I have to fold the towels in my house because everyone else does it incorrectly. Window blinds need to be all the way up or all the way down. I park my car in the exact same spot both at work and at home. Pens have to be point down in the pen holder. I need certain pens and pencils. The word, “flexibility” was not embraced in my philosophy of life. But, last year, I tried something goofy with my classes of juniors. I asked them what they wanted me to do in class. The outcome of this exercise was very, very successful because the students drove the class. I was merely a facilitator, and I LOVED it.
This group of eleventh graders demonstrated low motivation and low ability. Their favorite subject was math or science, and they weren’t afraid to say that they hated English and reading. In an online survey, they admitted they had never finished a book in high school. They were used to putting in minimal effort and getting Cs in English, because the “read a book/write a paper formula” didn’t teach them anything (they said). They are great people, but English class was the last place they wanted to be. I knew that I was dealing with a seriously uphill battle.
The focus of curriculum for eleventh graders is United States Literature and Composition. While I was looking through some of the materials, I realized that there was no way I could get excited about teaching the majority of what I was expected to. There wasn’t any “hook,” and the literature was narrow in many respects, including diversity. Everything they had just told me about their past experience repelled the traditional curriculum. So, I put together an assignment for them: What is United States Literature? They had to research what we traditionally taught, make judgments about it in terms of relevance, readability, and diversity. They had to propose solutions, including new titles and types of class activities. They had to present the whole deal to the class, as a group or as an individual (their choice). They also had to give me an outline sheet, on which I took copious notes.
They taught me a great deal. They recognized the value of the literature that we traditionally read, but they wanted more options. They noticed the lack of diversity and the frequent appearance of white males. They argued that they wanted to spend some time learning in new ways, and in a variety of ways. They recognized busy work and didn’t want to jump through a hoop. They weren’t trying to avoid work – they wanted to relate to what they were doing, and to see the meaning of it in their own world. They suggested interesting titles, some of them below their academic level and some of them, in my opinion, were simply not going to happen (Twilight), but I was able to see where they were coming from. Sure, there were a few knuckleheads who wanted to change English class to meditation time (which I allowed for one day), but overall, they had so many good ideas, and no one (they said) had listened to them.
So what came out of it?
Lots and lots of insight. I had to prep for class anyway, so instead I shifted my focus to what they told me they would respond to. We still read books and wrote papers, and we expanded assessments, including reading and research opportunities. They made podcasts with their favorite music and poems to suit a theme. I allowed lots of choice with regards to the books we read. I gave them more possibilities for writing, including drafting their college essays. We held a “Fright Fair,” (thanks to ReadWriteThink), that required research, writing and presentation. We read graphic novels, and combined a lot of movies with the corresponding books (they often liked the book better). We held student-led discussions, so that they could talk about the questions and comments they had. We worked in writing groups to ensure the qualities of voice, style and flow. We used books and music to discuss deep themes of learning disabilities, social conditions and human frailty.
In essence, I basically turned everything (except the grading) over to them. This was pretty scary to me, but I realized at some point that I was either going to give it to them, or I was going to plan lessons that rolled the dice on success because I didn’t know how best to engage them. To me, getting their investment was the only way we would be able to work together as a class, and it seemed to be the only way they would engage.
Was it successful?
I asked my students the following question, “What worked this year for you, and what didn’t?” I didn’t speak unless I asked a clarifying question. They cited improvement and increased confidence in their writing, respect in the classroom, and engaging topics. They felt that their class had become a community, with good give and take and with self-policed discipline (I don’t know that I totally agree with that). They liked the ability to adapt assignments or projects to their best learning style. Overall, they felt that they worked very hard, and learned a lot about a lot of things. They liked English class.
In the midst of the year, I wasn’t sure. Some students had difficulty living up to the standards they set for themselves, and sometimes they balked when I reminded them that this was what they wanted. Some of my colleagues wondered about rigor; the word on the street was that my students were working really hard and doing a lot of self-directed learning. Parents were coming to conferences asking me what I had done to get their child to read, and even more broadly, how it was possible that their child was earning As and Bs for the first time ever in English.
I firmly believe that this whole experience had everything to do with student choice. Once they felt respected and heard, students responded. I don’t know if this kind of exercise would fly with other groups, or during any other school year. However, I did realize that, instead of relying soley on myself to choose curriculum, I could open it up to students and they would truly respond with what they wanted out of English class. Not only that, they were offered the opportunity to thrive. It works the same way with adults – we’d be hard pressed to demand that adults do something that they find pointless or irrelevant.
Sometimes the best moments in teaching are about surrender. I’m so glad I did.