Below is my recipe for my new (new to me but not new to many of you) classroom model which builds on the idea of the classroom as a learning studio.
Take one part Vygotsky, two parts Dan Pink’s Drive and mix gently. Fold in Shirky, Richardson, Ted McCain – you can substitute Ian Jukes if you don’t have any McCain. Wrap mixture firmly around your curriculum. I prefer some Shakespeare especially Romeo and Juliet. Sprinkle a liberal amount patience and exploratory spirit on top. Serve warm to Middle Schoolers. Be prepared this is a messy meal best eaten with your hands.
The reality is that students are passive in many learning environments. They are told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, when to switch topics; not to mention when to eat. When we’re done with them they move on to coaches, parents, tutors who lovingly continue to them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. We all mean well. We all want what’s best for the students in our care. Part of the problem is that we are products of similar learning environments. All of that to say I felt it was worth a try to let them have some control, some choices by building a space where they can explore.
Now despite the rumors, I am not a complete idiot. Our classroom is not a modern version of The Lord of the Flies. My students are now collaborators but not equal partners. The goals of the units – content and skills – are still determined by me. The methods of reaching our goals are where most of the collaboration happens.
For example, we are working our way through Romeo and Juliet. The final project is a paper – written in google documents or posted to their blog- that either argues that Romeo and Juliet are a shining example of true love or merely an example of infatuation gone wrong. I created this final assessment to measure their ability to use several sources including the original text to support an argument. The idea is that you cannot complete this assignment without knowing Romeo and Juliet. We quickly realized you also need to know what true love is and this is where things got messy.
My 8th graders had some interesting theories on true love. Some pretty good and some really bad. As a class we struggled to define true love. So at our weekly board meeting – a meeting where students and I discuss activities and goals for the week - I said “How are we going to determine the definition of true love?” Below is a list of the activities the students designed and are implementing.
- Look for examples in movies.
- Examine the lyrics of Love songs for common themes.
- Invite guest speakers to share their definitions – everyone from the Head of School, Biology Teacher, History Teacher, Coaches, Manager of the Cafeteria, Head of the Visual Arts Department, Upper School Counselor, my Wife, and more.
- Compare examples in books that they have already read.
- Use definitions from dictionary.com, wikipedia, and other sources to build and online survey to be sent out to the entire school.
Students are videotaping the speakers to be able to review their answers and we are taking notes using the smartboard. Both the video and the notes are posted on our wiki.
Student also decided that they would rather watch scenes from the play in class and read for homework. They were cautioned that this sounded like the easy way out so they said that the reading at home had to be active reading – highlighting where love was discussed, taking notes in the margins, posting questions on the wiki that could be used a reading quizzes, searching for literary devices. Despite my misgivings, I agreed. So far, the level of engagement has been extraordinary. Students are making connections between guest speakers and events in the play. The level of discussion in class has been of a higher quality exhibited by students supporting their comments with evidence which is one of the desire outcomes of this unit.
So what’s next? I really don’t know. At least, I am not aware of the details. I do know that I won’t be spending any class time lecturing on what I know about Romeo and Juliet. Instead, I answer questions posed by individual students or the groups working to define love. There are some activities that I will steer the students toward including:
- building a rubric to assess the quality of the final projects
- sharing information about the definition of love collected by the groups
- class time spent peer reviewing final projects before they are final
Beyond these activities, I have no specific plans, but my lack of detailed planning seems to be in direct relation to the increase in student engagement, student productivity, and student excitement about learning. I will post more as I learn more about the successes and failures on this “new to me” classroom model.