I have been teaching for 15 years, and last year was my second year using a new English language arts curriculum that emphasizes knowledge building. Lessons are built around driving questions that provoke critical thinking and great conversations. The approach is flexible enough for me to adapt it to my local context, an urban community in Baltimore, and I work to integrate the real-world connections that are relevant to the students' "here and now" experience.
TOO OFTEN, MY STUDENTS HAVE BEEN SEEN AS FIGHTERS. AND, UNFORTUNATELY, SOMETIMES THAT'S ALL PEOPLE HAVE SEEN.
For me, student-centered learning means that my students actively own their learning and engage in rich discourse and inquiry. I have changed my thinking about what they can do and what success looks like. Too often, my students have been found to be struggling. And, unfortunately, sometimes that's all people have seen.
Much of the conversation around them is about how to catch up and make them, well, "better. Of course, I want all my students to work at or above grade level, and I work hard to help them get there. But it has occurred to me that just focusing on my students' deficits, or what they can't do, doesn't help them succeed.
Last year, I decided to see what would happen if I explicitly taught my students' strengths and interests and empowered them to play a more active role in their learning. After reflecting on my teaching, I asked myself how much growth my students would experience if I spent less time penalizing them for what they didn't know or couldn't do and focused more on using what they knew and could do to move forward.
So, in our second unit, during a discussion about the American West, I did not stand in front of the class and read the assigned texts. And I didn't get to work on a point until they understood it. Instead, we engaged in collaborative conversations, readings, and research to deeply understand the Great Plains and the Native American tribes who lived there.
Freeing up control and allowing for a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas meant listening to the connections students were able to make with the American West, even when those conversations were about the cartoons they watched or the video games they played at home. That was okay, it was a way in.
I REALIZED THAT ALLOWING THESE AUTHENTIC CONVERSATIONS MADE THE LEARNING MORE MEANINGFUL.
Students had questions that prompted class discussions and contributed to self-directed research projects, which made a great link to social studies. We found links between our lives and those of the Plains people, created a timeline to sequence events and discuss the chronological order, and discussed Native American life then and how they live now.
Another way to deepen the commitment and create a more student-centered environment was by weaving sustained projects. Some teachers fear project-based learning, thinking it will take too long, be chaotic, and not align with educational standards. But I found that introducing projects and giving students a voice and choice around them added a great deal of excitement to the learning experience.
Students worked on projects that required them to study an Indian tribe that we discussed in our reading of the main text "Plains Indian". Students explored the houses where Plains Indians lived and designed and built model houses. They also cooked traditional recipes and recreated traditional Native American board games and artwork.
The result was a more inclusive environment. Some of my students who may have had problems with text-based assignments were able to demonstrate what they knew and could do in a robust manner. We continued to read complex texts and work on writing skills as required by the curriculum. But by expanding learning in this way, students were able to use multiple learning modes and were more motivated to read or listen to the assigned texts because of the deeper interest they developed in the subject matter.
My plan is to purposefully look for ways to incorporate students' interests and strengths into our lessons. I will use both whole group and small group instruction to foster rich conversations and continue to integrate project-based learning, possibly by asking students to develop slide shows, dioramas, YouTube videos, and other products they would like to create given that we are working in a virtual space.
I knew I was on to something when I switched from mostly teacher-led instruction to a student-centered approach, when one of my students, who was usually withdrawn and generally reluctant to participate in our daily instruction of the entire group, was the first to volunteer to be our leader at a Socratic Seminar we had around the "Plains Indians" in class last year. He was able to ask the question provided and keep the conversation going. This young man surprised me because he never seemed to be paying attention or even remotely interested in what was going on, but he had actually been listening and learning. He did an excellent job from that day forward. After being praised for his work, instead of being corrected for the previously perceived challenge, he came to class with a smile and participated more.
I WILL NO LONGER DENY HIM OR ANY OTHER STUDENT THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD A DISCUSSION BECAUSE THEY DO NOT FIT MY IDEA OF WHAT IT IS LIKE TO PAY ATTENTION.
My teacher-centered approach would have demanded his attention while I was teaching, while my new student-centered approach allowed him to learn in his own way. It meant being well without eye contact and allowing him to stay behind when he needed to. I will no longer deny him or any other student the opportunity to lead a discussion because they do not fit my idea of what it is like to pay attention.
When you have an experience like that as a teacher, there is no turning back. One way or another I plan to lead a student-centered second grade classroom again, even if it is a virtual one.