In my last post (read it here), I talked about how I had transformed my English 12 class last year from an “English class” to a true community of writers. In this post, I’m going to talk about how I’m planning on expanding this experiment to my English 9 through 12 classes with the main focus being student-driven… well, everything.
We are all born with the desire to learn. Babies and small children are infinitely curious creatures, driven to experiment with their environments and push their bodies to master feats that at first seem impossible. As toddlers get older, they learn their first language not by being put inside a room and given a computer and a set of headphones, but by being immersed in the language. They learn how to ride a bike not by examining the principles of gravity, momentum, or balance, but by getting on, falling off, and repeating the process until they no longer fall off.
After five magical years of learning, playing, and experimenting, kids enter kindergarten, and their educational lives are planned out for them. Then they enter grade one, where they spend a lot of time in desks doing what teachers expect them to do. Then grade two, then three, then four, then five… and not a lot changes. Sometimes they watch short films; other times they read books; occasionally they escape the drab brick-and-mortar buildings called school and learn about the world by experiencing it. By the time I get these students in junior high, they tend to act in one of two ways: either they’ve mastered the game of school and want to do more to please their teachers and parents (called “good students”) or they’re bored and want to either escape from school or act out in such a way as to disrupt what’s going on in their classes (called “bad students”).
At twelve, grade 7 students have far, far fewer freedoms in their learning than they did as infants. We are all born with the desire to learn, but that desire is not recognised in schools where students are told what to learn, told when to do homework, and told how they’re going to show authority figures what they’ve learned. The desire to grab learning by the collars is also often absent in twelve-year-olds. They’ve been institutionalised, and the institution doesn’t want students questioning the institution.
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Some of you may have heard of “The Independent Project” in which a group of high school students took it upon themselves to grab education by the horns and school themselves for a semester. If you haven’t seen it, take fifteen minutes and watch it. I found it sometime in March as I was reading books about Sudbury Valley School, Summerhill, and various thinkers and philosophers (John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, even our own Kirsten Olsen). That was the theory, and The Independent Project was the practice, whether they knew it or not.
For me, the key moment in the video is when the young man who had started the project had recalled a dinner conversation with his parents. He said that he felt powerless as he saw other students at the school give up because they didn’t see school as valuable. His mother suggested that he start his own school. This young man demurred at first, but then began to think about the possibilities inherent in his mother’s statement, and said, “Yeah… I could! I could start my own school!”
And so, with a handful of other students who also wanted an escape from the system, this young man spent a semester learning. They didn’t follow a curriculum, didn’t give each other tests, didn’t listen to teachers’ lectures. Instead, they set their own goals and set out to achieve them. They created weekly mini-projects and each had a semester-long goal that they wanted to accomplish (learn how to play the piano, write a novel, learn how to cook, and so on). They spent time in the afternoons reading and discussing the works of literature that they had read. The adults interviewed in the video (teachers, administrators, counselors) all counted the experiment as a success.
Motivated by this video and by my ongoing success with my English 12 class, I decided to revamp my plans for the 2011-2012 school year. I went through my own university notes and the types of literature that I’ve been reading over the past ten years and pulled together 34 different ideas for English units, including regional studies (Korean literature in translation, Icelandic sagas, Ancient Near East Poetry), genre studies (apocalyptic fiction, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, mythology, long-form essays, etc.), author studies (Sherman Alexie, Leonard Cohen, etc.), technical studies (how to write about anything, fundamentals of fiction, multi-genre paper writing, etc.) and Shakespeare, that old curmudgeon that’s required teaching for most English teachers in North America.
I also came up with a list of potential term paper questions including “Why do people argue that Twilight isn’t literature?” “What are the difficulties in translating poetry from one language to another?” “What makes an author timeless?” How has the English language developed? Where did it come from? Is it still changing today?” “Why are science fiction and fantasy works seen as less important than other literary genres?” I came up with about forty term paper questions, and students have the freedom to create one of their own. The reasons I gave suggestions is because there are students out there who are nervous about this process; they worry that their question isn’t relevant, or interesting, or they simply don’t have any ideas. Giving them a huge list of potential questions allows them to pick one of them, if they want, or at least give them some sort of framework to see what kind of term papers I’m looking for.
Once that was assembled, I came up with my plan: students in grades 11 and 12 will get to choose four modules and write one term paper over the course of the semester. In each module, they’ll have their choice of creating a short story, piece of creative non-fiction, persuasive essay, and non-written presentation. Students will write and anonymously post all of their work on a forum I’ve created, and their work will be peer-edited by other anonymous writer-editors. Students in grades 9 and 10 will also get to choose their first two modules, but as a whole class instead of individually. Once they’ve finished the first two modules, students in these younger grades will get to choose three modules to work on independently.
There will be no due dates save the end of the semester. They can pick any of the 34 modules I’ve come up with and work on them individually, in small groups, or as a teacher-led exercise if there are enough participants. I’ve decided that I’ll offer mini-lectures throughout the course: one on essay formatting, one on the creation of realistic characters, one on the basics of poetry interpretation, and so on. I’ve got about ten 25-minute lectures planned for each class.
Now, imagine what this will look like: on any given day, I’ll have twenty-five students potentially working on twenty-five different projects. Some will be completing reading packages and taking notes; others will be chatting quietly about what they’re reading – and about their weekends, and about the car they bought, but that’s okay. Some will be working with me one-on-one because this entire process is terrifying, and they’re not that great at English, and they desperately need help.
This is buffet learning: take as little or as much as you want. Maybe a student loves to read long form essays and is a terrific writer – why should I waste her class time with a boring lecture on stuff she already knows? Perhaps a student knows nothing about how to interpret Shakespeare’s Macbeth and needs help – why should I waste her class time with a lecture that she doesn’t understand? Maybe a kid needs help with poetry but is a closet expert on H.P. Lovecraft, needing help with the former but definitely not with the latter – again, why should I waste this kid’s class time if he can learn on his own? I’ve sat through enough two-hour-long staff meetings that could have been replaced by a one-page handout to be jealous of my own time, and I’m here by choice: students in my province are legally required to attend school up to the age of fifteen. Why shouldn’t we offer these students some choice in what they’re learning?
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I truly believe that the role of a teacher needs to shift from expert to guide. We need to step aside to let our students learn how to learn by themselves, and learn how to ask for help when they need it. Yes, as curriculum experts we certainly could stand up at the front of the class and lecture for 90 minutes every day. I’ve done it before. But lecturing, in my opinion, further robs students of the chance to make choices, take risks, and make mistakes, all of which are necessary in order for learning to take place.
Lesson plan? Lecture? Notes? Test? Rinse? Repeat? No thanks. There’s better ways of encouraging students to become active, independent, creative life-long learners. With any hope, what I’ll be doing this fall is one of them.