Learning for Life

Learning for Life

By Jeremy Hatch, Principal-Taylor Elementary

Rural School Learning for Life

A parent unloads movable corral panels from the back of a large ranch truck and sets them up on the school playground in a circle. Later, that same corral will hold several calves that Ms. Ellsworth’s 1st grade students will be able to pet and feed as the parent explains the ins and outs of raising cattle and ranching. Other parents have come and talked about what it is like to be a business owner, nurse, stay-at-home mom or doctor. This is one more of the many ways that Taylor Elementary is preparing students to become lifelong learners and expose them to the many options that will be available to them as they progress through their school years and begin to look at careers and post-secondary options. Sometimes seeing, feeling and smelling experiences can change a child’s belief in their ability to learn, grow and achieve. They can learn that there are many avenues to success.

Just like any school these days, being a rural school has its challenges. Many students in rural districts do not have the same opportunities that students attending in larger more affluent school districts have. Living the rural lifestyle is a wonderful experience but it takes grit to make it in such circumstances. Because of the lack of opportunities available to students, our school has had to bring in hands on experiences in order for students to understand that there are options out there that they may not know about or would otherwise have exposure to.

The poverty gap continues to increases in our rural community. The poor economy, coupled with a lack of available jobs continues to squeeze families and individuals. Resources are scarce and new employment is unlikely to materialize as long as the future outlook continues to be bleak. As we read research, blogs and opinion articles, there is a growing consensus. Many of the jobs available for our students in the future don’t even exist yet. Most of these new jobs (when they are created) will require post-secondary education and training (Carnevale, Smith , & Strohl, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, 2013). In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed that “Occupations that typically require a master’s degree for entry are projected to grow the fastest” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Education and Training Outlook for Occupations, 2012-2022, 2013). This, coupled with the statistic that the average college graduate will earn 77 percent more than the typical high school graduate (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Projections and Training Data, 2008-2009 Edition, 2008) makes it very clear, the students of today, especially in rural schools, will need post-secondary schooling or vocational training of some kind in order to be successful.  How do we get from here to there? By producing school experiences that focus on student learning, geared toward the larger goal of college and careers of the future.  Below is a list of 5 things that our school is doing to ensure our students are learning for life and preparing for their future.

1. Ensure high quality lessons are being taught each day.

To do this we use parents, community members, and especially each other to provide high quality lessons that afford students hands on, or first person experiences as much as possible. This takes time, patience and good community relationships but it is worth it.  We have found that many community members are more than happy to come in and share a part of their lives with us. We also have teacher coaches, teacher leaders and administration regularly check on classrooms and participate in the teaching/learning process. This helps us hold the students and each other accountable. With budgets shrinking, paying for professional development is getting harder and harder to do. We use the Professional Learning Community to make improvements and help each other deliver the highest quality lessons possible.

2. Plan to succeed together.

Using best teaching and planning practices, like providing common planning times for teachers, developing common assessments, collaboration, and providing reteach opportunities to students that may not have initially mastered concepts presented, all give students and teachers the opportunities to succeed. These opportunities should be provided within the school day to ensure they get done and don’t cause too much extra work for the student or the teacher. When we ask teachers and students to do things after or before school, we have found that our purpose and goal of “every student learning at a high level” seems to lose steam. We avoid this by planning these activities and requirements within the day. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold after school learning activities, it just means they are secondary to the in-school time we deem essential. We make it a priority to streamline and take advantage of every minute of every day.

3. Create a culture of questioning.

In order to effectively teach students to be learners for life, we have had to ask the right questions. “Depth of Knowledge” has been a buzz phrase for quite some time. However, we have found that the questions that are asked throughout the lesson aren’t widely planned or utilized in the classroom unless we purposely place those questions within the lesson. When teachers think about different depth of knowledge questions during the planning phase of the lesson, those questions are much more likely to be asked during the teaching phase. Proper questioning is a must when planning and teaching a lesson. Students begin to know and expect certain questions to be asked during each objective. They begin to develop the habits of looking and attacking objectives in more meaningful and deeper ways.  After students begin to learn proper questioning through modeling, we start to let them lead the discussion and give appropriate contributions to the lesson through their collaborative efforts and questioning abilities.  

4. Develop students abilities to problem solve together.

Gone should be the days of students (especially at the younger grades) always sitting in rows, keeping perfectly silent. Students that sit together in groups are more likely to help and assist each other in the learning process than those that are secluded. Very rarely will students be asked to work in seclusion while working in a career, so why ask them to do so now? Teach them early that two heads are better than one.  Working independently has its merit and is appropriate at times, especially when assessing students, but the learning phase of the lesson should have collaboration involved in some way.

5. Teachers should be Learners for Life too!

When I started teaching, it was the culture of the school for teachers to shut their doors and they rarely shared strategies or teaching practice ideas. I still see some of this happening in schools today. I started to become a more effective teacher when our district began mandating that teachers sit and collaborate with each other during common planning times. I was able to sit with veteran teachers and see how the masters do it. I didn’t adopt everything they did, but I took what worked for them and added my own flair. My skill level started to grow and so did student learning. When we ask students to be learners for life, we should hold ourselves to that standard as well. Be reflective in your practice. Be willing to share and change with each lesson if needs be.  Through this process we become the best us possible and the students benefit with increased learning.

In conclusion

There are many more ways to help students become learners for life, but these have become useful tools for our school in order to build students into independent, successful scholars. Teachers also need to look at becoming learners for life. One of the reasons I believe the Professional Learning Communities have gained so much momentum in the last 10 years, is that participation in a PLC lends itself to teacher’s improving their practice for the benefit of their students. Numerous studies and leading educators today back the PLC process because it simply works! Teachers collaborating to improve and learn new things about the way they teach and about how their students learn are critical in today’s ever changing educational expectations.  One final overarching idea that could be added to this list is to keep things in perspective. With all the mandates and the push for educational reform it is easy to forget what we are really doing and who we are really doing it for. Make every decision in school based on what is best for the child. If we place our focus on that, it is hard to go wrong.