This I Believe

Making Meaning is Learning

By Joan Evans

The room is humming with excitement and energy. It is Genius Hour sharing day! Scanning the room we see a Mannequin adorned in a garment crafted from recycled bags accompanied by a Google Slide presentation walking us through the inspiration and construction of its design. A Rock Candy tasting station, where passers by can sample hand crafted candies and give preference feedback on a Google Forms Survey. A dog treat station where drawers of homemade samples, labeled with pictures of dogs list the benefits of varying ingredients for each breed. There’s a helmet safety campaign for a local downhill ski resort, computer coding animations and bags made from t-shirts that will be donated to a food pantry. Students are flying around Minecraft worlds, playing video games, playing a Civil War Reenactment board game, filling out surveys and completing order forms. It’s a marketplace of ideas and innovation. This is not a dream, it is my classroom!

If seeing is believing, then, this, I believe!

I believe my students arrive at school with stories, experiences and questions. They have formed problem solving behaviors before they cross the threshhold of my classroom. I believe they bring valuable thoughts and ideas with them everyday. When they connect their own experience and ideas with those of their classmates, authors, scientists, artists, musicians and more, they make meaning. I believe making meaning is learning.

I also believe that a person has to make their own meaning. I can’t do that for them. I can give them space to tell me about themselves and what’s important to them. I can introduce them to the voices and ideas of others. I can ask them questions. I can listen to them. I can model thinking strategies that could help them identify their own interests and questions. I can give them choice and ownership of their learning.

To illustrate, I return to the Genius Hour project. The journey to sharing day begins with talking about ideas and time to notice things about themselves. Things they already love to do and learn about; problems they’d like to see solved at home, school, community, or the world!; things they’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had the time or opportunity. They live with those lists for a few days to notice what captures their attention and identify an interest or passion. They choose to pursue this interest alone or with others who share their passion.

Along the journey we watch an episode of Shark Tank as a model of pitching an idea and hear stories of people who have pursued their passions. They develop questions and pitch a project to peers for feedback. They craft a work agreement; what will this free choice work experience look like, sound like and feel like? They define what they want from me during the process.

They track their thinking and progress along the journey using a Design Thinking Model template. They record their work and set goals for themselves each session. The work sessions are loud and exciting as students exchange ideas and learn how to communicate with one another to accomplish their mission. Because they follow their passions and explore their own questions they are empowered to be self directed. They are the power, I believe in them.

I believe when students make meaning they are learning about their world and more importantly, learning about themselves.

Zoom in on one student’s learning journey. A young boy routinely withdraws from tasks and argues with other students and teachers to the point of physical aggression. He is often removed from the class. Today, during Genius Hour he has chosen to work independently. He sits at a computer creating a mod for his Minecraft world. He calmly answers questions to help other students solve their problems and explains how they too can create a mod. He has connected a new experience to his interest. He has learned how to solve a problem. He has learned that he has the stamina to work on a task for a prolonged period of time. He has learned what it feels like to give his expertise and advice when they are welcomed and accepted. He has learned what it feels like to be valued.

I believe that building connections and making meaning are not limited to Genius Hour projects. Anytime I allow students to choose, give opinions, ask their own questions and tell their stories, I see their power and they see their value.

If seeing is believing, then, this, I believe!