“What do you think heaven is like? Do you think we will get bored?” These are typical of the many questions that peppered my sixth-grade Bible lessons. While we couldn’t stop to discuss every one, how could I ignore my students’ curiosity about the Word? Because of this, I had each student conduct a research project based on a self-selected topic of interest. I asked several trusted adults from the community to guide small groups of students, and they became the trusted mentors and managers of the project. Students were evaluated based on completion, but they gained so much more than knowledge from their interactions with coaches.
Similarly, adult coaches were an invaluable resource for an ungraded middle school research unit. Students developed inquiry questions for independent study and were matched with coaches – my family and friends around the world – who had experience with the students’ topics. One supporter sent a soccer ball for his middle school researcher, while my brother e-mailed with a student constructing a model trebuchet. It was fascinating to watch student motivation and creativity blossom through this intergenerational, interest-based learning experience!
Why Involve Coaches?
When designed effectively, projects involving adult coaches can have numerous benefits. Hearing other voices will enhance student understanding about a topic and potentially expose them to differing viewpoints. Communicating with coaches will build their confidence and grow their enthusiasm for learning. Furthermore, local community members and long-distance contacts may enjoy this “window” in your classroom. This is a great way to involve supporters, former professors, and nearby experts!
Where Do I Begin?
- Consider Curriculum: Review curricular themes and goals, and think about whether adult coaches could help students learn specific content or skills. Brainstorm ways to integrate community mentors into already existing activities, or design a purposeful project with a coach-based approach.
- Connect with Coaches: Contact people directly or create an online survey to recruit potential coaches. Be sure to clearly communicate your expectations for these mentors, and for longer projects, check in with coaches periodically for feedback.
- Make it Developmentally Appropriate: Guided independence worked well for my middle school classes, but high school students would likely thrive with greater freedom. At the elementary level, coaches could communicate with the whole class or provide enrichment for gifted learners.
- Integrate Technology: Besides allowing for communication with long-distance coaches, tech tools may be useful for student research, peer collaboration, and teacher supervision of project progress. When introducing new tools, be sure to incorporate mini-lessons and provide scaffolded practice.
- Protect Students: Student privacy is of utmost importance. When I connected my middle school students with remote coaches, I moderated all communication. I sent student e-mails to their coaches and forwarded coach responses back to the students. This was a bit cumbersome, but it was worth it to maintain student privacy and allow me to monitor the process.
As you look ahead to the next semester, how will you connect on a deeper level with your students? Perhaps involving coaches could be the next step for facilitating transformational education in your classroom.
Associate Director of Mobilization, former middle school English teacher
Photo credits: both pictures provided by Heather Brown