Lessons from teachers — Helping students take the lead

    Simon Hauger’s idea of a great lesson is this: ask the student “what is really near and dear to your heart” and then stand back, let the student take the lead, and watch the student’s efforts unfold.

    As a result of the big changes underway in the Philadelphia School District, teachers will soon be given more freedom to be creative. As part four of five, the Notebook and NewsWorks took a multimedia look inside the classrooms of exemplary Philadelphia teachers to get an on-the-ground perspectives of great teaching.

    Simon Hauger’s idea of a great lesson is this: ask the student “what is really near and dear to your heart” and then stand back, let the student take the lead, and watch the student’s efforts unfold.

    Hauger, who runs the Sustainability Workshop with fellow teacher Michael Clapper, said students learn by doing, coming up with ideas, developing plans and completing projects, large and small.

    This quarter, for instance, several students are engaged in efforts to promote the DREAM Act, the federal legislation backed by the Obama administration that would grant conditional permanent residency to undocumented youth who arrived in the country as minors, graduate from U.S. high schools, and enter the military or higher education.

    “Several of our students are immigrants, and the DREAM Act is near and dear to them as they go through the college application process. A couple of them are particularly active in student organizations and social movements,” Hauger said.

    The Sustainability Workshop is a District-backed pilot program at the Navy Yard in which students spend their senior year on a variety of projects, many related to “green” technology.

    Hauger came to value project-based learning as a math teacher while assigned to the automotive technology academy at West Philadelphia High School. At first he was disappointed, not keen to work with vocational students.

    “I felt everybody needed to go to college – that’s the American dream,” Hauger recalled.

    Then came the realization that “two of the smartest people I had worked with in my life were auto techs. They were brilliant, but didn’t fit the mold of what smart looks like.”

    He concluded that “intelligence is not one size fits all” and sought to tap the creative energies of students. Hauger founded the after-school program that came to be known as the Hybrid-X Team, which began building hybrid electric cars – and winning international competitions.

    In the workshop program, Hauger and Clapper supervise 27 students from South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and Furness high schools. The only requirement for admission: students needed sufficient credits to be on track for graduation this spring.

    “Our students run the gamut” in terms of academic achievement, Hauger said.

    Besides the DREAM Act effort, projects include building an ultralight electric car and a startup Bright Ideas company, which seeks to convince homeowners to replace energy-wasting light bulbs.

    This approach to learning makes sense for many students, Hauger said.

    “When you think about the skills you use every day, I doubt that you call on Algebra 2 skills very often. Why can’t school be more about figuring out what you’re interested in and passionate about and developing that skill set?” He stresses that this doesn’t mean that content is not important. “It is,” he said. “You need to read, write, and do math and know something about thinking as a scientist and a social scientist.”

    The challenge, however, is this: “How do you translate that into a meaningful experience for kids?”

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