Tuesday, October 25, 2016

DIY Notebooks and My 2016 Take on PBL--Individual Study

Sometime right before winter break in my second year of teaching high school English, I got this idea for a do-it-yourself notebook. You see, I have this specific something instilled in me that's part environmentally-friendly, part OCD, where I don't like things to be wasted. I've been saving paper that's only been used on one side since high school (and, boy, did I get teased because of it!), and I've amassed quite a stack of it. I encouraged the third-graders I taught to draw and color on the blank sides, but the practice never quite caught on with teenagers. I'd been taking notes and doing daily writing on them, but the stack was growing ever taller, regardless.

It was around this time I started thinking that I should just carry some of this scrap paper around with me. Like a notebook.

But... more like a 3-ring binder because, as much as I like having the pages in a notebook securely attached, I enjoy the flexibility of being able to reorganize, add, and remove pages as necessary.

But... full-sized sheets are so large and cumbersome. I'd definitely need to cut them in half to be a good size.

But... one thing that's awesome about 8.5x11 pieces of paper is that.. well, they're a standard size. So when you put them in the hole punch, one of my favorite toys, all the holes are in the same place. There's not a standard hole punch for 8.5x5.5 papers.

Wait! What an excellent critical thinking opportunity with real world application! I offered my students some extra credit and gave them 20 minutes to come up with the best solution.

I finally settled for one offered by two of my juniors--If you align the papers at the bottom of the hole punch, like usual, the holes are awkwardly positioned. Same for if you align them at the top of the hole punch. It's not so awkward if you turn the hole punch to the right side, flip the pages to the back so that the used side is showing up, align at the top, and then punch! It took some getting used to, but it totally works! I was so happy to offer that opportunity to my students, and even more so to let them see me use a design they helped come up with on a daily basis.

A few months later, I decided that size wasn't right for my needs. I needed an even smaller size, a quarter size, to fit inside my purse. That was a bit of a struggle to design, as well! Eventually we decided that this one wouldn't work if aligned at the top or bottom; we just needed to center it between two of the holes. The pages weren't exactly the same size, which is what I was afraid of, because I cut several pages at the same time in an inexact method, but it really didn't matter. All that mattered, after all, was that the holes were a standard distance from each other. Neat!

Alright, switching topics, just a little. I knew I wasn't coming back to work the following year about half way through third quarter. That being said, I really wanted to go out with a bang. I wanted to give my students something they would really learn from and remember, something important.

At that time, I had a sophomore who was teaching herself Russian in her spare time, which I was immensely proud of. It reminded me of teaching myself Japanese when I was younger, and that spurred an idea I had been considering after reading Summerhill School.

It had a basis of Project Based Learning, and that's how I sold it to administration, but in reality, I just wanted my students to realize that they live in the digital age. Literally ANYTHING they want to learn is at their fingertips. Mostly, I wanted them to have more control over their learning, to have more ownership of their own learning.

Thus, it manifested like this: Individual Study. Once again, I threw the entire curriculum out the window for the final month of school, telling my students that we were going to be doing something more important--focusing on whatever they wanted to learn. I stressed how important it was to follow your passions, not let anything come between you and what you want to learn, and turn hobbies and interests into viable options for study and bettering yourself. I reminded them that this is what it means to be a 21st century learner.

But being a public school teacher, I still had to enter grades into the computer, unfortunately, so.. Remember those journals I had the students help me on? We made more, and they became logbooks.

This is what I told students I was grading on:

This hastily-hand-written-and-then-photo-copied sheet became "conference sheets," and students were to keep them to use as a reference every day. We discussed the entire sheet at length together, but also during conferences. I'll go through each bullet here like I did then.
1. Logbook
I. Participation - Are you filling out your log book every day?
II. Legibility and neatness/organization - Can someone else pick up your logbook and understand what you're doing without context?
III. Completion - Does each entry have everything it needs? Include the following:
i. Date
ii. Pre-planning with signature of approval
iii. Reflection - What do we mean by that? Here are some examples:
a. Self-exploration / meta-cognition - Thinking about your thinking. What are you learning about yourself during this time?
b. In depth explanation of process and findings - What path did your thinking take? What problems did you come across, and how did you solve them? What were the answers?
c. Analysis of findings - What do you make of what you found? What can you generalize or apply to other areas? What does it all mean?
2. Presentation of findings
I. Communication of ideas - Can you explain what you did in a way that everyone else understands and learns from, too?
II. Advocating for self - Are you enthusiastic about what you're learning? If someone is critical of you, do you stick up for yourself and what you're doing?
3. Weekly conferences
As you can see, the logbooks were the backbone of the project. It was a difficult line for me to address because I wanted to demonstrate to other teachers, parents, and administrators that this plan could work. I wanted them to be a physical representation of students learning on their own with minimal guidance, but to do that, I had to set a secure infrastructure. I wanted to leave enough room for the students to explore and be able to come up with their own, innovative ideas, and I knew that involves being able to fail. It's so much to learn in just a month. I knew it wasn't reasonable, so I built myself a safety net. I started a spreadsheet of what I noticed the students doing each day.

The truth is, I hated keeping this. I felt like I was judging my students on something they shouldn't be judged on. Isn't that all grading in a nutshell? Yet this felt worse, somehow.. Like I was giving them false freedom. Like I was keeping secrets from them. It felt like judgement, but it never entered into how I graded. It's just what I had to do to ascertain that I was still doing my job as a public school teacher, and I still hated it all the while.

It did, however, free me from keeping unnecessarily close tabs on the logbooks. Once they were created, I let the students conduct their business in whatever way they wanted and only asked them about their process during conferences. Thus, they knew what the expectations were and could choose to act on them or not, hence the pages being kept for reference and being revisited during conferences. They knew that the expectation was they kept their entries dated, for example, and could decide how much not doing that counted off of their own grade.

Here's an example of what one looked like. Again, the sophomore teaching herself Russian. (She chose to use the backs of scrap paper, as I did in my own journals. Other students used lined paper.)

The presentations were a little difficult to get started, my students all being hesitant to talk about themselves and having been instilled with a fear of the word "Presentation." My Juniors, however, were extremely grateful to realize that they didn't have to be formal presentations and arranged themselves into a big circle on the floor on presentation days. They went around the circle describing what they were learning and answering questions from the others. It was informal and pleasant, and it went so well that the biggest struggle we had was the time limit because of the bell system.

My favorite part of the entire project were the weekly conferences. I met with each student in their own space, joining them on the floor or in the desks, and let them flow through the Conference Sheet at their own pace, expounding on whatever they felt most important. I got to hear their genuine voices during these times, how they thought and what interested them. I asked them questions about their work and process, and then asked them what they would grade themselves, which was an incredibly interesting undertaking. Some students were hypercritical of themselves while others weren't as much, but, regardless, I always asked them how they would improve during the following week. It was an honest, authentic conversation, and one in which I felt like I was doing my best work as a teacher. This speaking quietly with students in a relaxed environment, listening as they explain what interests them and how they can and are growing as humans, while the other students work and play conversate and live around us.. This is what teaching is about for me. <3

I know this was a unique experience for my students, and I hope that they got something out of it. My biggest hope is that they will remember these four weeks at some later time in their lives and that it sparks some sort of renewed flame in pursuing passions. Teaching is sewing seeds of inspiration that won't grow into anything noticeable for years. I have faith that in 10 or 15 years, this one month will make a difference in the lives of some of my students.

And as for now.. I may have found another transformation for those logbooks in a new project of my own... more on that later!