I created two big questions to guide my entire co-op:

  1. How can I live an adventurous life?
  2. What does it take to be a successful person in the 21st century?

These questions give purpose behind why my students are in my class and are hopefully relevant to their interests and the real world.  For a disengaged student (for any student really) – knowing where they’re going is important.

I’ve also created six essential questions that give focus and direction to my Communications 12 and English 12 students – below are the essential questions for Com 12.  These questions were not haphazardly chosen but carefully and systematically crafted to reflect the big ideas in the PLOs (Prescribed Learning Outcomes) for Com 12.

1.  How can I avoid being controlled by the media?

2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?

3. What does it take to be a powerful reader?

4. What does it take to get into my dream career?

5. How can I learn to think critically, creatively, and reflectively?

6. How and why should I learn to work together with other people?

Mastery Learning

Another important shift for me this year is a focus on mastery learning.  I want to avoid hoop jumping and ensure my students are actually learning and improving their skills and knowledge base.  To do this, I’ve tried to eliminate all assignments that are not very meaningful (like writing formal letters to the editor) and focus on assignments and projects that give me the most bang for the buck.  Students want to know that they will learn – I guarantee it in my class.

I remember quite clearly when I started my long practicum and my veteran sponsor teacher came up to me with the ‘don’t re-invent the wheel’ spiel.  There was much wisdom in these words during my practicum; however, I think we are approaching a time when perhaps we need to re-create the wheel.  Thoughts?

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