Learning a new strategy to try with my students is like opening an amazing present on my birthday. I can’t wait to put all the pieces together and start using it. After learning so many new tools last year during my PLP experience, I couldn’t wait to try out some of them with my students. More importantly, my experience changed my philosophy of education, as I wrote about here. I want my classroom to be a place where students become responsible owners of their learning process.

Introducing the tools last year and using them to help my students become connected learners and develop authentic audiences was very positive. I learned what worked and what didn’t, and I was eager to make a fresh start this fall in a brand new building at a brand new grade level. If I was going to be creating new units, then — as one of my favorite sayings goes — I was going to “Go big or go home!”

I’ve begun with the determination to make student choice the center of my classroom. I will figure out how to mesh my required curriculum with the interests of my students. While I take a step back, I will nudge my kids to step forward. Here is some of what I’m doing and planning to do to implement my new philosophy of learning.

More authentic strategies

I am blessed to have a teammate who appreciates my new and different vision, and along with my student teacher the three of us have implemented the Daily 5 workshop strategies to provide authentic reading and writing opportunities for our kids. We began blogging so our students would have authentic audiences. Rather than leveled reading groups where teachers choose the texts, we’re implementing Daily CAFE reading groups so that students can practice the skills learned in our whole group lessons using self-selected books. In social studies we’re planning for units and projects that incorporate technologies, like GPS units and Skype, that the students use in their real lives.

The start of our Pennsylvania school year was pretty crazy with historic flooding cutting our first week of school to a day and a half and a variety of other events creating breaks or pauses in our routine. But throughout it all we have remained focused on building community, developing independent work routines, and preparing our students to take a more active role in their learning.

Our first opportunity presented itself when we moved away from the beginning CAFE strategies and began introducing the reading skills and strategies in our district’s curriculum. While we are no longer required to use the stories in the district-selected reading anthology, my teammate suggested a story from the collection that went over well with 4th graders she taught last year.

It’s a fictional tale, based on the Iditarod Great Sled Race. I recognized before we started that 9 and 10 year olds in central Pennsylvania would have very little background knowledge about the race. So on the first day of the unit, the students viewed some short video clips and had time to peruse the Iditarod’s blog. I asked them to write down any facts they thought they knew about the Iditarod and any questions they had.

I compiled the ideas and questions, and as we read the story, we highlighted the ideas that were correct, and we answered a few of the questions the students had. But at the end of the story we found that a majority of our questions had not been answered. I knew this was going to be the case, and I was excited to share with the kids that we would be taking the time to learn about what THEY wanted to know. There would be no test, there would be no bubbles to fill in. We were just going to have the chance to have some fun while we were learning.

And then the next few days happened

I have two very different groups of amazing students. They are unique and special, and I am thankful that I have been given the opportunity to make a difference for them all. But as these next few days progressed, we noticed that some of our students were really struggling just to get along with each other to complete a task. Something as simple as sharing a pack of markers was accompanied by squeals of “Give me that!” and whines of, “Stop it!!”

With each group activity in social studies, I became more and more worried about the looming first attempt at giving up control to my students. I honestly was not sure what I was going to do. I was SO excited to finally use that gift I had opened, and now it looked like my gift might turn out to be a dud. I’ll admit, I got down and I was sad. I just wasn’t sure about moving forward.

It was the very next morning, while I was reading through some discussion in the online community for a course I’m taking, that I saw an article  by Gerry Sexton, shared by one of my classmates. It began: Life would be so much better if only we could figure out what it is that makes self-directed learners self-directed… And how to put that stuff in a bottle.

As I read Sexton’s six “invisible assets” of self-directed learners , it struck me that even though my current coursework is about coaching adults, the very same principles apply to the students in our classroom. But if we find it difficult to get adults to adopt the behaviors of self-directed learners, how would I teach my kids these things?

I decided that I would develop some questions based on Sexton’s principles and talk about them with our kids before each project. My questions looked like this:

1. What is our purpose? What are we trying to do or learn during this project?

2. If you could do or learn it in ANY way, what would you do?

3. What are you good at that could help your team?

4. Which part of the project do you want to be part of?

5. What do you think will be hard? What might our team mess up? Why is making mistakes a GOOD thing?

6. How can working with others help us complete this project?

How it played out

After reflecting upon the article and coming up with these questions, I also came to another realization. Following the same exact process with both of my groups might be equitable but would not have been fair. The struggles that some of my students were having working in teams would probably negate any benefits gained from approaching this learning through the PBL model. They needed some baby steps first.

So we started both groups by exploring answers to my six questions — and the students’ responses confirmed my choice to approach things differently. One group struggled to remember where we got the questions. And when I asked them why we would learn something if there wasn’t a test on it, they weren’t sure what to say. It was difficult for them to think about something they were good at that would help the team complete their task, and we ended up brainstorming the jobs people might need to do.

The reactions of this group reassured me that I’d done the right thing by pulling back on the reins and helping them work through a limited number of the questions, going one step at a time. Were there still challenges? Yes. Do we have work to do? Yes. But each of this group’s teams was ultimately able to share what they did well as a team, and tell what teamwork skills still need some practice. For our first project, in my eyes, that is a success.

The second group also confirmed my decision with their answers to my six questions. They spent two days at school, and some time at home, working on finding the answers to their more extensive list of questions. This group also worked with me to brainstorm a the various jobs that needed to be done. Beyond that, my student teacher and I were hands off, only stepping in to answer minor questions and to see how things were going. Teams were cooperating and getting work done. We even heard rumors of dog costumes. For our first project, in my eyes, this was a success, too.

Sometimes new learning experiences, just like gifts, don’t work as we expect they will. You probably won’t end up implementing them just like someone else did or the way you originally imagined you might. But in the end, if you’re making a change for the better — if you’re helping students take steps, even baby steps, to becoming more independent learners, that’s progress, and progress is what really matters.


Images: Whiteboard, Becky Bair; Gerry Sexton (publicity photo); baby steps, I.M. Photo, Creative Commons license.

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Becky Bair

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