Tag Archives: student choice

Reflecting to Discover

5 Jul

What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.

For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.

Ref1Ref2Ref3
His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.

“Have you read this book?”

31 May

A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.

In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?

Continue reading

“I wish school curriculums let students create more.”

12 Nov

Last month, I observed a few classes at Lakeside, an independent school in Seattle, WA. There, teachers are moving toward, what they call, a playground model in which students are encouraged to take risks and experiment. While they of course still have a curriculum that they follow, students do have freedom to do things like design, tweak, and retry their own lab experiments and to play with programming software to figure out how chaos and order are a part of an author’s writing. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Of course these things are not total anomalies in public education, but with increasing demands to produce evidence of student achievement, time dedicated to trying new things and allowing students the freedom to make and learn from mistakes can sometimes take a back seat to things like test prep. What seems more amazing is that students recognize that trend as well. They’re not naive in that they know acing an AP exam will put them in good standings for college admissions, but they also seem to crave more choice and more time to play.

This week, I’m reading through student reflections, in which they discuss their greatest takeaways from working with the ILP and the work in subsequent classes that makes them feel most accomplished. Here is one that seems to encapsulate what many of his peers are also thinking:

“NO other class has let me create my own work from the ground up, and this vertical growth has been enjoyable in that I have learned how to independently pursue relevant knowledge and also how to put my independent creative vision into this discovery of knowledge. Especially in my narrative writing. I found this unit to be most enjoyable because of this promotion of free creation. I don’t imagine I’ll get to use this skill again because AP classes are intensely geared towards taking a test, not promoting the free ideas and creation that all student all really need. I wish more people realized that creation is more important than just doing activities, like during this English class and in other classes as well (world language, especially), and that’s my greatest takeaway. I wish school curriculums let students create more…. This unit has made me realize that the current system of education desperately needs to reform for more independent creation.” (10th grade Honors Student)

The student’s terms, “vertical growth” and “free creation” really strike me because I see them echoed in the pleas of many other students.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. We tried again after knowing more about our audience's needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build a piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. So, we tried again after learning more about our audience’s needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions and different perspectives.

Of course, there are many, many teachers who are doing amazing things with student creation, but it seems increasingly saved for elective classes in public education. When I took a professional development course on STEM across the curriculum at my school, I had the pleasure of experiencing what those students are yearning for. While setting us off on a project of our own creation, Design and Applied Technology teacher, Michael McFadden gave three pieces of wisdom that I couldn’t help but write down:

  • In the engineering process, students have to fail before they can start. It’s not until they fail and have to figure out why something didn’t work that they have a real problem to solve.
  • You’re never finished.
  • The two biggest requirements for any project–be engaged in the process and be as ambitious as you want.

This makes me wonder, especially in highly-tested subject areas or content-heavy courses, how can we do more to let our students explore, be ambitious, and engage in the process? How can we reconcile the need for grades on “finished” products if students are forever vertically growing? And how can we allow for students to learn from mistakes?

LibGuides and Student Choice

24 Feb

One of the important aspects of using inquiry, and especially in using the ILP, is the opportunity for student choice.  In Meg and Cathy’s classes, students  explore themes in literature and develop skills around standards, and all of this begins with the texts students choose.  In Heather’s latest post, she discusses the ways in which librarians can help students and co-teach in inquiry classrooms.  For Cathy’s and Meg’s classes, librarians assist students at the beginning of the ILP process by helping them select texts.  One of the ways we do this is through booktalks.  A booktalk is a short introduction of a book that we can provide to students as a way to get them interested in a particular text, era, or genre of literature.  In giving a booktalk, Heather and I, as well as other librarians, provide students with a glimpse into a text, by either reading a small section or sharing the conflict, theme, characters, or our favorite part.  For American Literature classes, Heather and I would organize and provide booktalks around eras:  Realism and Romanticism, Modernism & Postmodernism, Contemporary American Literature, among others.  While we would share titles belonging to these eras, we would also connect the texts to major concepts and themes from the time period.  Cathy and I would  “tag team” our booktalks, alternating between the two of us, often like a ping-pong game along a literary timeline. While we were satisfied with the introduction of the texts we provided to students, we always felt that we could never cover enough books to give students a wide exposure to all of the possible literature they could choose from.  

In an effort to make this part of the inquiry process more student centered, in addition to booktalks, we guided students through a browsing activity using a curation tool called a LibGuide.  This web-based program allowed us to collect various websites and databases, as well as print books available in our collection or electronic texts found online.  Our LibGuide for American Literature optimized a student’s ability to browse for texts.  Instead of simply listening to a booktalk with books the teacher and librarians have chosen to highlight, now students could explore the multitude of resources on this guide to not only learn about eras and authors more thoroughly, but also to explore as much as possible of the literature America had to offer.  This LibGuide has certainly grown over the past few years.  We’ve added websites that students have discovered in their learning, ebooks that the library has purchased, and our own documents that serve to guide students through the ILP.    

American Literature LibGuide

And when Cathy began talking about altering the structure of her class this time around, we saw the need to add even more material to this guide.  While we still offer the opportunity for students to browse by era, this guide leads students to explore major playwrights, novelists, and poets across eras.  It links to lists of American literary awards by year, as well as resources on American art and music, allowing students to see the connections between literature and other arts.  We’ve offered sites on American culture  and American history, and knowing that students don’t need to find just long texts and can explore supporting documents and materials, we’ve aggregated resources that contain primary documents from our nation’s history.

In some of the specific eras, we have linked to certain Google documents that highlight either the texts that our school library has, titles that Cathy’s classroom library contains, or books that students can find in the public domain on the web.  Cathy and I have used these documents for specific browsing activities where students list their top three choices and explain why they are interested in reading the text and how it may connect to the themes they want to explore or the essential question they want to answer.

By combining all of these different types of approaches and exposing students to as many resources on American literature, writers, culture, and history as possible, we truly desire to create an open opportunity for them to explore–to wander around the resources, making connections and creating pathways for their own learning.    We’ve even created a space for students to upload resources they find in their own browsing and searching online, giving them ownership of this class resource as well.  And as we monitor this LibGuide, we can examine the usage statistics in the site’s “back office” to evaluate which sites are frequently referenced or which ones may be underused.  Such data can give us insight into how students are using the guide and may help us determine what, if any, changes need to be made in the future.

And we haven’t just used LibGuides to help students connect with texts for literature classes.  Teachers in other disciplines have teamed with the librarians to create guides  in their disciplines, including Global Studies and Environmental Science, among others. By using resources like LibGuides and providing the time needed to deeply engage with the material in the beginning stages of inquiry or research, we are honoring the act of discovery and immersion as well as the importance of student choice, which all contribute to successful ILP and learning processes.

Please let us know if you recommend any resources for the American Literature LibGuide, or any of our other LibGuides, that we can share with our students.  We welcome any feedback you may have and certainly would love to hear how you honor student choice in your classroom or library.

%d bloggers like this: