Preparing Students for Success by Helping Them Discover and Develop Their Passions by Lisa Nielsen

A Learning Oasis
Each day students enter a learning oasis where their primary focus is discovering, developing, and pursuing passions, talents, and interests. The artwork covered halls connect rooms where experts, teachers, and more than a dozen partner organizations are working with young people engaged in their craft. Dancers are dancing withRosie’s Kids, writers are writing with editors from theGotham Schools news service to draft articles for publication, movie makers are working with award winning producers to create videos, students are knitting and crocheting clothes that they can wear or sell with the help of a local designer, musicians are working with performers from Music Under New York beating drums under the direction of their guidance counselor who is expert at supporting students express emotions through music, chefs are working with a culinary expert who has Skyped in to help students prepare healthy and delicious meals, a custodian with a passion for birds of prey is discovering with students how to save a nest of an endangered species, artists are working with experts from theStudio School to create sculptures, others prepare for chess and Scrabble competitions, athletes are playing basketball and volleyball, and there’s a room full of computers components and mechanical parts where students with an aptitude for such things are fixing computers and making robots.

Understanding the basics
There are foundation classes for students to develop and strengthen their abilities to read, write, and engage, in science, math, and social studies in relevant ways that tap into their talents, interests, abilities, learning style and their areas of passion. They know why they are studying these subjects. They see the connection. With a passion for the transportation system, Armond knows the history of his city, state, nation, and world through the lens of the development of modes of transportation. Context and relevance are ever present. Sabrina a young journalist knows the same history, but sees things through the eyes of the tablet, printing press, and digital technology.

Total Talent Portfolio
During lunch and in the halls Principal Slatin asks, “How’s your light bulb?” “Shining bright Dr. Slatin. Come look at the hawk’s eggs in the nest. I’m helping save an endangered species!” Students excitedly discuss their talents and passions often sparking interest of others. Students and teachers are intimately familiar with their talents as each student has a Total Talent Portfolio that provides a comprehensive picture about each student's strengths in the areas of abilities, interests, and styles. The Total Talent Portfolio focuses on student strengths and "high-end learning" behaviors. Although the teacher serves as a guide in the portfolio review process, the ultimate goal of the Total Talent Portfolio is to create autonomy in students by turning control for the management of the portfolio over to them. Students visit their portfolios often updating the selection of items to be included, maintaining and regularly updating the portfolio, and setting personal goals by making decisions about items that they would like to include in the portfolio. Teachers use the Total Talent Portfolio as a means to differentiate instruction and effectively group students. The students love having a Total Talent Portfolio because they know it’s their personal roadmap to making their dreams come true, whatever they are.

The students use their Total Talent Portfolios to help them pursue engaging activities in areas of deep personal interest. When discovering and exploring passions is the objective few teachers find their student have short attention spans. In fact quite the opposite. These students know what it’s like tobe in a flow (the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.) and how to do so for real purposes. The focus of their education is NOT taking subjects like reading, writing, arithmetic, or science. Instead they are readers, writers, scientists, artists, poets, singers, technicians, musicians, mathematicians.

When we teach students rather than to the test
Instead of assessing students primarily with paper report cards that get thrown in a box indicating 1,2,3’s or A,B,C’s, the focus instead is on as principal Barbara Slatin explains, “exposing kids to a whole lot of different things and trying to get their lightbulb to go on.” When we’re accountable for helping students discover and develop passions the result is a win/win that results in engaged and passionate students, and energized teachers.

The Schoolwide Enrichment Model
While for some, this school might sound like fiction, it is not. In fact not only is this model taking place in affluent districts, it’s occurring in poverty-stricken schools like The Island School in New York City. This model of education is called the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and with the right leadership it can happen at any grade level in any district. Joe Renzulli who along with his wife Sally Reis are credited for developing this model explain it this way.

"The Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) can be used as a detailed blueprint for total school improvement. Since the SEM is based upon the vision that schools are places for talent development, the SEM takes into account the varying abilities, backgrounds, experiences and learning styles of each student and capitalizes upon these strengths and interests so that all children are able to meet their greatest potential through an educational experience that is both challenging and individualized."

Do you think...
A model like this result in increased graduation rates?
A school like this may help foster the connection between the school and community?
Students may be focused when doing the reading, writing, and arithmetic necessary to succeed with their passions?
The boredom we see in the eyes of students and the burnt out teachers would decrease?
Students in these schools will feel prepared to succeed in the world?


Why does this matter
This matters because America has gotten off track. I’m a case in point. I did as I was told with college, not a passion, as my goal. I wanted to do well and succeed quickly. I rushed through school getting good test scores and great grades, always graduating at the top of my class. At 19 I stood outside of my college with a degree in hand and no where to go. I had no idea what my talents, passions, and interests were...and no one ever asked-or cared. If all we want for schools is to that they be places to churn out good test takers with scores that make it easy to judge teachers and praise politicians, then America is on track. But when we do that we end up with a nation of “me’s” who did all they were supposed to do and unless they were lucky enough to stumble upon it...have no idea what they did it for. In the end it felt like a waste of 16 years of classes that I mostly wasn’t interested in. Why not have an educational system with the goal of producing students who know how to find, follow, and develop their passions? Ask any student what they’d prefer and the answer is clear.

To learn more....

Slatin Tribute from Lou Lahana on Vimeo.

Check out this PowerPoint that explains the Schoolwide Enrichment Model

Cross posted at The Innovative Educator

Lisa Nielsen is best known as creator of The Innovative Educator blog and Transforming Education for the 21st Century learning network. International Edublogger, International EduTwitter, and Google Certified Teacher, Lisa is an outspoken and passionate advocate of innovative education. She is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on "Thinking Outside the Ban" and determining ways to harness the power of technology for instruction and providing a voice to educators and students. Based in New York City, Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities helping schools and districts to educate in innovative ways that will prepare students for 21st century success. You can follow her on Twitter @InnovativeEdu.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.