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School Stories

The learning trough: the five-month update and metaphors related to animals

It’s the end of a semester, and the end of an experiment in my classroom that I’ve detailed in past posts. A short recap: I gave students the freedom to choose what they wanted to study (from a broad list of about 35 different topics, more choice than I had during any given semester while doing my MA), the freedom in how they responded to each topic, and the freedom to hand in their work throughout the semester – so long as it was finished by the end of the semester. Giddyup! (More details here.)

At this point I’m willing to call this experiment a success with a  few provisos. First, the good. The writing I received from most students was far, far, FAR greater and more profound than I’ve seen from them… well, ever. (I teach in a small K-12 school and have the same students year after year.) This isn’t the difference between a grade 9 student and a grade 10 student, but leaps and bounds more sophisticated and more interesting than a simple year’s difference would indicate. One student chose to write a quasi-Lovecraftian story about a story that Christopher Columbus neglected to share with anybody else; another wrote a profound piece comparing Icarus’ arrogance to the behaviour of a teenager stealing his father’s truck and taking it for a joyride. I’ll admit that I never thought of Icarus’ and Daedalus’ relationship in this manner, and I learned something this semester. I love it when I learn something from a student!

Moreover, the short stories, poems, and essays that were written were almost error-free, and the students were excited about working – not every day, not every minute, but by and large they took the opportunity to write very seriously and produced risky, challenging, and engaging pieces that I enjoyed reading.

I can count on one hand the number of student-produced pieces that I personally enjoyed as a reader before this year.

Moreover, I received a higher level of engagement from the young men in my classes, the students who had been completely disengaged and almost completely unwilling to do anything in English last year. These guys worked harder than I had ever seen and produced pieces that were, again, much more advanced than last year, certainly more technically and qualitatively better than I would have expected.

There were a few drawbacks to this experiment. The first was my own frustration as a teacher while I was in class. I gave students most of the semester to work in-class, which gave me time to work one-on-one with students and help those who were struggling. At least, that was the plan. Very few students took the opportunity to conference with me during school, and I was left either sitting at my desk marking other assignments or futilely circling the classroom offering my services. They mostly chose to email me their questions, occasionally late at night after I had already gone to bed — and they needed answers NOW because they were working on an assignment and didn’t want to work for two hours and find out that they were doing it wrong!

Second drawback was classroom management issues. Gone were the frustrations of watching students interrupt me during a lecture, but in its place were students who were not using their class time wisely! They played games on their iPhones, talked, surfed the net, facebooked, and generally spent far too much time (in my opinion) goofing off instead of working. Every teacher instinct in my body cried out for me to correct this errant behaviour, but instead I pulled myself back and let them work it out themselves. Micromanaging students, although pleasant (ha!), doesn’t result in students learning how to motivate themselves. I saw this coming and mentioned it in my last post, but knowing and experiencing this are two profoundly different animals: one is meandering off in the distance, and I can just make them out playfully leaping and galloping out of the corner of my eye. The other, experiencing this occasional lack of motivation, is staring me in the face, breathing heavily right in front of my nose.

No, I didn’t just call my students “animals.” That was a metaphor.

These two drawbacks were minor. The final drawback, on the other end of the spectrum, was that a handful of students didn’t finish the course, and one student (sadly) turned in a portfolio consisting solely of work pulled from the internet. We’re a small school, and as a staff we’re able to catch problems early, rally around students, and pull them to the finishing line, sometimes with the students kicking and screaming. This time, there was no safety net, and some kids failed. I’m not happy about this, but I know that failing a course isn’t the end of the world. Moreover, most of these students knew that they hadn’t finished, and negotiated with me an extension into February, particularly those slated to graduate in June and wanted to walk across the stage with the students with whom they had schooled for the past twelve years. I don’t want to sweep away this drawback, but I’m cognizant as an educator that students do fail, that some students aren’t ready or willing to be intrinsically motivated. That’s okay. One of my students didn’t do any work last year when I taught her in a very traditional English classroom, and she didn’t do anything this semester, either. It’s the nature of the beast.

The whole experience was profoundly different than anything else I had done as an educator, and it’s made me realise that, particularly in senior high, students do not need a teacher in front of them to learn. What an obvious conclusion, and one that I had previously believed, but now I have the case studies to back up my belief. Imagine the ramifications: if students don’t need a teacher standing in front of them, lecturing at them for every minute of class time and then asking them to spit back the answers on a test, what could we do to schools to make them more efficient?

In my school division, we have fifteen schools. Six of those have senior high students, with populations ranging from 60 (that’s us!) to upwards of 400. If we were to expand this pilot project to the entire school division, we would only need perhaps three full-time senior high English teachers, down from ten or more. If all content was delivered electronically, and if these three teachers spent their time working one-on-one with students either locally or using telecommunications technologies (Skype, Facetime, telephone, email, instant messaging, even faxes), then this reduction would be completely possible.

It’s my belief that we could absolutely start designing schools and school divisions around the principle of drop-in centres of learning – the Netflix of education, if you will, as opposed to cable TV. (This is perhaps less offensive than the metaphor in my title, “the learning trough”, but then again I live in a rural community and a good percentage of my students do feed farm animals before they come to school in the morning…) Other schools are operating like this today. What will it take to start shifting education into the future, instead of clinging to ages-old models of learning that are ineffective, clunky, and not reflective of how people learn?

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


8 thoughts on “The learning trough: the five-month update and metaphors related to animals

  1. Thanks for this – such an honest reflection on such a worthwhile “experiment.” Will this change how you teach from here on? Would your (or your administrators’) response have been different if a higher percentage of the kids had “failed?”

    One thought, looking through the small window I have here: rather than have the kids submit 100% of their assignments at the end, would it be possible for them to submit some portion at the half-way point, or maybe even a month before end-of-term, to possibly allow you to avoid missing those that were not making it? Maybe if they made the mid-term goal, you could continue to honor the terms of the experiment, but if they were floundering at that point, could you offer them more support?

    I agree that it’d be hard for me to fight my “teacher instincts,” if some kids were playing games on their phones, while I had no confidence that they were on top of meeting their course requirements. (Man, I sound like a stodgy old traditionalist.)

    Seems like the benefit of the engaged learning as was evidenced in the newfound creativity of your students’ writing significantly outweighed the challenges, yes? It’d be interesting to see if some of this new motivation and interest has a lasting effect, beyond this class. Let us know!


    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 22, 2012, 11:32 am
    • >Will this change how you teach from here on? Would your (or your administrators’) response have been different if a higher percentage of the kids had “failed?”

      I’m not sure if my response would have been different. I had tried something like this last year with grade 12 students and it was a huge success. I think that this semester wasn’t as successful, but I was also teaching grade 10 students. Even if more students had failed, I’d still be tempted to try it again next semester.

      >One thought, looking through the small window I have here: rather than have the kids submit 100% of their assignments at the end, would it be possible for them to submit some portion at the half-way point, or maybe even a month before end-of-term, to possibly allow you to avoid missing those that were not making it?

      Students submit their work throughout the semester on a forum I designed. Some were handing in assignments in September; others didn’t post anything on the forum because by the time they were done, it was the end of the semester. But if I set up a midterm checkpoint, I’d run into the same problem as last year: if a student doesn’t hand in an assignment, what then? We shouldn’t be punishing students for handing in assignments late, and the same students who are in danger of failing a course are the ones who don’t hand in assignments on time.

      I’m running into issues with basic human psychology here: some people do the bare minimum, and it becomes a question on how to motivate these people. I’m done with extrinsic motivators: I don’t reward and I don’t punish. If it was just this year, I admit I might be questioning my methodology, but I’m still hearing from students from last year who are coming back from university and thanking me for the way I set up the course. Failing one course in high school is worlds different from failing a course at college, and I think that I’d rather they fail here, in a safe environment, than out there.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | January 23, 2012, 11:58 am
  2. This post really means a lot to me–its honesty and its searchingness and freethinkingness–I’d like to use it in professional development to spur (another horse metaphor) discussion.

    I am especially and keenly attentive to what you note about the diminished need for teaching staff is we were to structure more high school classes this way. This, as you know, poses a real issue in the transformation of the sector. If kids don’t actually require teachers to teach them so much, what conflicts of interest does this pose for teachers themselves in trying to reform the system.

    And leads to my contention, that school must implicitly disable students, to justify adult intervention in student’s learning lives (an oversimplification, but you get where I’m going here?)

    Thank you for this.


    Posted by Kirsten | January 23, 2012, 8:57 am
    • By all means, use my writing in any way you see fit. I’ve got another pilot project coming up this semester: three students will be using iPads in order to facilitate a synaesthetic approach to literature — responding to Keats with drum beats, creating a visual poem based on Dante’s Inferno, represent the sphinx’s “slouch… towards Bethlehem” in song, painting, and interpretive dance… it’s going to be a wild ride!

      Posted by alanthefriesen | January 23, 2012, 12:02 pm
    • This is such an important point, Kirsten — but the interesting thing is that I don’t necessarily think we have too many adults per kid on the payroll. If a student had the freedom to be sitting in a coffee shop during the day working on his writing he might well email his teacher with a question and spend half an hour discussing an issue or going over a thorny paragraph. Or if schools were set up as drop-in centers, with areas for group work, areas for solo work, and areas for one-on-one conferences, teachers might find themselves busy all day fielding questions, consulting on projects, or just participating in discussions and activities. Just as so many genuine things in learning are subsurface and non-measurable, there is a value to adults simply being available that is all-important. But to keep it from being emotionally unhealthy — with kids having a sense of adults simply being at their beck and call — I would maintain that teachers should be free to work on their own writing, research, art, or projects when they are not needed. It’s the idea of the “teacher-practitioner” — where teachers are seen as professionals in their fields who mentor students in apprenticeship-like relationships.

      Great post, Alan.

      Posted by Carol Black | January 23, 2012, 12:25 pm
      • Oops — I was assuming your name was Alan, but maybe I’m not right about that!

        Posted by Carol Black | January 23, 2012, 12:28 pm
      • I wanted to personally thank you for painting this picture in my mind of a teaching profession that I would joyfully be a part of. This is such a simple and clear job description for the position of teacher in a very humane learning environment. Contrast that with this posting for a “21st Century School”

        1. Valid West Virginia teaching certificate
        2. Proper endorsements required
        3. Demonstrated proficiency in utilizing technology tools as an integral part of the instructional process
        4. Knowledge of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and a willingness to build a classroom and school culture based on the adoption of these habits
        5. Familiarity with online teaching, online learning strategies or online coursework preferred
        6. Demonstrated ability to work cooperatively in a professional learning community
        7. Experience with problem-based learning and/or a willingness to learn about and incorporate problem-based learning with students
        8. Proficient in classroom management so as to facilitate students working in whole group, collaborative small group, and independent activities
        9. Demonstrated knowledge of and effective implementation of various formative assessment methods
        10. Proficient in analyzing student data and adjusting instruction based on data to create positive learning gains for students
        11. Demonstrated ability to develop respectful, supportive relationships with parents, staff, and students
        12. Demonstrated belief that all students can achieve at high levels
        13. Relevant training and evidence of successful experience engaging and motivating at-risk students
        14. Training in the Response To Intervention process and evidence of successful implementation of effective instructional strategies for reading and math
        15. Evidence of successful implementation of 21st Century instructional strategies and technology tools
        REPORTS TO: Building Principal
        SUPPORT RELATIONSHIPS: Works cooperatively with school staff, parents, and community members to develop innovative and educational programs and to implement these programs effectively for students.
        1. Implements West Virginia Content Standards and Objectives
        2. Fosters a classroom climate conducive to learning
        3. Utilizes instructional management systems that increase student learning
        4. Monitors student progress towards mastery of Content Standards and Objectives
        5. Communicates effectively within the educational community, and with parents on a regular basis
        6. Meets professional responsibilities
        7. Demonstrates competency in the knowledge and implementation of technology standards
        1. Provides curricula required by the state of West Virginia
        2. Bases instruction on adopted curricula for the school
        3. Demonstrates accurate and current knowledge in subject field
        4. Develops appropriate lessons to teach Content Standards and Objectives
        5. Employs a variety of instructional strategies to augment student achievement
        6. Uses content scope and sequence in planning
        7. Provides an atmosphere conducive to learning consistent with school/county mission
        8. Follows established school discipline procedures, in accordance with WV Code of Conduct
        9. Establishes procedures and rules that enhance student learning
        10. Encourages students’ attendance
        11. Sets high positive expectations for student performance
        12. Encourages and acknowledges individual student accomplishments and appropriate behavior
        13. Treats students in a fair and equitable manner
        14. Accommodates individual learning differences
        15. Creates and maintains an environment that supports learning
        16. Communicates with parents
        17. Organizes teaching strategies to maximize allocated instructional time to increase student learning
        18. Prepares and implements lesson plans
        19. Begins lesson or instructional activity with a review of previous material as appropriate and has materials, supplies, and equipment ready at the start of the lesson or instructional activity
        20. Introduces the instructional activity and specific instructional objectives
        21. Directs and adequately supervises students to be on task quickly at the beginning of each instructional activity
        22. Presents reading, writing, speaking and listening strategies using concepts and language that students understand
        23. Provides relevant examples and demonstrations to illustrate concepts and skills
        24. Assigns developmentally appropriate tasks
        25. Provides instructional pacing that ensures student understanding
        26. Maximizes student time on task
        27. Makes effective transitions between instructional activities
        28. Summarizes the main point(s) of the instructional activity
        29. Encourages students to express ideas clearly and accurately
        30. Incorporates higher level thinking skills
        31. Assists students to develop productive work habits and study skills, enabling communication with parents as needed
        32. Provides remediation activities for students
        33. Designs, delivers, and assesses student learning activities addressing the state adopted instructional goals and objectives
        34. Integrates a variety of technology applications and learning tools to augment student achievement
        35. Gathers, stores, monitors, and analyzes data related to student learning for use in assessing progress toward achieving the instructional objectives
        36. Follows grading policies and regulations
        37. Maintains accurate and complete student records
        38. Monitor and evaluate student progress
        39. Provides descriptive and timely feedback on student work
        40. Monitors student attendance
        41. Communicates with students, parents, educational personnel, and others, utilizes standard grammar, listening skills, and clarity in the presentation of ideas
        42. Communicates student progress according to established procedures and policies
        43. Communicates regularly and effectively with students, co-workers, parents/guardians, and the community, and exhibits appropriate interactive skills
        44. Follows confidentiality procedures regarding students, parents/guardians, and fellow staff members
        45. Speaks and writes standard English clearly, correctly, and distinctly
        46. Determines and utilizes appropriate community resources
        47. Communicates student policies
        48. Demonstrates behavior that reflects established professional responsibilities (i.e. attendance, punctuality and verbal/non-verbal communication)
        49. Adheres to established laws, policies, rules and regulations
        50. Interacts appropriately with students, other educational personnel and parents
        51. Participates in activities that foster professional growth
        52. Is punctual with reports, grades, records and in reporting to work
        53. Performs assigned duties
        54. Strives to meet county/school goals
        55. Commands respect by example in appearance, manners, behavior and language
        56. Demonstrates competency and knowledge in the implementation of technology standards identified by the West Virginia Board of Education policies which are based on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards
        57. Demonstrates a sound understanding of technology operations and concepts
        58. Plans and designs effective learning environments and experiences supported by technology
        59. Implements curriculum plans that include methods and strategies for applying technology to maximize student learning
        60. Applies technology to facilitate a variety of effective assessment and evaluation strategies
        61. Uses technology to enhance productivity and professional practice
        62. Understands the social, ethical, legal and human issues surrounding the use of technology in PreK – 12 schools and applies that understanding in practice

        Words missing care, love, passion, humane, relationship, love

        Posted by timmcclung | January 24, 2012, 10:33 am
  3. Thank you for sharing this; each journey – both each students’ and each teacher’s journey – into this kind of learning takes a different amount of time to unfold. That so many students engaged so deeply with themselves as learners is awesome. The downtime and extra time some students need are the realities of being human, I think.

    I’m glad you stayed true to your design and are imagining where else you can now go.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 25, 2012, 7:39 am

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