Jenn Gilgan, this week’s Educator of the Week, guided her students to explore their connections to countries around the world through their family heritage or the clothes in their closet. Jenn is an English Language Arts teacher at Alonso High School in Tampa, Florida.
For your Nat Geo Educator Certification Program capstone project, your students chose topics from several options that all involved research and mapping. What were some of the options you gave them, and what did you hope students would learn?
I posed multiple options because that’s the point of AP Capstone Seminar: students spend the year doing academic research, and we give them the authority to explore what they want to explore. One pathway was to investigate and map their family genealogy and then research a current ecological or humanitarian issue in one of their ancestral countries. This helped students think of the world along a historical timeline and create the stories of where they came from. Discovering that their ancestors were from a particular place put that country on the map for them.
Another option was adapted from National Geographic’s Global Closet Calculator activity. Students researched clothing in their closets and mapped where it was made compared to where the companies’ headquarters were located. This had an environmental and economic focus: where do companies get their resources, how do they save money by outsourcing work, and how do they treat their employees? It helped students understand how their choices have global consequences.
It sounds like you empowered your students to lead the way in their learning. What prompted you to take that approach?
That approach is pretty much my philosophy. I want kids to be curious about the world. Part of what brought me into education was getting them to discover more about who they are and what their personal journeys are. That’s why I went into English Language Arts; I felt like literature and writing would be better suited for that sort of focus.
I lived overseas in Beirut, Lebanon, when I was in 6th and 7th grade, so I was thrown into the world at that age. While I can’t bring the world to my students in the same way, I can open up their eyes to it. If I dictate to them what’s going to happen, they’ll think it’s boring. They need to be curious in order to go out there and explore.
What advice would you give other educators who want to try giving students more autonomy in their learning but don’t know where to start?
As teachers, I think it’s our natural reaction to want to answer students’ questions, but we probably facilitate their learning better if we answer questions with questions. My advice is to learn how to do guiding questions and constantly push students’ questions back to them. It takes discipline from the teacher, and it’s really hard at first, but then it’s very liberating.
My students learn I’m not going to answer their questions, so they turn to their classmates, and they end up getting into discussions. Some of their classmates answer directly, while others follow the modeling and respond with questions. It’s fun to watch. It prepares them for college or their careers; it’s the way the real world works.
Do you see your students become more confident in driving their own learning over the course of the year?
Yes—it gives them some self-confidence that their interests are not discounted. When they eventually have to make their own decisions, such as what career path they want to follow, they’re not going to be given a scripted curriculum, and they’re going to have to think critically. They’ll have to consider: what’s important to me, what are my values, and how am I going to go about expressing this as a human being? I believe that giving students more choice in the classroom prepares them to think about what path they want to follow and why.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.