Where’s the Learning? Five ways to map the learning environment before your students come back to school.

School is about to begin. As I mentioned in my last blog teacher in-service and professional development workshops are ramping up, and the radio and TV are blasting out commercials for back-to-school sales. Both of these activities are likely a waste of time and money if you really want to understand how your students learn this year. PD Workshops? Most of those are aimed at selling you and your principal something, something experience tells us most often ends up sitting on a shelf. Back-to-school sales? Do children really need all those supplies to learn, or do we ask them to buy them so that we’ll know they’re “ready to learn?”

I’m posing these tough questions because they challenge a rhythm we’ve known for years, if not decades. For many students, however, the experience of coming back to school is much different from what we remember, and both may signal the extent to which our teaching institutions are out of touch with the world in which they live, and learn, 24-7. If you really want to be ready for when your students come “back to school” this fall, you should spend a day, or more in August, “mapping” where each of the following occurs in the larger “learning environment” outside of your classroom:

1) Summer Supervision: Instead of asking your students to write about “what they did over their summer,” shouldn’t you know before they come back? What learning opportunities were available to students in your community? Day Cares and Day Camps? Summer Schools or Summer Sports? Community Service and Volunteer opportunities through your town, local religious institutions, or other non-government organizations? What about internships and time with elders/mentors? Do you know where your students were this summer? Do you know what they might have been learning? If you do, this can go on your “learning environment map” of all the learning that surrounds your school. Put your school at the center, and plot these sites on the map. You can do a lot more with your students when they come back to school if you know what they have been doing all summer, and can acknowledge where they were learning outside of your class.

Sample Learning Environment Map

2) Social Networks: Many teachers spend a lot of time discussing peer cliques and social hubs during the school year, but do we know what happens to these social networks over the summer? Where were your students “hanging out” over the summer? The Mall? Probably not! Probably not even on the phone because—seriously—who under the age of 25 uses their phone as anything other than a mobile computer lab? Do you know what’s trending on Snap Chat? Do you know who’s driving conversations about what will be cool for back to school? Do you even know how to track any of this? If so, then you can add it to your map even though it’s not a physical place. Think of these things like the weather symbols we place above geographic maps to tell us something about the environment in the moment. Don’t spend all of your prep time this fall learning these things, it will be too late to use them to support student learning in your classroom. Instead, try to map an accurate “forecast” for back to school.

3) School Preparations: How, exactly, do your students get ready to come back to school? Do you know where they shop? Do you know IF they shop? Do you know which students need some help? Too many teachers expect students to show up prepared to be prepared for learning, and therefore miss the opportunities for learning in the preparations. Are you sending checklists home and simply expecting them to be checked? If so, that’s work for parents nine times out of ten. What if back to school initiated learning challenges in math or language arts that could be supported by teachers—teachers working with students and parents during their August in-service time rather than working with consultants. If students are learning before back to school anyway (and they are!), can’t we admit that back to school should be part of the learning? If you agree, find a way to show this kind of learning on your map. Perhaps it’s along the pathway to the school building, as students move from social media circles and summer activities.

4) Summer Learning: Did your students lose something over the summer? Sure. But what did they gain? If all we focus on are the deficits we can document (forgot this, missed that) and not the new learning we could reinforce, we’re already starting behind on a set of standards we also know it is almost impossible to cover in a year. Instead of assuming every child walks into your classroom a blank slate for that grade level, what might a pre-assessment tell you? Can you discover what students have uncovered over the summer before you cover it? And once you’ve discovered it, can you find a way to map it so that it counts, or measures? If so, put in on the map—in this case, your curriculum map. No need to cover what most everyone might have learned over the summer. Save that for a mini-lesson planned out on your curriculum map for those who need it, and let the rest dig in more deeply with their time.

5) Summer Reading: The same goes for summer reading. True, there may be some students who read NO books over the summer, but it’s extremely unlikely that you have students who read NOTHING over the summer. Do on-line video game cheats count? Sure, if you can index them to reading scores! They may not be able to go into a grade book, but as an honest assessment of what a student can read they’re a good start. The same is true for catalogue or website text from stores students may like to browse. Companies don’t just sell skirts and shirts now, they sell an image and a character that actually requires a lot of literary finesse to understand, if you allow it. Rather than ask students what books they read over the summer, map what they actually did read and see what you can learn from it. Don’t judge a book by its cover! A simple student collage of the texts they DID read could speak volumes about the reading that occurred before back to school.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but I hope by now you can appreciate that it is very important work if we are to acknowledge, and understand the “New Culture of Learning” in which most of our students now operate. Other professions have been calling this “market research” for decades, and now that there really is a market for learning, rather than a public monopoly for learning, our profession has no choice but to learn how to do this.

Still not convinced? Then in the end, I’d ask you this question: why do you teach? Nine times out of ten—if not more—that question is answered by a teacher who is concerned about building effective relationships with young people in a way that will allow those young people to find an effective place in their community. Yes, the “schooling” helps with that, but if you teach for your community, shouldn’t your teaching start by acknowledging what’s going on in your community rather than acting as though learning can only happen once kids come back to school?

If you don’t know how to do that, wouldn’t it be a fascinating professional development challenge for you and some critical friends to map your students’ learning environments? Here’s hoping this blog helps you take up that challenge!

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