Getting kids to connect their learning so they see the relevance to their lives is paramount to enduring understanding. But how do we do that? I mean when you think about it, most of the standards required of learners today—have little or no meaning to them. Kids aren’t interested in things they have no schema for, don’t choose or are void of innovation. Similarly, some classroom methodologies are so concentrated on factoids that can easily be retrieved from Google that any chance of relating learning to their lives is moot. How do we get kids to start understanding, “So what, why does this matter?” in a purposeful, intentional and expective way?
What I’ve learned is kids have heart. They are easily moved to a gamut of emotion if you give them the platform to express themselves. Recently, while planning the reflection of a lengthy service learning project with my second graders, I really wanted to know if the point of the project was understood. I wanted to make sure the affective learning transpired, even though it was not explicit in its manifestation. I knew what I was feeling as their teacher seeing the project come full circle.
In typical informal fashion, I simply asked the kids after reframing the beginning of the project to where we were right now, “Tell me what you learned.” I was somewhat disheartened that they all started regurgitating facts about water over and over again. It’s precious. There’s only 1% that’s usable. The water on earth is the only water we have. And on and on. I was discouraged that we had spent months on an integrated, meaningful, engaging and more importantly student-driven service learning project where ultimately my littles had raised enough money to have a hand dug well built in Burkina Faso and yet they were limited by a small scope of facts that were seemingly so disjointed. Their answers were compliant. Their responses showed learning. But they missed the heart piece that long after this project would carry them through life. Ugh.
I sat in our meeting circle feeling that they had missed things like compassion and worry and choice and voice and determination and pride— knowing those were my adult words, but feeling they could have said something heartfelt. I had to know that there was something more than the cognitive stretch they were sharing. Then I said, “I get it. We learned a lot about water. We know we have to conserve water. We know we are fortunate to have water in our homes. But what about our hearts? What did our hearts learn?”
I employed impeccable wait time even forming a heart with my fingers and placing it over my chest. I repeated, “Think about your heart. What did you feel?” I wanted to sound out the first word or give them a hint. But I knew I had to really let the question resonate with them. Perhaps, after all, they missed the rapture of this learning.
And then it happened. One student said, “My heart learned that I could do something for someone else that I didn’t even know who it was.” Another voice, “My heart learned that I could be sad about something and then do something to make me happy.” And another, “My heart learned that I could look back.” “Interesting, what do you mean ‘look back?’” I nudged. “I mean when I was walking on our walk, I was looking back in my brain and remembering all the people that don’t choose to walk like we did, they have to walk.” Yes. The connections were being made. The “so what” was being answered. My littles revealed things that they felt through the knowledge within the learning process.
I wanted to memorialize their heart and brain learning. As I unfurled stark butcher paper and scribbled the theme of the service learning project, they couldn’t wait to handle the markers and write what their heart and brain learned. Their responses were poignant and framed by the realization that yes, water is a precious resource that we really have so little of in this world.
I fully accept that leading kids through a service learning project has the potential for many more heart learnings than let’s say learning about variables in algebra. However, what if we framed each lesson as a heart lesson and a brain lesson? Maybe with variables your heart learns to be persistent. Or what if your heart learns to ask for help when you’re stumped? Or what if your heart learns that you’re really not as bad at variables as you thought? These ideas are the social-emotional, growth mindset, and affective learning pieces that we can’t forego in today’s classrooms. If we want kids to really connect to their learning we need to lead them to find the pathway to their heart. We need to allow that individualized, affective expression in order for the cognition to have enduring ownership.