Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school ELA teacher, 21st Century Learning Instructional Coach, curriculum design geek, and PBL coach. She has written many books including her latest, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement. Heather blogs on her site, TweenTeacher and is a staff blogger on Edutopia, a Fellow of the National Writing Project, and a National Faculty member of the Buck Institute.
I was fortunate to spend some time with Heather at the CUE conference where we geeked out. I just knew I had to learn more about her. It was a hoot having a conversation with Heather so I hope you get a chance to listen to her podcast and read the post we put together. Enjoy!
About you and your family
I am wife to Royce, whom I met in 2nd grade, after karate-chopping him at recess. Additionally, I am a mom to two boys, both of whom always have leaves in their hair from some adventure or other. She lives with all of her boys and their boxer/corgi mix, their laughter, and chaos, in Los Angeles, CA where they play Dungeons & Dragons every week, building their cross-over stories and adventures together.
You know how you never can find a picture of the whole family because someone’s always the one taking the picture? Well, here’s the most recent of us four. I was away presenting at the AMLE conference in Florida this year, and I end each night when I’m away either reading to the boys via Facebook or listening to them and their day. This was a typical day’s end moment of Royce trying to hold down the fort before signing off for the night.
What education was like when you were young
I was a real disengaged student. I went to some great schools but I found ways to do the minimum. I got easy Bs if I like you and tried harder and got some As, but I also got Cs and even a couple Ds in my time. I understand those kids who skirt through school never really being triggered by something exciting. So it was kind of a surprise for me when I realized I wanted to be a teacher which I found kind of late in life.
Your journey as an educator
I went back to school for my credential again was another eye-opening experience because I sat there listening to how to collaborate and do hands-on learning by reading about it in a book. I realized that this lack of engagement was a theme not just in K-12 but beyond. That became a huge focus for me and fueled my interest in project-based learning. It also propelled me to write my latest book and to this passion for engagement. This quote from Kerry Gallagher stuck with me: “Engagement first, then content, then rigor in that order.” You can’t have it any other way. That’s why I am trying to bring engagement standards to the same level of importance as content standards. You can’t teach kids if they don’t want to learn. If we want to be a voice in their heads, we have to be applicable to what’s going on.
What do we do with the kids that do not know how to play the game of school and are disengaged? Being boring is offensive to me. I mean, you are in front of kids. Some teachers heard a message early on that misled them. I think that they just have to rewind to who they were.
Let’s talk about your book “Just Ask Us”
In the book, “Just Ask Us,” I share the results of my nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders. In that survey, I asked one simple question: What engages you as a learner? No matter what model of school, what state, what type of environment (rural, suburban, city), every response that came in could be sorted into the same 10 categories of strategies. One of those strategies is that they just want to know you, their teacher. Some teachers believe they need to be that academic authority. The kids really want to hear your stories, what makes you laugh, about your family, and your similarities. The research showed that can decrease the achievement gap just by sharing commonalities between the students and the authorities in the room.
PBL and Loving to Learn
This is why I love Project-Based Learning (PBL). It gives us an outlet as teachers to embed some of the things that we love into the curriculum itself so we are excited in a different way than we like the content area. I love literature but I have to tell you that there are some books that make me yawn. How do I get jazzed about what I am doing all the time? Being jazzed trickles down. Loving to learn trickles down to the kids. So how do we make that happen in the classroom if we’ve been teaching the same thing for 10 or more years?
Examples of PBL Secret Sauce
For me, the answer is PBL and bringing the kids along on this story of learning. They get to be the characters and they can learn about each other and from each other. Let them teach each other. I think role-playing has a huge (no pun intended) role to play in school. If we can trigger role-playing in these kids, whether they are in the role of teacher, journalist, architect, artist, or whatever it might be, then they can be learning through the research what it takes to do that role. Then they can share that expertise with other students.
School as a Failure Sandbox
In the chapter, “We want you to be human” the kids wanted to hear not only how you failed and got up again but how you are currently doing that. So one of the things I encourage teachers to do it to take on something they’ve never done before so they can model the learning in a more genuine and authentic way. For example, I got a grant for a 3D printer and did not know how to use it. So we went through the process to learn how to use this tool together. The kids became the experts by reading discussion group threads, reading how-to manuals, and talked to the vendor. Our job is to keep a school safe for them to fail. Todd Finley said that “School has to be a failure sandbox.”
That means you have to be in the sandbox with them. I’m looking at PBL from the lens of design-based, passion-based, genius hour, 20% time, and all the various incarnations that bring in student-centered research-driven learning. It’s about breaking down the wall of school life and real life. Our kids are in school for 12 to 18 years and to think that school is real life to them. It is up to us to make it authentic. PBL plays a wall in the authenticity of school. The evidence shows that if we want the content to stick, we have to have it more student-centered and have kids be engaged.
The way we have been teaching isn’t working. If our goal is for kids to learn more deeply, it seems to me that we have to be evolving in our practice.
This is Barbara. There’s more… make sure you listen to the entire podcast with Heather. I learned so many great ideas and giggled with her. Hope you take time to learn, read her book, and maybe geek out like we did.
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, coach of one of the largest middle school Speech & Debate teams in the country, and enthusiastic curriculum design geek. She coaches teachers in developing their own Project Based Learning units and works to help tech-tentative teachers become more tech-tenacious.
She is passionate about educational technology and its role in helping students communicate all subjects. Heather helps her students become agile in 21st Century technologies so that they can be a part of the conversations to help develop the technologies for the next century to come. A 21st Century ELA teacher must focus, she believes, on communicating curriculum in an engaging way while teaching students strategies to communicate their passions themselves. Students must be able to communicate any content in a meaningful and current way; teachers, she believes must move beyond teaching content and must become more agile in focusing on strategies to communicate that content.
Heather writes a popular education blog as Tweenteacher and is also a staff blogger for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org. She is a Fellow of the National Writing Project and a National Faculty member for the Buck Institute.
Heather has a Masters in Instructional Design and Technology with an online learning emphasis, and she believes that the teachers’ Maker Movement is in original curriculum design. Heather tells stories through her curriculum units, and her students help to craft the content’s tale.
Heather was the featured educator for the USDOE Connected Educator Profile of 2013 and the San Gabriel Valley Computer Using Educators Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2009.
She is a professional speaker, appearing at many educational conferences. She also has designed and presented webinars for multiple educational organizations, websites, and publishing companies. She has worked with numerous districts and schools to help all grade levels to develop, implement, and enjoy their adopted curriculum.