My 7th grade is currently working on a project where they study primary sources from the mid-to-late 14th century. They read Giovanni Boccaccio’s account of when the plague reached Florence. Then they study a variety of woodblocks, including Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Their assignment is to write two diary entries of a person living in Europe at the time. Each student decided on an identity from the king to a peasant. They developed a personality, family and connections for their characters, settling them in a village, town or city. The next step was to investigate the woodblocks and the writing and to develop a list of details that they found to help them understand what happened and how people felt about it. The final step was the writing process, including 10-15 facts from their investigation in each of their diary entries.
Rather than have the students write for their homework, I have begun to have that work done in class. I learn a lot about them from watching them work. They spread out around the room, some still sitting in desks, but many sitting on the floor or on the cushions in the Reading Corner. With an incredible level of focus, they started writing and kept on writing. Every now and then, one of them would ask to get a drink, but otherwise they were totally focused on what they were creating. In the quiet of the classroom, they built a world that was facing the plague and then responding to it. They were driving their work; I just gave them a time and space to do it.
I started the second class by handing out 4 Post-It notes to each student and had them stand up. Their task was to go to a different desk, read the diary entry there and leave a comment, constructive suggestions, grammar errors, etc. I did this for two reasons. First, they often help each other identify places where it isn’t as clear as the author thought it was. Second, it allows the weaker students, who struggle with developing their historical imagination, to see some examples of other girls’ work. After reading 4 diary entries, they went back to their desks and read the notes that were left for them. This is always their favorite part! They love having messages left for them.
Then it was back to work! And they went to it! Again, with no hesitation!
When I set a task that holds their interest, provide enough tools to support their learning and work, then it really is time to get out of the way! While some classes need to have more of my “teacher” input, I keep reminding myself that I can be just as valuable when I plan a great lesson and let them go to drive their own learning. Those lessons don’t happen without a lot of work, but when the work is done before the class starts, then what happens in class can feel empowering to the students. It places responsibility with them, rather than with me.
My students often are uncomfortable with being given the power to do their own work. They want me to set the requirements and limits, to tell them when they are done. Once they start, however, the work often sucks them in. They want to master the new skill or create their new understanding. As one student recently wrote on her self-reflection, “Working on this project was much different than any other project because we had a lot of choice in what we wanted to do and basically had to come up with everything ourselves. However, it was really fun!”
Time plus work that engages them! That is the goal!