Creating Authentic and Powerful Learning Experiences

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Creating Authentic and Powerful Lessons

By Josh Zagorski 

It is a cold, damp Friday, October 31st, 2014. In schools throughout the state, school staffs at all levels are working hard to combat a myriad of factors that influence student learning. As the final bell rings and I watch Elsa, several Zombies, two ninjas and a witch exit my middle school classroom I start to smile to myself. Although Halloween adds a special curve ball to the average middle school day, the sea of costumes bring to life a daily internal struggle I had as a middle school math educator.

For ten years in my middle school math classroom I often held internal battles questioning what components create a Powerful Lesson Planning successful lesson. Moreover, I would take it to the next level and reflect on what does it mean to have a successful lesson? Is a successful lesson one where student engagement is high? The teacher’s role is facilitator? Educational technology is infused? Ultimately, my conclusion is that there is not a concrete recipe for a perfect/successful lesson plan. Instead, it is the teacher’s ability and expertise to successfully blend social-emotional, content and innovative learning experiences into their classroom culture.

Social-Emotional Learning

How a student felt as they entered my classroom took precedent over any content or innovative learning experience I planned on exposing them to. Building direct connections and relationships with students and their families helps strengthen our ability to maximize the learning the student will have in our classrooms. It is important to understand our students learn differently, have unique likes/dislikes and some days will not have the content or subject matter we teach listed in the top twenty priorities of their daily lives. I felt enhancing the relationships in my classroom was an essential prerequisite for a powerful lesson plan and successful school year.

Infusing Google Forms, constructing Smores and focusing on my personal growth with the tenets of ASCD’s The Whole Child were three strategies I used to amplify the comfort level in my classroom for my students and their families (each hyperlink will connect you to an example or resource of the topic discussed). Google Forms is an quick and efficient way to pre assess your students and their interests. I continue to implement this strategy when I work with fellow educators I may not have a previous relationship with. Having the ability to make a connection within the first two minutes of conversation can springboard a relationship, creating an opportunity to interject laughter can instantly destroy an awkward moment. A Smore is an electronic newsletter or flyer. I built Smores to help communicate with parents and guardians, waiting for Back to School Night to arrive was not an option, I wanted my parents to have the information they needed to support their student on day one.

The Whole Child approach to learning which has also evolved into the Whole School, Whole Community and Whole Child Model was a personal passion project. I am of the belief we will continue to learn and grow as time passes. When this initiative was presented to me by a colleague, it brought a lens to our profession that I never looked through before. I would recommend researching and reading up on the initiative, its tenets and its collaborative approach to learning.

Content Learning

In my ten years as a middle school math educator I taught various levels of math ranging from sixth grade through high school level geometry. Moreover, I had the privilege of co teaching with thirteen educators who helped shape my pedagogy and personality in each learning environment. Reflecting on each class we taught, there was one constant, we were team teaching math. At times I believe content learning can get lost in the “latest and greatest,” education has to offer.

Content in math should be an important focus when lesson planning and working with our unique students. When reflecting on curriculum in your district I always advise educators not to get caught up in the text series used. Text series are simply interpretations of the math standards we are teaching. It is imperative we strive to create learning experiences that focus on grade level appropriate content, infusing our own local expertise to maximize the experience for our students. The Coherence Map is an invaluable resource for all K-8 math educators. This tool brings vertical articulation to your fingertips and offers a one stop shop for quick assessments, model tasks and more.

Innovative Learning

I purposefully chose to talk about “Innovative Learning,” last. Although I am “all in,” with innovation, exploring what it means, and implementing it effectively into our schools I fear at times it is taken out of context and implemented with hollow results. For instance, who would say “no,” if posed with the question, “Are you innovative in the classroom?”

Instead, I like to talk about the design thinking process, what it means for my students and how I can best build a set of math lessons to reflect its components . I want my students to learn through a process of taking risks, failing, reflecting and then taking another risk, until a best solution is found. Often, there may be more than one best solution and that is okay, embrace that.

Educational technology products offer an overabundance of options for teachers. My advice is to take risks, implement ones you believe in and adjust as necessary. Let the student feedback and ideas shape your decisions. In my math setting, simple free solutions like Google Classroom, Edmodo, Haiku Deck and Desmos are concrete examples of educational technology tools that enhanced my lessons.

Conclusion

Creating authentic and powerful experiences for your students is a mad science. It includes a blend of who you are, who they are and the best practices to both engage their interest and push them to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In mathematics, focusing on a blend of grade level appropriate standards and innovative pedagogy can maximize your impact. Ultimately, for any innovative strategy, lesson plan tool or content to work we must focus on relationship building with all parties involved and meet the needs of the whole learner.


Joshua Zagorski (@JZagorski1) is a K-12 STEM Supervisor for the Maple Shade School District (NJ).  Joshua is currently leading a district initiative to adopt Google Apps for Education and infuse technology to create authentic learning opportunities for all students and teachers. Prior to 2016, Joshua was a middle school math teacher and three season coach(football/wrestling/track) for ten years. Along with teaching content he strongly believes in empowering our students and teaching to the whole child. Having the opportunity to build character, teach digital citizenship, and preach making good choices allows him to construct a community of caring.  Joshua is an active member in, ASCD, Co Director of NJASCD South, NJ Standards Advocate Math Lead , and in his third year on the steering committee for  ECET2NJPA.