My Early Days as a Teacher

When I first started teaching some 12 years ago (before I had grey hair), I thought I knew everything there was to know. 

I was confident, overly enthusiastic and woefully unprepared for what would happen the minute I stepped foot in the classroom. 

Needless to say, I was eaten alive from Day One. 

Most of my early trouble boiled down to one simple misconception: I was more concerned with delivering content than I was with designing experiences for students. 

To me, the curriculum lived highest. It was broken up into a series of discrete facts and skills that I wrongfully assumed could be taught in short intervals.

Kindling, Campfire, or Candle? 

In Marc Chun’s (@HFMarcChun) world, this was nothing more than “kindling.” 

He argues that in the world of education, experiences we create for students can be broken down into three categories: Kindling, Campfires, and Candles. The Kindling are the experiences we provide students that are one-offs; the campfires are those that are more impactful but short lived; and the candles are ones that are ongoing and meaningful- connected to deep learning outcomes.

In my early days as a teacher, I created lots of kindling. 

They were the random field trips to the museum. 

The short labs to discover the melting point for metal. 

Human pyramids constructed by students to recreate the social class levels of Ancient Egyptians. 

And while many of these experiences were fun and enjoyable, they were short lived- failing to create the deep, meaningful experiences my students longed for. 

It wasn’t until I started my tenure at High Tech Middle Media Arts, that I realized how to create “candles” rather than “kindling.” These experiences continue to engage students well beyond the initial activity.  

They include student run businesses to fund cleft palate surgeries; proposals pitched and presented to officials to improve local waterways; the myths students wrote and published in coordination with well established authors. 

The Five Questions for Creating Candles 

As an educator, are you creating candles? Or like me in my early days, are you stuck in the world of kindling? 

Here are five questions to ask to help ensure you light more candles: 

Question #1: Can my students learn this on their own in isolation? 

With the onset of technology and content that moves as fluidly as a click of the mouse, our role as teacher is different than what it was in the past. Much of our content is available in online curriculum, youtube tutorials or easy to understand diagrams and pictographs. 

Given this fluidity, the experiences we provide our students should provide them with the opportunity to apply the content to real world situations. Our classrooms should represent the incubator for students to test ideas and assert themselves. In this way, learning is collaborative and necessitates working with others to achieve an outcome. 

Question #2: Is this experience authentic and meaningful? 

Are you providing students with the opportunity to create something that has value in the real world? 

Ron Berger’s “Hierarchy of Audience” demonstrates the direct correlation between levels of motivation and being of service to the world. (See Diagram Below)

A simple way to ensure you are always achieving this outcome is to provide students with an authentic audience for their work. In the case of our water improvement project, students presented to local government. These were people who could take student ideas and implement them immediately. Similarly, in our entrepreneurship project, students pitched their business models to real venture capitalists and angel investors. In this way, students saw the immediate gain for their hard work; and the unfortunate repercussions if they slacked off. 

Take the time to plan how you might connect experiences by your students to a real audience. 

Question #3: Does this involve other subjects and skills? 

For a candle to burn continuously, it relies on several factors beyond a single match. It requires oxygen to fan the flames; wax to feed the wick; and the right temperature to ensure the light isn’t extinguished. 

So too should the experiences we design for our students.

How might we design experiences that demand the acquisition of a multitude of content and skills? 

When 10th grade biology students at High Tech High worked together with African lawmakers to convict illegal poachers, they were forced to learn more than the simple anatomy of an antelope. They needed to know the biological makeup of animals on the African savannah; the classification of fingerprints used in forensic science; and past case law used to convict convicts in similar cases.  

To ensure you too create these kind of experiences, start the planning process by stepping outside of your four walls. Reach out to potential collaborators- either in your school, or those who interact with your content in the world outside of school. 

Question #4: Does this experience tap into what students are innately interested in? 

To create “candles,” the experiences we design have to tap into our students’ innate passions, interests and desires. 

As teachers, we all know the effect motivation has on learning. But oftentimes we forget that motivation isn’t inherent in all students. And it takes more than an enthusiastic approach. 

It involves the delicate balance of creating tasks that integrate rigorous content with individualised pursuit. To do this, create experiences that allow for multiple pathways to success. Provide students a way to pursue what naturally interests them. 

For example, in our business project, students could create any kind of business they liked provided they drafted a proposal and created financial projections that showed real data and mathematical principals. Some students manufactured and sold bracelets; others bought and sold iPhone cases; and some created “box boards” to hold supplies while skateboarding.   

Question #5: Does it allow for deeper learning?

Just as a candle takes time to fully extinguish, so too should our learning experiences. They should not burn out the minute a new class period or unit begins, but rather be ongoing and allow for further investigation. 

At Elm Street Elementary in Rome, Georgia, a group of first graders has created a business called “Sugar Cube Beauty” which has been running for more than a year, raising over $30,000 for local charities. 

Their investigation included more than just how to produce and manufacture sugar; it also included how to invest profit, scale their product; and invest back into their business. 

You too can create these kind of experiences. It starts by designing deep investigations that demand an approach of constant adaptation and inquiry by your students. 

In Closing

Education will always be engrossed with kindling. It’s the easy to define discreet skills defined by academic subjects and curriculum writers. What takes a great deal more creativity and imagination is creating the ‘candles.’ 

You possess this imagination. 

Ensure the experiences you create involve collaboration with others, are authentic and meaningful, involve a multitude of subjects and skills, tap into what students are innately interested in, and allow for deeper learning. 

To your continual success!