Monday, September 26, 2016

Ownership of Learning in a High School English Classroom

The most difficult thing about being a public school teacher in 2016 is that the students have given up all autonomy in their learning. Especially when they get to high school, they're completely accustomed to being fed lectures, work, problems, solutions, and techniques for every part of their day. By that point, they're even accustomed to being beat back down, and quickly!, every time they try to rebel against the system.

During my second year of teaching high school English, I wanted to give my students just a small taste of actual control.

I had designed my curriculum schedule for second semester very quickly. I probably only spent about 20 minutes on it at most. It looked like this:

My four grades each still had seven unite left, and it worked easier for me to teach the same unit with all four classes, just using different materials. My OCD found it much more manageable that way. However, for the sake of my students, for the sake of something I knew they would benefit from, I relinquished control. I gave them the opportunity to redesign the curriculum schedule.

Now, at this point, I knew giving them complete control would be too much. They wouldn't be able to handle that sort of shift suddenly, so I'd have to decide what was on the table. I gave them each the list of seven units, and they decided how long each should take and how to order them. It was extremely interesting watching how the problem solving discussion evolved differently among each class!

Here's what they came up with:





After our discussions, I transferred all the calendars to separate sheets of paper. At first I thought we could hang them on the insides of different cabinets and open them during the appropriate class, but with the flexible classroom, I had students sitting against the cabinets every hour. Thus, change of plans, I moved them to a pillar at the front of the room. It was a rather inconvenient spot when I lectured, but I tried not to lecture so much, anyway. Plus, I think it was more convenient for the students to be able to see their schedule at the front of the room.

And the results?

First, yes, I was a little bit crazier not having everyone on the same schedule, but it was definitely worth it. When my students have more autonomy, I can deal with a little OCD-related anxiety. I own that, and it's mine to deal with.

It was also very important to me to listen to my students likes and dislikes. I gave them all a suggested time frame of how long I thought each unit should take, but then we discussed and compromised. My freshmen collectively hated poetry. They had taken 8 units of poetry in their school career thus far, and they knew their preferences. Even though I had planned to spend two weeks on that unit, we realized together that one week would suffice. This was helpful to them because they got to avoid more time with something they already knew wasn't their favorite, but also helpful to me because I learned that they had a very limited attention span for that unit. I would need to pare it down to just the most important highlights because if I included anything remotely boring, I'd lose them.

Some students admitted to me a few weeks or a month into the second semester that they were really surprised I followed through with the curriculum schedules they came up with. When I asked why, they told me that they thought it was a gimmick I was trying to sell them to get them interested in class but would eventually go back on. I was sad that they had that impression, but even more glad that I had made the decision to go forward with this idea. A month or two into the new schedule, as everyone realized I actually was serious, my juniors even came to me with the idea to replace their Shakespeare play for that year with Beowulf! They convinced me that it was a piece of fiction with arguably more historical significance, and I agreed. The unit was changed.

Some students listed designing the curriculum schedule as their favorite part of being in my class that year in their evaluation survey, and that makes my heart sing. <3