I have found that naturally flowing from the grades free curriculum is a desire to give students more autonomy over their learning. I have only just begun to explore the idea of giving students more, and sometimes all of the control, over their assignments, assessments and evaluations.
A few weeks ago, I had a fabulous conversation with my grade 10 class. I asked them to imagine that they were going to read a novel together with a small group of classmates. I asked them to tell me what they would want to do to show me their learning of that novel. They had interesting ideas. Some wanted to make movies of their understanding, other suggested creating a time line of events using QR codes that could be posted in the hallway, while others advocated taking the themes of the novel and relating them to real world events. I had asked them to think of ideas individually, but after I collected their notes they casually started to discuss their ideas with their classmates and I could hear ideas changing, modifying and growing.
I gave this hypothetical scenario to my grade ten’s after a discouraging conversation with my grade 11 class. The grade 11 class in question is unfortunately a traditional grades based classroom. I do create a bit of a hybrid by allowing re-do of assignments and giving as much feedback as possible, but in the end I must give marks. The response to the “what would you like to do” question was markedly different in this class. They listed activities like, I could re-draw the cover of the novel, I could answer some novel questions, I could make a diorama of one of the novel scenes. “Really?” I asked, “This is what you WANT to do?”
The difference in these two classes is not that my grade tens are more creative or more academically thoughtful; it is that my grade elevens have not been given the opportunity to question how they learn. Sadly, they have been trained to take the teacher created assignment and do it without asking questions.
In contrast, since the beginning of the semester I have been asking for input from my grade ten class into the assignments that I create for them. They have embraced the idea that we are on a journey of learning together and that I not only welcome, but seek, their input. Consequently, they are excited to think about new ways of doing things.
The grade ten class read “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. A graphic novel detailing the true life story of Vladik Speigelman’s life in WWII Poland. I wanted them to develop an understanding of genocide so I created a layered assignment to help build their general knowledge and work towards a larger understanding of the concept. Since our earlier hypothetical conversation had gone well, I asked them to think about what they wanted to learn about genocide and how they could show me their learning. My only stipulation was no Power Point, which seems to have become the standard “go to” for most of my students.
The ensuing conversations were fabulous! Many groups spent time discussing the purpose of the assignment. They questioned why they would want to know more about genocide and would knowing about it be useful knowledge for them to have. When I mentioned there were other genocides besides the Holocaust they were shocked. Which started a whole new level of questioning! Some of my students became quite annoyed that this was the first time they had heard of some of these atrocities. I loved listening to them.
In the end, students agreed it was an important topic and argued for more class time, turning the assignment into a larger project than I was originally envisioning. It is hard to argue against more learning.
Their final projects were great. One group did use QR codes and had the rest of the class go on a scavenger hunt around the school to discover what had happened to gypsies in Russia. If the lesson had just been assigned by me it would have been a lot more sedate and a lot less fun.
As I have mentioned before, these are my early explorations into increasing student involvement, but I only see myself amplifying students’ voices in the future.