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What I See

In his most recent blog post, Rob Mancabelli makes some poignant arguments about learning today in an environment with an “evolving online ecosystem that is available 24/7/365.” He asks, “What Should Learning Look Like?” Below is my answer to that question – my reflections and notes from two observations of Meg Donhauser’s British Literature Class.

Day 1:

When I walked in, there were clusters of students around the room, each working in different ways. There were five students who were reading by themselves and one who was writing a reflection. Two students read a little, turned and asked questions of each other, and then went back to their books. A boy and a girl discussed different publications of the text, War of the Worlds. One group explained to the English Supervisor (who is also there to observe and learn) what they were learning and how they were learning it, although they were focusing on different texts.

Meanwhile, Meg conferenced with a student who was trying to decide what state standards he wanted to meet. He needed to choose a writing standard, a reading standard, a speaking/listening standard, an edtech standard, and a 21st Century Skills standard. Meg was advising him to choose ones that he hadn’t already mastered so that he could learn how to do them better.

When I asked a student what they thought of the class’s format, she, shocked and visibly disappointed that the class was almost over, said, “It’s just a matter of [students] stepping up to the plate. If I wanted to be on facebook all block, I could be, but then I wouldn’t get this done. I mean, I’m actually reading. For real!” She added, “It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s cool that we get to choose what we do, and once you get the hang of it, it’s not bad at all.”

The students were engaged in a course-long inquiry project where they completed their own learning plans by choosing state standards to meet, generating questions to explore, reading books they want to read, and developing artifacts that show what they learned and how they learned it. They use Google Docs and blogs to track and share their thoughts and reflect on the activities that they’re designing and participating in. Meg’s role was not to deliver content, but to help them make connections, ask them questions, guide their thinking, and collaboratively assess their learning.

Day 2:

This time, students were huddled around a corner of the room where Meg had put out tea and freshly baked scones. She asked them to get a snack and sit down next to someone new so that they could talk about the books they were independently reading. Then something fascinating happened – they all started congregating on one side of the room. They wanted to be near each other and near Meg.

One student asks the class, “Who wants to hear a story?” And, that set the tone for what happened next – a sort of community book talk. He talked about Frankenstein having a story within a story, and someone else shared that her book had three subplots. Another student shared the structure of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to which a classmate replied that it’s his favorite book, and Meg suggested they talk. She knew what everyone was reading and exploring, so she could facilitate connections while she heard them discussing.  She asked questions like, “Who is your author?”,  ”Who else is reading that author?”, “Can you share your stories?”, “Are any of you reading similar themes as you read before?”, “Does this unit feel more disconnected than the others?”

As students talked, they shared books; they actually passed them around and read snippets of others’ texts. By the end of the conversation, they found a couple of common threads, and then they had some time to work with what they heard.

I walked around to talk to a few clusters of students. The first student I talked with was reading a novel online. He explained that he was using Diigo to track notes. He said that he uses public notes to help him think through his learning: “Sometimes they’re spam, but sometimes they’re really helpful.” When I asked if he ever makes his notes public, he said that he always saves them to Ms. Donhauser’s group, but he sometimes makes his comments public if he likes something enough. And, sometimes he gets feedback from other readers!

And he wasn’t the only one sharing his thinking with the outside world. Another student was working on a reflection that she had posted for all of her friends to see on a Facebook note. Obviously, there were different comfort levels with this, but those students who were ready to share were making those leaps.

So, what did I see during those two classroom visits? I saw real, connected, and unique learning. In his post, Rob said that learning today should be “more agile, more customized, and more engaging.” Meg’s classroom is exactly that.

3 Responses to “What I See”

  1. Justin says:

    Cathy,

    Great stories of classroom visits here and stories that need to be heard by a larger audience for sure. The state of mind of how education “should” work needs to evolve into something more organic, fruitful, personal, and meaningful. That will never happen with students sitting in rows of desks for 7 hours a day. Change will come, slowly, but it will come.

  2. David says:

    This can not happen until we start enforcing higher level thinking and accomplishments. We all want the final result – but who is willing to put in the effort. The results of all your efforts can and will be students more prepared for the future workplace and classroom, but since all our effort will be seen as a gain for FUTURE teachers the what’s in it for me response continues to plague advances.

    I spent 1 entire school year teaching Geometry at a higher level of instruction and expectation. Toward the end of the 5th sixth week I finally started seeing some positive results when a group of kids figured out the concept of volume v. area v. linear constants of change.

    What did I get out of it – Fired. (I’m sorry, but we need to be more conventional in our teaching.)

    Not all bad, I’ve since found a school that isn’t mired in the 19th century.

  3. stutz01 says:

    David, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. There’s no question that in order for this to work, teachers need support from their administrations, parents, and other teachers. I spent a lot of time building up to this at my school, working with admin and faculty to learn about inquiry, project-based learning, and formative assessment. And, I can say that I have one incredibly supportive, innovative supervisor. When I wanted to try this in my American Lit class, he not only encouraged me to take the risk, but he relieved me of hall duty once a week so that I could observe Meg’s class and talk with her about implementing this inquiry-based setup.

    My biggest issue was getting the students on board and informing the parents of what was happening. I introduced the idea to parents at Back-to-School Night, and I still feel that wasn’t enough. I had two parent conferences over the course of 9 weeks, and wrote explanatory emails to parents at least a few times a week. Until everyone (administrators, parents, students, and teachers) understands more about project-based learning, inquiry, and formative assessment, there will always be those barriers, and teachers who try these things will be considered “risk takers.”

    I can say that this worked in Meg’s class, and it worked in mine. There were certainly drawbacks, and there were certainly some students who did not benefit in the end, but that’s what we’ll work on for next year’s classes. For now, I’m not giving up hope.

    Best of luck to you in your new school!

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