Saturday, January 11, 2014

Benefits of a Student-Centered Classroom

Midterms are next week. Over the Christmas break I needed to finalize my exams so I could handout study guides when we returned to school. I was agonizing over it.

Struggling with having to give an English midterm exam to my Ss. Just want to keep working on the things they need to learn, not test them!
12/30/13, 10:42 AM

@nataleestotz Does it HAVE to be a test? Can it be some other assessment of ability?
12/30/13, 11:10 AM

@nataleestotz @Beth139 make the exam a lit analysis paper on passages they've never seen/a theme related to what you're doing.
12/30/13, 7:03 PM

I really didn't want to give an exam for the sake of giving an exam. I wanted it to be meaningful. I decide to have them write a major literary analysis. My seniors would write about the topic of Pilgrimage or Journey as a motif in life and literature. The freshmen and sophomores would write about the Human Experience in literature, and the juniors would have complete choice of their topic. 

And then there is my senior government class. I could have used their chapter tests and create an exam, but what really would that show me? So I asked them to think about how they could best demonstrate to me what they understand from this semester. It's a small class, four students. We discusses ideas and they each settled on a topic and a product. One is writing a paper about privacy and the gaming industry specifically related to a recent incident with an on-line game. One is doing a creative writing piece using the different forms of government. One is writing an essay on the different forms of government. The fourth is creating a series of info graphs that display key words and concepts for each chapter. 

On their way out of class on Thursday, after a very productive block period of work, one of them said to me, "I think is neat how what each person chose reflects their individuality!"

That right there is one of the things I love about a student-centered classroom!

In my English classes, we've spent this week developing thesis statements, drafting, and conferencing. When I assigned the essay, I asked the students to look at the works we read in class (both whole class study and pleasure read alouds) and at what they have read on their own. I have students comparing Arthur Miller's The Crucible with Robison Wells's Variant and Feedback, and students examining how suicide is delt with in Jay Asher's 13 Reason Why. B is writing about the power of words to create and destroy, it's a topic he's been thinking about a lot lately and he recently finished the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. S is writing about revenge after having read Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin series. N is writing about the masks we wear- something he noticed in a memoir he read. A is writing about love stories as she compares Romeo & Juliet with John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. C is looking at how authors in his favorite fantasy books deal with the depravity of man. 

The conversations that are happening as my students work in class on these essays are more valuable in assessing their knowledge then any 50 questions exam I could ever write. As I talked with several of the boys who regularly struggle with English class, helping them to identify a topic and develop a thesis, our conversation revealed the things they had noticed in their reading. They didn't think it was what I was looking for for the essay. When I pressed them to tell me their ideas, I was delighted with their thinking: turns out it was exactly the kind of idea I was looking for and was pretty insightful!

On the second day we were working, one of the boys said, "I'm bad at writing." Another immediately chimed in that he, too, was bad a writing. I responded right away, "No, you're not! I've read your writing. None of you are bad writers. You just don't like to write. There's a difference. Not one of you is a bad writer." The boy who original spoke thought for a moment, then replied, "You're right!"

Later, the same two boys were sitting just looking a their thesis generators- organizers they had filled out after conferencing with me and contained excellent ideas. 

"I don't know what to write." 

I knew they could explain their ideas, but were hung up on the process of getting thought to paper.  "Just think about how you explained it to me. That's where you start. Pretend you're talking to someone. If you're at home, record it. Go into your room and talk to your cat, but record it."

"There's an app that does speech to text!" And they proceed to explain how the app words, even show it to me on an iPad, and laugh about the funny way the app gets things wrong.

"Exactly! Then you go back and edit to fix the words it got wrong. That's much easier than struggling to get your ideas written or typed out." 

The conversation continued as they realized they could use their technology to help them write their papers in a way they never imagined. I swear, angels were singing in that moment.  When I relayed this story to my husband this morning, he quipped, "They say 'find your voice', well this is 'use your voice'!" 

I think these boys are finding their voice and learning to use their voice! These are revelations and learning moments that they would not have had if I had given them a study guide of literary terms and vocabulary words. 

I'm not dreading midterms and end of quarter. It will be a pleasure to read the English papers and see the final products from my government class. I love the ideas these kids are generating and developing. 

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