Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Is This Right?”

As I wrote last weekend, I got really excited about providing my students with more freedom to explore and develop their background knowledge. I rewrote a series of lessons that had initially involved reading the textbook and finding the significant information. It was a list of vocabulary words as well as some questions to answer. Very straightforward with little room for variation or independent discovery.

When I reworked them, I made it a challenge to discover what life on the Arabian Peninsula had been like before Muhammad, 570 C.E. I only gave them a list of critical vocabulary – Need to Know words – and told them that they could use whatever sources they wanted – textbook, internet or a collection of books and magazines that I had. I encouraged them to add to the list, including new words that they found that connected with the original ones. I gave them the period, 45 minutes, to research and said that they could research in small groups or on their own – following the model that I had read about.

In Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, this is when the students become actively engaged in their own learning, curious to investigate and build their understanding. Only I clearly had left out some critical steps!

My students spread out around the room, forming their groups and beginning to look for just the words on the list. They weren’t interested in adding new words to the list or in making connections. They simply wanted to do just what was there and no more.

“Is this right?”

“Am I done?”

My initial reaction was to feel angry with them. Why weren’t they interested in learning more and delving more deeply? Why didn’t they understand what a great opportunity I had given them to follow their own curiosity and create a rich investigation? I had taken all this time to rethink the lesson, and they weren’t doing their part and loving it, thereby honoring my work!

Luckily, I have been down this road before and been in the classroom enough to know that they are my students; their learning and engagement is my responsibility. If the lesson hasn’t provided the hook that makes them become active participants, then that is on me. Not on them!

For the second class, I realized that I needed to prepare them more for the work that I wanted them to do. It didn’t take much, but without it, the lesson was just that – a flat and boring set of tasks that didn’t catch their imagination. I should have known better, but I got caught up with the idea of self-generated learning and didn’t create enough of an environment for that learning before I set them to the task. I rewrote the lesson and added a kick-off activity where I showed them images of the Arabian Peninsula, the desert and an oasis. I had them make their best guesses on what life was like. We generated a list of questions about which they were curious. Then I let them loose to investigate.

And it worked! They took off and ran with it, becoming the engaged and independent learners that I wanted them to be. Not every class will evolve the way that I imagined, but they will improve if I pay attention and am willing to adapt and grow! Another lesson learned and relearned!

It’s Official! I’m an Addict!

I love my work! There is simply no two ways about it! I simply love to dream up ways for students to learn in the most authentic and engaging ways possible. This morning, I started reading Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student Centered Classroom by Mark Barnes, and by lunch time, I knew that I had to throw out my lessons for the week. Almost every word that I read resonated with me and what I believe about learning, and then I thought about the week that I had planned, and the addiction struck!

It just wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot!

I started this year with two PBLs, one for my 7th grade classes and one for my 8th, that I had developed over the summer, to hook my students on the study of history. I wanted them to experience the benefits of Project Based Learning and to tackle questions that interested them. The 7th graders were investigating the question, “Why Should We Study History?” They did lots of interviewing and investigating in order to create their music videos, based on Schoolhouse Rock style videos, to convince others that it was important to study history. The 8th graders’ work was based on a Civics unit, with the driving question being, “How can we get more 18-29 year olds to vote?” They had to learn about the government in order to effectively develop public service announcements to convince people to vote. For both projects, the students were focused and committed to the work, and while I struggled a bit with the amount of content that they learned, overall both projects were a success. The students came to class ready to do the work that they set for themselves, and it was a strong start to the year.

But when it was time to start the next unit, without really thinking about it, I fell back on what I have done before…not bad, but not empowering for my students in the best way possible. I simply pulled out the worksheets that I had used in the past, slotted them into the necessary classes and felt ready for the week. When I read Barnes’ ideas on worksheets, as poor tools for engaged learning, I knew he was right and that I already believed it. I had been lazy. I did what I knew how to do, rather than push myself to do better. Addiction to making it better struck and struck hard! I just couldn’t leave it, knowing that there was a way to make the students’ learning better. I had to change it!

Out came the laptop. I opened up every Google Doc worksheet for the coming week and totally rewrote them. (Fortunately for my colleagues, I remembered to first make a copy of the original, so that they could have a choice of which Rabbit Hole to tumble down.) As I read each one over, I considered how to connect the students with the new unit on the Islamic Empires. I decided to start with questions. I found a fabulous map on the Pew Research site that showed the number of people who are Muslims around the world. Almost a quarter of the world’s population are Muslim, so I am hoping that that will spark conversation and questions. I created a Google Doc that showed the map and then made a wiki for them to write their questions and for us all to add the answers as we find them.

Next I took my worksheets, with their programmed answers that could be found in the textbook, and created vocabulary lists of words that are part of Islam and the life of Muhammad. I am going to give the students the freedom to find and record the words in whatever way they want, with the final goal being that they have a means of sharing their learning with the rest of the class. I want for them to work with a partner or small group to make the process collaborative and to generate some buzz around the learning.

I don’t think that I am unusual in any way with this addiction! It is my experience that every truly good teacher has the same addiction. We are passionate about helping our students to learn. We work and rework our lessons to make them the best that they can be, relentlessly trying to help students unlock their full power to learn and grow!

Lessons reworked! Week planned anew! Can’t wait to see how it unfolds! I love this addiction! It makes me smile!