How Can We Make School A Place Students WANT to Be?

How Can We Make School A Place Students WANT to Be? (feat. Kyle Saari from Negaunee Public Schools)
Meet Kyle Saari, a fifth-grade teacher for Negaunee Public Schools, who reminds us that “comfort leads to confidence” and that when students are excited to be at school and take ownership over their learning, the results can be absolutely incredible.
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Show notes

Recently, I had the great honor of talking to Kyle Saari, who is a fifth-grade teacher at Negaunee Public Schools in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I was introduced to Kyle by one of our online instructors who lives in Negaunee and whose two boys had him as a teacher.

“The work Kyle does in his classroom is amazing,” she told me. “His engaging activities make learning fun and he is always pushing his students to new limits. He made every one of his students feel important. In this troubling time, he stood out above the rest and it was evident in my son’s eyes every day. As a parent, I can see the importance, but more importantly, my boys feel loved by him.”

Wow! After hearing this high praise, I knew we had to get Kyle on the BRIGHT podcast to share his story.

Here’s a sneak peek at our conversation:

You can listen to the full podcast above, but here are a few of my favorite snippets from our conversation:

The relationship between coaching & teaching

“Those two parts of my life —  both teaching and coaching — have been closely connected. But throughout this entire process, I’ve always considered myself a teacher-coach and not a coach-teacher. Because I think, the majority of skills that we can end up gaining and the core fundamentals come from truly the teaching profession, and then you take those skills, and then apply them on a basketball court, a tennis court, football field, or anywhere else.” (9:10)

The goal every day

“We want school to be a place that students want to be at, not a place where they have to be. When they get up in the morning, do they have some purpose to get ready and to enter with a smile on their face and enter with some energy? I think that’s the number one goal every day. We always say in class, that if we can make you smile, if we can make you laugh, and if we can make you think that’s a pretty complete day within the classroom. That’s kind of where everything starts.” (13:54)

Comfort → confidence

“I believe that comfort leads to confidence. If [students] come into an environment and realize that they’re going to be respected, that they can share their opinion, that they can share some stories of their own personal life, that they can fail, and that there’s not an overwhelming large consequence on their shoulders, then when they are asked to step out of their comfort zone, I think they’re more willing to do that.” (14:26)

The power of choice

“So whether it’s on a small scale or something far larger, when [students] are empowered to make choices, they can find their passion. When they find their passion, hey, they’re in a place that they want to be.” (16:46)

Genius Hour

“When we started Genius Hour, we knew that it was going to be kind of a big risk. We do it every year, the first week of November, and it goes all the way until the end of the school year. It takes students a long time to come up with an idea. Some will be stuck brainstorming, and it appears like they’re not doing too much. Then, all of a sudden, you see the light bulb go off and away they go. It’s amazing. What it’s taught me is as a teacher is that when we get out of their way, every now and then, they can surprise us in ways that we never imagined” (17:34)

See also: Using Genius Hour to help students cultivate their passions and transform their world

Learning to fail

“We had one girl, her goal was to cure cancer. She had a family member that was diagnosed with a certain cancer, and she wanted to do something about that. Kids are told a lot what they can’t do. As teachers, I don’t think that we should be in a role to tell them “no,” but instead, “go for it.” It might seem pretty absurd for a fifth grader to take that on, but what she realized after a two month span was, ‘Okay, I see why people haven’t cured cancer yet.’. . . The biggest thing, I think, is they’re learning how to fail. They’re learning what it takes to succeed. And they learn that they have ownership over their success.” (20:47)

Practicing empathy

“The second thing we do before anything else is we just give them time to share, and it seems like the most basic thing in the world, but. . . What I think it does is it makes the environment real, and it makes it authentic for students. They see their classmates differently, too, when they have time to share. We always say that we want our students to practice empathy, but they can’t practice empathy if they don’t care for each other. By sharing in the morning, I think many of them they’re able to gain that skill.” (25:50)

Celebrating our successes

“I think often we hear about how much in education needs to be reformed… but very rarely do we hear about the successes that take place. The fact that we were able to change modes of instruction within 24 to 48 hours across our entire country, in a public education setting, I think that’s a tremendous success that should be talked about far more often.” (34:02)

Overall reflections

After my conversation with Kyle, I was left inspired by the community he has cultivated in his classroom to make learning immersive and student-driven. 

From the way he invites students to empathize with their peers at the beginning of every class to innovative projects, like Genius Hour, that he uses to give them ownership over their learning, I couldn’t help but think about how fun and empowering it must be to be a student in Kyle’s fifth-grade classroom. 

How would having such an experience in fifth grade change your lifelong relationship with learning? 

How might being empowered to tackle big projects at such a young age change the way you think about your role in society as an adult?

When classrooms operate like this — when students want to be there and are excited to learn — the results can be amazing. 

Thank you, Kyle, for everything you do to innovate and inspire learning in your classroom! 

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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