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September 1, 2010
Vol. 68
No. 1

Candlelit Learning

Embed learning in real-world scenarios if you want students' lights to shine.

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I recall, at age 3, standing on the platform of my hometown church, singing "This Little Light of Mine" to a 1,000-member congregation. The lyrics were easy to memorize:
This little light of mineI'm gonna let it shineThis little light of mineLet it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
The melody was also pretty simple. Besides, I had been singing nonstop since the moment of conception (at least that's my mother's contention). I was all dolled up in my favorite pink nylon dress, feeling totally passionate about my message, and determined to convince every person present to get with the light-shining program. So, of course, while performing, I had to gesture with a lit candle. My mother tried to tell me that an unlit candle would do just as well, but there was no dissuading me. I don't think anyone present will ever forget that candle—especially my mother, who expected me to go up in flames every time I waved the taper anywhere near that nylon dress.
The success of that first performance was the auspicious beginning of my career as a teacher and professional speaker. Somehow, even then, I realized that you have to actually light the candle; you have to provide a real context to ignite the passion of the audience.
Flash forward half a century and essentially nothing has changed. If we as educators want to connect with our students and inspire them to shine brightly at meaningful work, we need to provide a real taper at which they can light their own flame.

When Kids See Their Gifts in Context

Real-world experience can give a budding expert the context in which to discover and hone an inborn gift. In The Element (2009), Sir Ken Robinson recounts the beginnings of Olympic gymnast Bart Conner's display of skill. As a child, Bart could walk up and down the stairs of his house on his hands, an amazing feat that most of his family members saw as totally useless. Then one day, when he was 10, Bart's physical education teacher took him to a local gymnastics center. His eyes bugged out as he saw his gift in context.
Another young man, age 9, managed several newspaper delivery routes. Before every holiday, he seized the opportunity to sell greeting cards as he knocked on neighbors' doors to collect for the newspaper. This real-world practice of "upselling" was ideal training for Steve Case, who grew up to found AOL.
How does this idea play out in the education world? Most people would tell you that school is not a place for lighting candles. Too expensive. Too dangerous. Not on the test. But in Tacoma, Washington, a group of far-sighted educators took a risk and forged a context in which arts-focused students connect schoolwork to their burning interests. They created the Tacoma School of the Arts, which puts all learning in the context of the arts. For students like my nephew, whose world revolves around music, this school has been the perfect "candlelit" environment. I'll never forget his excited phone call: "Did you know, Auntie Lynell, that physics is all about music?" Every year, scores on standardized tests are higher at this school than at any of the district's four traditional high schools.

Creating Microworlds

But what if your district doesn't have a magnet school that can provide this kind of meaningful world? Or even if it does, what about the other schools in the district? And what about students who have less readily classified gifts?
Within traditional schools, innovative teachers are creating all kinds of mini-opportunities that open doors to authentic learning and personal passions—almost like microworlds. It may be an academy within a school, a course, an after-school program, a short-term project within a class, or even a quick, innovative instructional practice. Let's look at some of these learning microworlds in schools where I've had the privilege of interviewing the exemplary staff and seeing students in action.

In the Business of Learning

At Lucy Addison Middle School in Roanoke, Virginia, business teacher Joy Hairston set up Bulldog Press. Students create posters and banners, parking permits, bumper stickers, award plaques, and digital die-cut words and shapes (like the parts of the cell) for bulletin boards and curriculum-based projects. The press is run as an after-school class; students sell these products to teachers and students throughout the district for profit.
The venture provides a real-world learning context and a chance to cultivate innate talents. In the computer-based design center, students use (or create customized variations of) templates and scalable objects using specialized equipment and software and various colored and textured papers. They develop a wide range of career and technical education competencies and such 21st century skills as facility with digital technologies and working in teams.
Students with a penchant for art develop new designs and products and have worked with the marketing department to create a logo and slogan for the company. Marketing gurus lay out and continually update the online product catalog posted on the district's website, and they work with the local high school's audiovisual class to create commercials for the local television station. Learners who excel at spreadsheets work as operations managers, tracking supplies and the status of orders; other students help establish pricing guides and keep records of sales, payments, expenses, and profits. The board of directors prepares reports to the stockholders (the school district and community supporters who financed the equipment to set up the business in the first place) and solicits additional investments.
Of course, these students are reading (instruction manuals and customer complaints); writing (letters to investors, program proposals, or flyers and brochures); and applying science and math skills (to measurements, budgets, and cost-per-item and profit margin analyses). But in this real-world context, students' learning is motivated by the strong desire to run a successful business.
Talking to business teacher Joy Hairston, it becomes clear that the microworld of Bulldog Press is not only a successful business but also an exciting place for learning. No one moans, "Why do we have to learn this?" Instead, student after student asks, "Can we stay until we finish this?"

Relevant Moral Education

In one classroom at Oliver Wendell Holmes Foundation Academy in Flint, Michigan, a different kind of relevant learning is taking place. Middle school language arts teacher Yolanda Jackson wanted her students to understand the importance of making good choices in life. Rather than lecturing them or having them write a decontextualized essay, Yolanda implemented a strategy called a "progressive story" (see Burmark, 2002). Students crafted a story inspired by a series of photographs shown as a computerized slideshow. In groups of three, students viewed the following images:
  • A school building
  • Two girls sneaking out of the school
  • The girls at the counter at a hamburger joint
  • One girl opening her wallet, which contains only $2
  • A cheeseburger and fries
  • The girls entering a department store
  • One girl sneaking a bottle of perfume into her purse
  • A "thought bubble" showing a juvenile detention center
  • The girl putting the perfume back on the counter
  • The girl showing her purse to the security guard and smiling
  • Two girls leaving the store, smiling
  • Two girls walking back into the school
Each group received a Koosh ball. After the first slide appeared, one student in each group made up—and said aloud—a story opening that responded to that screen image, then tossed the ball to another group member. The next student continued the story by narrating a sentence or two in response to the next image, and so on. After all the groups developed their stories, Mrs. Jackson went back through the images and asked several students to share what events they "saw" in each image.
Next, each group thought of a real-life situation in which someone in the group once made a hard moral choice. Each group took a series of photographs based on this moral dilemma and used the photos as a jumping-off point to write a story about the situation, which they presented to the class. Most students shared incidents in which they had taken money from their parents or stolen items from a convenience store.
Mrs. Jackson found that by starting with the images, the students were able to come up with richer language than if they had just been staring at a blank page. Students constructed something that would nurture knowledge relevant to the rest of their lives: the knowledge that day-to-day choices—not "givens" like height, skin color, or even innate ability—create a person's character. Like a pearl, each choice is cultivated and then strung into the strand that represents the person's life.

Making It Real

Even a practice as simple as guiding students to reflect on how the content they've just learned in school applies to their own life context can inject authenticity. At Grimmer Elementary School in Fremont, California, students regularly pause after about 10 minutes of teacher-driven instruction to discuss what they just learned with a partner and think about how they might use this information. At Grimmer, they call this "10:2" and they observe the practice almost religiously. These pauses are programmed into the instruction and occur with near clock-like precision. Depending on the content and objective of the lesson, teachers' directions for the two minutes will vary. Besides the generic, "Tell the person next to you something you didn't know 10 minutes ago," the teacher might say, "Share where you've seen an animal like this before or where you might go to find one" or "How do you dress differently on a rainy day, and why?" or similar open-ended questions to drive the content deeper and make it personally relevant.
This practical assignment aligns pedagogically with the recommendations of cognitive psychologist John Medina, professor at the University of Washington and author of Brain Rules (2008). Medina has found that even college students' attention starts to wander after 10 minutes of lecture. Nobody knows why, although some scientists speculate that the interval is wired into our genes. The beauty of the Grimmer practice, in my opinion, is that teachers not only change the pace and refocus kids but also use this pause to give students a chance to relate the content to their own special worlds.
In meaningful contexts like these, learning soars. Whether through project-based learning, internships or apprenticeships, formal career and technical education courses, or in-class practices that develop student responsibility or make students' lives a touchstone for learning, when we create authentic learning worlds, students will be fired up. The learning that happens will go beyond the shallow, short-term recall and retention currently masquerading as education in too many schools. The test of real learning is whether students can transfer knowledge, confidence, and skills to solving new problems—whether they can light their own candles.

Burmark, L. (2002/2005). Visual literacy: Learn to see, see to learn. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Richardson, K. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking Press.

Lynell Burmark is the author of the 2002 ASCD book, Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn. She is cofounder of VisionShift International as well as an associate at the Illinois-based Thornburg Center for Professional Development.

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