By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Relationships, Relevance, And Rigor At Rise & Shine

 

The Literacy and Digital Enrichment Program, funded by a grant from the United Way, was created as a collaborative project between Brevard College and Rise & Shine. (Courtesy photo)

What makes a good teacher? What do good teachers do to create strong learning environments? These are the questions my students and I ask ourselves daily as we research and observe school systems, participate in teaching practicums, and reflect about our readings and experiences.

In our exploration, my students and I keep returning to the three R's, and they are not the three R's of yesterday (reading, writing and arithmetic) in which the subject matter being taught holds the greatest significance for learning. Instead, the three R's that really seem to provide for strong teaching and learning are relationships, relevance, and rigor with the emphasis being not on what we teach, but how we teach. When these three elements are strong in a learning environment, learning usually happens.

Through a collaborative grant from the United Way, Brevard College and Rise & Shine partnered to create a Literacy and Digital Enrichment Program to help ensure college readiness for Rise & Shine scholars and help our BC teacher candidates gain experience in the classroom. The first learning project was the creation of digital stories with the new iPads provided by the grant. (For this project, we defined digital stories as multimedia movies that combine photographs, video, sound, music, and text to create a narrative.) Reflections from the fall 2014 digital storytelling project show how important the three R's are in learning and what can happen when they come together.

All learning starts with relationships.

"I have realized that without establishing connections and relationship with students, the content you are teaching is meaningless. Students want to know that teachers care and respect them, and without that, students will not put forth their maximum effort," said Jonathan, a BC tutor.

Jonathan's sentiment was echoed by one of the Rise & Shine scholars on the last day of classes: "Are you coming back next semester? I learned a lot about using the iPad, but most of all, I enjoyed learning with you."

Once a community of learning is established, teachers must make the curriculum relevant to their students' interest and lives. This is one of the most creative parts of good teaching, and one lesson the Brevard College student teachers learned was to give the Rise & Shine scholars choices and autonomy so they could make the learning their own. The North Carolina teaching standard, "students use technology to learn content, think critically, solve problems, discern reliability, use information, communicate, innovate, and collaborate" is the standard that the Brevard College students teachers were hoping to help the Rise & Shine scholars address. The teachers decided that with trust and guidance, they could allow the scholars to choose their own topics for their digital story and encourage them to take ownership of their learning.

One Brevard College student describes this process: "My group of students initially decided on creating a digital story on the history of their favorite sports team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, but after much discussion and a few questions from me, the group finally decided on a topic that was more relevant to society and needed to be discussed: the ethics of professional athletes. After finding their topic, they used technology to learn about Lance Armstrong and blood doping, and Michael Vick and dogfighting. The group had to storyboard and critically think about how they wanted to present their topic entitled 'Are Professional Athletes Above the Law?'"

According to Carol Miller, one of the Rise & Shine volunteer evaluators of the final product, "It was striking how the digital story showed players who had been in the news for breaking laws and players who had started programs/ foundations to use their image in a positive way."

When allowed to bring their own interest to the project and make the subject interesting and relevant to their own lives, student engagement and success in learning increased.

Relationships and making learning relevant are the beginning for teaching and learning, but they are not enough. Teachers must believe all students can learn and teach for excellence and rigor. Good teaching is about setting high expectations and believing the students can meet these expectations.

Brevard College student Kara speaks of this in her reflection: "We needed to provide the tools that they needed to expand their minds, to look beyond the pitch and sway of their daily lives and see possibility for change. It is easy to list the challenge of teaching students from rough socio-economic backgrounds, but our students now know more than they knew before. They got to learn how to use an iPad, they practiced their reading and writing skills, and they created something from nothing. For any students, that is a powerful experience... Rise & Shine offers resources and a safe place to eat and study, and every moment that we teach is an opportunity to guide students toward their own sense of meaning. Ultimately, it will be their choice, but even in a short period of time, we can help provide them with the intellectual skills for that decision."

The Rise & Shine students concluded their digital storytelling project by producing a three to five minute video; they presented this video to the community, and were evaluated and given community feedback on important academic and intellectual skills in categories like research, scriptwriting, choice of visuals and audio to accompany a theme, and presentation skills of speaking clearly and intelligently on complicated issues like cyberbullying and the ethics and responsibilities of pro athletes.

Relationships, relevance and rigor as seen in the Literacy and Digital Enrichment Project between Brevard College teachers-to-be and Rise & Shine scholars clearly demonstrates one example of what it means to be a good teacher, and how to create a strong learning environment.

(Dr. Betsy Burrows is director of Teacher Education at Brevard College.)

 
 

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