Throughout this school year, I’ve had a goal that has driven my unit curriculum planning through Understanding by Design. That goal has been to focus on student autonomy in and out of the classroom. This is a topic that is not new to the education circuits, and I, along with many of you, have read article upon article related to all facets of this discussion. This year, I have challenged myself to relinquish the teacher reigns and let my students be more in charge of their learning. While this has been empowering for the students, and I’ve seen a drastic change in student engagement, I found myself yearning for more. I had become comfortable with allowing students to work through performance tasks and projects based on their interests and needs, but I had not really embraced the idea of allowing them to actually take ownership of their learning overall. In reality, I was the designer of the performance tasks and projects, and I was the one creating the rubric telling them how they would be assessed. There was no student individuality woven into that part of the process at all. So, I began to wonder what it would look like if I started from scratch, and I let students pick according to their needs and interests how they wanted learn and be assessed based on our course learning outcomes.
This was a thrilling idea on paper for me, but I was still wrestling with the semantics of this topic and how it can be managed in a middle school classroom. So many questions. So many risks. What if this fails? Are middle schoolers old enough to handle this amount of responsibility? How will I assess everyone if they are all choosing to be assessed differently? How will I challenge my students to feel empowered in this journey? I realized that many of these questions would not be answered overnight. This would be a process, and through this experiment, I would learn, partly through feedback from my students, many of the answers to my worrisome questions. I decided to take a deep breath, put on the #failUP hat (Fail Up is one of the norms at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School), and embark on this journey with my students. BEST.DECISION.EVER.
Step 1: Discovering How We Learn
We started by exploring our personal learning styles and we used this google document to get started. We then plotted how we all learn on a large sticky note on the wall and discussed as a class why and how people learn differently.
This activity, in my opinion, was critical to really setting the tone for this experiment and helping to establish student engagement from the beginning. Following this, we talked through the two learning outcomes that students would be working with. They asked me how they should learn the material, what was required to know, where they should look, etc. I would not answer this as first, as I wanted this to be authentic and I wanted to see what methods they would turn to first. Many used videos on YouTube, some read out of the textbook, and others searched for games online related to the topic.
Step2: Synthesis of Exploration and Rubric Creation
After a day of exploration, students collaborated in one google document for the two learning outcomes and the students went through and synthesized the information down to the most important things they thought our class should know. Click here to see an example of one document that a class populated.Now that students have explored and learned, they created their rubric for how they wanted to be assessed, and students decided that all Mount Vernon Mindsets (collaborator, communicator, creative thinker, ethical decision maker, innovator, solution seeker) should be present so that students could pick the one that best fit their needs and demonstrations of learning. This was all student driven. My role was the typer in the google document, and I really took a back seat and let them be the drivers. I was hesitant about this part mainly because I hypothesized that the main class contributors would dictate the discussion. I was wrong! Some of my quieter students started to speak up, and I really noticed that students were protective of their learning and what was or was not to be included in our class google document and rubric. This was a first in my class regarding some of these students speaking up, and I was beginning to notice the empowerment this experiment was bringing to my students.
Step 3: Demonstrations of Learning
I turned the students loose to choose how they wanted demonstrate their learning. I encouraged them to connect with their inner learning styles and interests. Some asked me if it was ok for them to write an essay. I was fine with this, but I did want to probe a little deeper and ask why. Some students said they truly liked being a traditional learner, and a few students said they did not like to feel forced to do something artistic or exceptionally creative when they enjoy writing essays and informative texts. Other students chose very different paths including creating a comic strip, original songs, a video game, historical fiction writing, digital avatars, a puppet sock display, a dramatic monologue, and skits. I was truly astonished and blown away by the variety of demonstrations of learning displayed, and I was grateful that students stayed honest to their learning styles, especially those that felt they were more traditional. The below pictures represent some of these demonstrations. Pictured are students engaged in song, skit performances, sock puppet demonstrations, and a dictator video game presented and created by a student.
Step 4: Feedback and Peer Assessment
As we wrapped up the process, students peer assessed and sought feedback from other faculty and staff at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. A group of 9th grade students as well as Dr. Jacobsen, our Head of School, came in to give these students feedback for growth. They were able to spend another week revising their work based on this feedback. Giving students time to wrestle with their feedback is a crucial stepping stone to learning and growth.
In closing and reflection, this has really been an invaluable learning experience for me. I saw more enthusiasm from students than I have in any other activity we’ve done this year. I also asked for feedback from my students to coach me going forward. One thing that I learned from them was that the lack of structure with this type of activity really bothers students who are more traditional. I need to find a way to improve this aspect of the activity to help these students to not feel overwhelmed or anxious. Also, this activity taught me that students still need coaching and guidance regarding demonstrations of authentic learning. It can be very simple to make a poster board of something you have learned, but how can you show that you authentically have learned something and can transfer this learning to real world contexts? This is a challenge I saw with some of the demonstrations, and it was told to me in student feedback. I will need to be a better coach as I scaffold this for my students and help guide them in this process. The final area for improvement with this activity is related to feedback. I was reminded quickly of how important it is for us to constantly mirror how to give authentic coaching and feedback for our students so we position them to be helpful and effective mentors. In addition to this, we must give them ample experiences in which to give and receive feedback. I already have ideas for next year, and I can’t wait to experiment more with students driving the lesson plans and learning outcomes! It’s been a few weeks since we presented our demonstrations, and students are still talking about it. I’m proud of them for being risk takers and embracing the unknown through this process. I’m proud of myself for making my classroom vulnerable to failure! What a beautiful thing!