I never planned on teaching through a global pandemic. I doubt anyone did. And yet, here we are, two months to the date when I last saw all of my incredible students in our classroom as I told them, “Take care of yourself, thank you for today, have a great weekend…”
Had I known that March 13th would be the last day of our face-to-face school year, I would have done so many things different. Loaded them up with books. Made sure they cleaned out their lockers. Taken their questions. Created plans. Made sure they knew who to turn to and how to get a hold of us. Told them how much our community has meant to me every day. Hugged them if they wanted to. And yet, now, two months into whatever we are calling this kind of teaching, I am so glad that there were things that we did do all year that has helped us as we transitioned to fully online, to this independent study with support from teachers rather than what school normally is. There are steps that we took as a team all year that our students now say pay off as they sit at home, trying to navigate this online world.
For the past ten years, I have tried to create a classroom where students are given the space to shape their own learning, to discover how they learn best, to go past grades to reflect more deeply on their own needs as learners and as humans and then act on those needs if possible. To create ownership over their learning rather than have school just “be done” to them. I have tried to create an environment where students help plan the lessons, shape how they will be assessed, and also what and how we should pursue our learning. It means that every year there are parts of our learning specifically set up to to do this and it is these parts that now help us have more success in whichever way we define success these days.
So I thought I would give a brief overview of these parts, but also let you know that how to do this is the central question of my book Passionate Learners and that I do virtual and in-person workshops on it as well. (If you would like to have me do this work for you, please reach out).
Part 1: How do you learn best?
This central question is one that we pursue in all of our choices because it is not just that I want a child to be able to be successful in 7th grade English, I want them to take the skills and knowledge they have gained about themselves and apply it to their life after 7th grade English. I want them to be able to walk into a learning situation and know how to advocate for themselves as well as make smart choices that will lead to success. Perhaps too big of a goal but a goal nonetheless.
So how do you learn best applies to where you sit, who you work with, how you approach a project, how do you want to be helped, and even how do you want to be assessed? It applies to every part of how we are in the learning community and how we reflect on ourselves and then use that knowledge to create better conditions for ourselves. A small way of working through this can be seat selection; do I learn best seated on a chair, a yoga ball, a stool, on the floor, standing or lying down? How does where I am in the classroom impact what I can do? How does who I work with impact my learning? How do I approach new topics in a way that makes sense for me? We try out, we reflect on our choices, we discuss, and we draw conclusions in order to move along in our journey. We also discuss how this applies to our “regular” outside lives away from school. How can we speak up and advocate for ourselves and others in order to create change?
This question is central to everything we do. It is where I feel I see some of the largest growth in our year together. It is where I see a lot of engagement shifts for students, especially those where school has not been something they have cared for or felt safe in before.
Part 2: What are your choices?
In order for us to know how we learn best, we have to try out a lot of things. This is why choice in many different aspects of their learning is such a cornerstone of everything we do. Whether it is choice in product, choice in who they learn with, choice in how they learn something, choice in how they are assessed, or even choice in their setting, every choice they are are offered and then make will give kids further insight into how they learn best. Because even what may appear as a “bad” choice is something you can learn from. And so always providing students with choice in some aspect of their learning is part of my planning. If I cannot provide them choice in their product due to state or district standards, then I need to make sure they have other choices to use. They need to have a say in as many components as possible in order to feel proper ownership and also be able to make great and not so great choices. This goes for all students, not just those who have earned it. So this means that even if a child repeatedly makes not so great choices, that we continue to dialogue with them and help them make choices that will support their learning. This doesn’t mean they always get free range but that all kids need to have at least some choices at their disposal, otherwise, we cannot expect them to ever make great choices on their own.
This is one of the things I love the most about being a teacher; providing a safety net for students to explore many different options even if they don’t lead to the type of success they, or we, had hoped for. Our schools should be a safe place to make mistakes. Often kids – and adults – assume that if a child doesn’t complete work or doesn’t use their time wisely that they have failed in the learning, and yet the experience of not being able to do something well is rife with chances for exploration and reflection.
Part 3: What did you learn?
Rather than assume a child has failed if a product is not finished, this is the chance to discover what they did learn in the process about themselves. Did they discover that they need to work with an adult more closely? That selecting the teammates they did, did not work out. That they didn’t do their part and that led to group strife? Giving them built-in chances to assess themselves and the process of learning they have engaged in in order to see what they need to change is a powerful tool in learning and one that needs to be central whenever there is a natural end to a learning cycle. This is also a chance to celebrate any successes they have had; what worked well? What should they replicate in the future? What do they know about themselves now that they didn’t before?
We often assume that students will naturally take this time to internalize these reflections and know what works and what doesn’t, but in my experience this is not always the case. Often, we need to build in time to reflect so that the transfer of realization can happen for each child. We do this through surveys, reflection prompts, and conversations, whatever fits best for the moment. In the beginning of the year, the reflection is often fast and shallow but as the year progresses, I start to see further depth in their answers because we discuss what it means to know yourself. I also offer up more in class chances to share how they are growing as learners which then helps other students go through the process as well.
Part 4: How do you handle obstacles?
Throughout the year, we inevitably have a lot of failures and missteps, but rather than see them as such, they are only thought of as learning opportunities, both for the students and myself. Often these are small such as getting behind on a larger project, being distracted in class, or even just not using the tools provided in a meaningful way, but sometimes it turns into fully missed learning opportunities or complete breakdown in the learning. While this is frustrating for the student, and sometimes the teacher, when it happens there is so much that can be learned from these obstacles because inevitably students will face obstacles in the future that are similar. So rather than give up or assume that obstacles are out of our control, we work through them together and try to solve them together.
When I first started out as a teacher, I assumed that I had to solve every problem for a child, now I know my role as the teacher is to make sure they have an adult to help them solve something if they want to but that we solve it together. And also that sometimes a solution is not what we had hoped for but it will work for now.
Setting up opportunities for students to reflect on the obstacles they faced as well as how they navigated them is a powerful way to invite them into further investment into their own learning. It allows us, the teachers, a way to see which obstacles we have inadvertently placed in the path of students because often I find that it is one of my components or ideas that are causing problems, not just the choices or actions of the students. Sharing the ownership of the learning helps me grow as a practitioner in ways that are instrumental to the changes I make and seek out.
Part 5: Do you trust yourself?
I have to trust my students that they are trying. That they are giving me what they are able to give me in the moment. I have to trust that the feedback they give me is something that matters. That even choices I don’t understand are a way for them to grow. This also means that I have to continually give students chances to prove to me that they can handle further responsibility. That students constantly get a chance to try again and that I don’t narrow their choices because I think I know best and that they will not be able to handle something. Instead I state my concerns upfront and we come up with a plan.
So continually thinking about how responsibility can be shared comes down to how much we trust our students. Even if a child didn’t make a great choice the first time around doesn’t mean that they won’t now. And that is central to what we do; always resetting, always reflecting, always pursuing the learning that we need to do in order to grow as human beings and not just in English.
So you may ask; what does all of this have to do with what we are doing right now? Well, for us, it means lots of choices in their learning – 9 different learning paths options as we speak right now . It means that many students are able to reach out to get what they need or ask the questions they have in order to navigate the obstacles in their way. It means that students are giving me feedback on the learning we are doing and offering up ideas for how to make it better. It means that they are advocating for themselves or finding adults that can help them. It means that many students feel confident in English right now despite all of the format being differently because the independence and advocacy piece has been cultivated and grown all year. Even if that confidence leads to letting me know that the work is too much right now, because that is a win in itself.
And so as I look ahead at the potential for starting next year online, my mind is buzzing with ideas of how we will create the same conditions for next year’s class even if we do not start face to face. Of how students’ voices will be a central component to everything we do in English because that is what we do. Of how I can help guide kids through the reflections we need to do so they can disocver what they already are capable of and how they would like to grow.
The world may look different right now, but that doesn’t mean our philosophy has to change, just the implementation of it. And I am here to help if anyone needs it.
If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities. I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.