Sunday, May 29, 2016
Posted by Robert Thornell, Ed.D.
Why Destination Imagination is a lot like Mardi Gras.!!..You Had To Be There
I am headed home from five days at the Global Finals for Destination Imagination and I have to say that although I have been in education for over twenty years now, I have never seen anything quite like it. In fact, until last year I didn’t even know this world existed. The best comparison I have for Globals is Mardi Gras in New Orleans….not for the debauchery, but because when you tell stories about what happened, you will inevitably get two types of reactions: If someone has been there, they understand; if they haven’t, don’t bother trying to explain it because they won’t believe you anyway. We saw costumes that would rival anything you might see at Mardi Gras, but one of the big differences is they were made by hand from kids all over the world.
When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I entitled it “Exploring Authentic Learning” because I believe that our students need as many avenues as possible to get hands-on, real-world learning experiences as they go through school. As educators, we have to be intentional about planning for these types of activities to happen and I believe in NISD, we do about as well as anyone, in finding ways for kids to express and share all sorts of talents. In fact, while our group was gone, approximately 1,000 students shared and displayed their work at our District’s annual “Night of No Limits”. Where else do you see that many K-12 students come together on one night to celebrate their learning?
As we make the trek home today, I can’t help but reflect on what our team experienced this week. And when I say team, there are twenty-three of us in a caravan (the team, parents, and siblings) driving from Knoxville, Tennessee to our home in Newark, Texas. We are all exhausted, maybe a little grumpy, but also feeling very fortunate to have been supported by so many friends and family through prayers, thoughts, and finances.
The father in me is very proud of my son and his team, but the professional educator in me cannot help but see the endless possibilities a program such as this can provide for students around the world. As I mentioned, I didn’t really know much about Destination Imagination two years ago. For me, it was like countless other programs (and there are many other good ones out there), but that all changed because of one teacher and one parent. Two years ago at my kids’ elementary school, we had a teacher new to the campus that really pushed to try and get the DI program going.
She made calls and sent letters to try and get a few parents interested. She held a parent meeting that was sparsely attended, but she did what so many of educators talk about doing, she connected with one parent and convinced him that it would be a great opportunity for our students. We talk a lot in schools about how we need our parents to volunteer and help, but often they do not know how, or, gasp, they are not really as welcomed or encouraged as we would like to believe we make them. One teacher didn’t give up and for that, I am grateful. (On a side note, many of the schools in our District have been competing for years and I have had other teachers approach me in my role about expanding the program. NISD sent over 100 teams to the Regional competition this year…duly noted).
So our little team started last year with one dad meeting weekly with the kids in his garage (almost a prerequisite for sponsoring DI). They built and rebuilt props, wrote a script to solve what DI calls a “Technical Challenge”, designed costumes and by the Spring they were ready to compete for the first time in the local competition. Much to our delight, they placed high enough to qualify for the State competition! This was exciting! You could tell they had caught the fever and in an age when we struggle to get kids excited about school, competing in problem solving and being successful is a great way to get them to stretch their minds. At the State competition we learned a lot last year. We learned that working together and collaboration are essential to success, but the exciting part is they walked away determined to do better next time!
Stepping away from the parent part for a moment, and going back to my role as an educator, what happened next really excites me. At our school we went from one team, to three. Okay, maybe that is meager progress, but rather than 6 kids experiencing the process, we are up to 18 (including my daughters third grade team)!! Who knows what next year will bring, but I am an advocate for more kids and parents getting involved. Our own team stayed together. Two members “graduated” to middle school, and were replaced, but we also added two more coaches. One of the parents scheduled permitted her to eat lunch with the kids once a week and work on “instant challenges”. Again, parents working with students and the school to help provide dynamic learning experience! In fact, my middle school daughter now competes on a team in which the mom coaches SEVEN teams!!! You might say we are hooked.
Recently, in a meeting with principals from our District, I asked them to think about how their campus plans for ALL students to share, reflect, and publish their work. This is very important to authentic learning. We should feel morally obligated to provide cultures in our buildings where students have real-world experiences. If we do not, how can we say we are preparing them for their future? Don’t “allow” it to happen, encourage and foster a setting in the classroom and the campus where it “has” to happen.
This week was a wonderful experience for my son and his team. One that they will never forget. They reached their goal of qualifying for Globals and they now have that fever again to come back and compete against the best in the world. However, competing was just one fraction of the learning experience. Our kids worked to fundraise, they learned to write letters to both request and thank people and businesses for funds, they even spoke at a Board of Directors meeting to receive a grant to support their trip. All of these life skills and experiences forced them to do things they would not have learned any other way. While at the competition, I watch in amazement as they interacted, bartered, and traded with kids from all over the world. Who knows, someday, one of them may end up negotiating with China over something much more important than a decorated pin.
As I mentioned, in NISD, we put an emphasis on authentic learning. Our Academies at the high school level provide all sorts of real-world experiences. Many of our schools have joined the “makers space” movement to foster student creativity, and our teachers continue to develop problem-based learning lessons for students. Our students build their own e-portfolios and some even tell stories of using them to get jobs! My challenge for NISD teachers and administrators, and really educators everywhere, is what can we do to ensure that ALL of our students experience learning like the four teams from NISD that competed at Globals this year? Or the STEM kids from NHS that built rockets and competed with schools around the state? Or the robotics club at Clara Love Elementary that qualified and competed at the state level. Truly, the list of opportunities and successes in NISD is endless, but let’s not be satisfied until ALL students are Ready for College, Ready for the Global Workplace, and Ready for Personal Success.
There are so many different pathways and opportunities but it all starts with one teacher and possibly one parent. I am very thankful for the “one” teacher and the “one” parent that stepped up almost two years ago and decided that the extra time for a few kids was worth it. It was.
For more information or interest visit: Destination Imagination Globals 2016