Nurturing the Seeds of Talent and Passion within Learners

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.

When I was twenty years old, I was standing in Benton Hall at Miami University, talking with my education professor after our 7 p.m. night class. While talking with my professor, I remember having a passionate conversation about the importance of nurturing and coaching students as they formed their own convictions. Looking back now, I realize that for a twenty-year-old, I spoke on this topic with unearned confidence and innocent assurance. Yet, despite this, I remember my education professor truly, graciously, took the time to listen.

Near the end of the conversation, she looked at me straight in the eye without a moment of hesitation in her voice and said, “Shawna, that’s what a teacher would say.”

Years later, I can still hear that moment:  “…that’s what a teacher would say.”

Her words meant: she believed in me.

Today I would argue that we have all known moments like these.

These are the moments when we felt we were at the right place at the right time, or when, uncanningly, someone said the exact words that we needed to hear.

Likewise, these are the moments when someone recognized a seed of talent or passion in us so strongly that we realized we had a responsibility to ourselves to nurture that seed and watch it grow.

I would argue that these moments – these moments that validate our talents, passions and convictions so clearly in our minds – are crucial to the development of all of us, as both human beings and as professionals.  This is why I wonder: why can’t these talents and passions and convictions – these “teaching seeds” and “engineering seeds” and “architecture seeds” and “artist seeds” – be brought to the forefront of our students’ minds more often?

Even more importantly, how can we, as educators,  provide pathways for our students to own and nurture these “seeds” of talent and passion and conviction within themselves?

Fast Forward to the Present

In my last blog on Learning Personalized, Honoring “The Why” in Unit Design and Instruction, I shared that my students had started the school year with a unit that recognized the importance of rhetoric by applying this conversation to the students’ future career choices. After a panel discussion, I asked students to write a one-pager to share their learning of the rhetorical triangle and its application to their future careers. In the reflection, they also discussed meaningful interviews with professionals in their future fields, and their final realizations regarding the pitfalls of not understanding how rhetoric operates within their future careers.

Based on my experience, I would say that there are several questions teachers can ask themselves as they read reflections stemming from personalized learning units. Here is a sample list of questions to consider:


Was the content learned meaningful to the students? Meaningful work contains descriptions, examples, cause and effect relationships, analogies, details and/or convincing progression of thought when content learning is shared. These critical thinking components, and ones similar to these,  are essential to convincing anyone of authentic, content learning.
Are the students able to move beyond the content learning in order to offer their own personal insights, realizations and discoveries?  Reflective work should be unique to each student’s findings. While all students may be asked to respond to certain guidelines or recommendations, the findings they share should be unique to their reading/viewing experiences and their own unique studies during the unit. This is the power of personalized learning: each reflection should be unique to the students’ experiences as the unit evolved.
Are the students thinking about more than just the concept being studied? Are the students moving towards realizations that put individuals and people at the “heart of their learning?” When students move beyond the surface of studying a concept, they should move to a layer in which they realize that the content being studied has real-world implications on the people around them. When this happens, learning becomes meaningful, and students move beyond seeing content as being simply subject or class specific. Instead, they see content as a way to ignite their own convictions and concerns for others.
Are the students processing others’ perspectives from reading and viewing experiences, conversations with others, or interviews conducted?  When students encounter passionate writers and passionate speakers, their understanding of a concept should shift and expand. These experiences are often confirmation for the importance and relevance of the essential questions posed in the unit. (See The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement for more information on essential questions and driving questions.)


From my own reading of students’ reflections in our rhetoric and careers unit, here is what I discovered to be certain:  our students are eager to share their passions for their future careers. You can hear this in the way they write. In the details they share. In the magic of their sentences.

Listen to these student voices with me and perhaps consider the questions from above as you read:

  • “I realized that when it comes to seeing your design, you want your client to have a connection with the house you designed. You want them to be able to imagine living there and maybe even starting a family in that house…..Being able to comprehend an idea and then using powerful and persuasive language to bring that idea to life is also an important part of interior design.” – Catherine K.
  • “Teachers do more than teaching their students; they inspire them.” – Meghan M.
  • “Similarly, sports psychologists can establish a much deeper level of trust with their clients if they provide them with heartfelt support from a personal perspective.” – Vedha R.
  • “During this article you could sense a call to action aimed at engineers because he (the writer) truly believes that technology could be developed to assist in helping reverse the effects of climate change on our planet. I feel like he is encouraging young people to become engineers so they can help try to develop things to help our planet and reverse climate change.” – Ryan B.
  • “If at any moment a pediatric professional treats a child patient like a name on a record instead of a life, they can risk the possibility of …the health of the patient.” – Ishika M.
  • “This commercial relates in multiple ways to my dream job of being a screenwriter. It preaches the idea to dream big with messages such as, ‘Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school. Or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever.’ (This) is the exact mindset any artist needs to be (able) to make it into the industry.” – AJ M.
  • “It’s always very perspective-shifting when one listens to people who work natively in a certain field.” -Alek N.

Whenever I read students’ reflections, I think so often of John Dewey, who we all know once said, “We don’t learn from experience…We learn from reflecting on experience.” Taking Dewey’s advice to heart, I reflected on the students’ voices within their reflections and considered the impact of their inquiries on themselves as learners. Here is my more in-depth reflection with both questions to ponder and insights to share regarding the students’ written work:

  • Were the students able to articulate how the content we studied in class applied to their future career choice? Could they share convincing scenarios or examples that exemplified how one might use persuasion in a given circumstance? The examples, whether they showed a cause and effect relationship, a description of a problem, or a progression of thought, helped me to understand the student’s depth of thought and provided one way for students to share true, authentic learning during the unit.
  • Were the students able to share meaningful learning that occurred from the interviews? And, did the collection of information from the interviews conducted validate rhetoric’s role in that particular career? When students were sharing details from interviews, I encountered new and detailed information regarding the actual uses of rhetoric in other’s careers. In addition, I found myself learning as I listened to all of the different techniques people use to approach conversations that persuade. While, yes, this is a part of rhetoric, I experienced joy when students reflected on the importance of building authentic, trustworthy connections with others. While this is a component of ethos, it also speaks to one’s emotional intelligence and ability to collaborate with others. These moments, for me, might best speak to the heart of co-creation: I was no longer the instructor- I was the learner as well.
  • Were the students able to see themselves in the future using the information from the unit? Did the students have a better understanding of the collaborative nature of their work, of the persistence needed for their work, or of the creativity, imagination or innovation needed for the work required in that career? One way I could tell that the students were truly imagining the work of a particular occupation was when they reflected on their future in that field. An unexpected surprise that occurred was when students didn’t just think about the career path and its connection to rhetoric, but when students left small remarks that I felt tied to the Habits of Mind. A comment on listening or a comment on persistence told me that students gained a better understanding of the situations that people within a certain career face. In hindsight, for next year, I would love to add more moments that truly focused on just the Habits of Mind. This would further solidify the need to recognize the Habits of Mind for our students, as they are true building blocks to our students’ future careers.
  • Did the students walk away with a better understanding of the current issues faced within the student’s future career field? To be honest, I thought I was teaching a unit on rhetoric and its role within careers. From the “roll-out” of this unit this year, I more strongly realize that I was also subtly having students explore (1) their own future career choices and (2) the issues and problems faced in the real world. When students shared the current issues happening in a field- whether it was climate change or motivating learners- I realized my unit had expanded into both of the areas above. Essentially, my initial unit design wasn’t just about rhetoric anymore; it was also about the real-world issues being confronted in every field and my student’s passions to pursue those issues. This “current-events” layer of the unit came as a welcome surprise from the first days of the designing the unit and remained apparent in the students’ reflections; I attribute this to the personalized nature of the unit’s design.
  • Were students able to personalize the information they learned? Did they feel the learning in their hearts and not just their minds? Some of the most telling moments occurred when I felt students shared their passion for their future career fields. I could “hear” in the students’ writing their concern and compassion for the situations people within their future career fields faced. According to The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement, “Teachers need their students’ hearts and minds when they teach the curriculum.” Extending this into the reflections I read, students intrinsically felt the importance of their topics when they had opportunities to listen to and learn from the voices of those who were deeply passionate about their careers. These opportunities moved many of my students towards feelings of empathy- an emotional component, I would argue, that is needed in every career.

In the end, I discovered that by connecting a learning experience to the students’ future careers, many students were able to encounter vibrant, strong and passionate voices from speakers and writers within their future career fields. This, for me, was one of those unexpected, but fortunate, outcomes of designing a unit that offered personalized learning opportunities.

And as an educator working to craft these personalized learning moments, I hope that my students continue to discover “the seeds of talent and passion” within themselves. By doing so, I know they will eventually have their own confident, internal voices to guide them along the way.

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