An Organic Classroom.
One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is being able to provide a fluid, organic learning environment in which learning occurs at a “mastery” level. I’ve always been a supporter, and proponent behind the research studies and methods of “standards based” teaching. The struggle I’ve had for the past few years pertains to the following questions: “How do I implement such? How do I create an environment in which fluid learning can occur successfully, and be sustained?”
What I knew, and was equally holding me back, was the amount of risk involved in this type of learning shift. As humans, we are fearful of risk. It means letting go of complete control, and for a teacher, that is difficult to do! It means preparation for the unexpected (difficult, right?), and preparation for students to each have access to resources that will help them master the concepts they don’t understand. At ALL times.
Ultimately, the risk meant providing a great deal of support, and partaking in truly strategic planning. This type of planning and support derives on trust between all learners, and such takes time to build.
So how does one build to such a learning environment in which students own their learning? As previously stated, it takes immense time, support, trust, and strategic planning.
I began teaching my students the 3rd week of school, as I transitioned from a 6th to 8th grade teacher. So while I taught most of my present students, it was still a process to build trust with those I didn’t, and to further develop ground in relationships with those I had taught. With 1st Quarter starting 3 weeks into the year, I planned evermore strategically with my end goal in mind: that our classroom would evolve into one full of independent learners. In order to do such, beyond relationships, I had to develop a culture of questioning.
I realized the previous year that many of my students had not necessarily “lost” the ability to question, but had not “cultivated” such for quite some time. That being so, I introduced the concept of an entire unit “PBL” (again, strategically planned via numerous scaffolded PBL’s throughout the year.) While it was difficult for some individuals at first to see how all students could learn through such, it was the first time in my career I found the secret to helping students truly own their learning: letting my students take charge. Entirely. Not me. The data behind it was incredible; that quarter my students, nearly ALL students of ALL levels, scored higher on their assessment more than ever before. Incredible, right? Fluid, organic learning truly occurs when we as educators let go of our innate belief that we must control the path to mastery.
What is difficult for students, and adults to see, is that there shouldn’t be a prescribed guideline. If we are self-reflecting and honest with ourselves, our greatest learning occurs when you’re the prescribed leader of your learning. Not when there’s a rubric attached (don’t get me wrong though, there’s a time and place for such.) If I want truly organic learning to occur, I need to not provide my students with what they want: a path to the end goal. Students want prescribed criteria. Yet, as I learned through my Kenan Fellowship this summer, prescribed criteria doesn’t truly exist in other worlds. What exists are expectations, and an end goal in mind. Now, how you got there, that could be as organic as you desire. Your classroom must provide the resources, data, and support necessary for students to lead their learning. When implemented strategically, I guarantee they will perform on those high-stakes tests, but do so through high-stakes learning.
So truly, when I began to think, “how do I transform my students into independent learners? How do I show them expectations and an end goal are important, not necessary how you get there?” I had my answer: I had to let go ALL the time. I had to jump straight into the challenge of a MakerSpace culture, blended with a Standards Based Mastery culture that could be sustainable.
Ideally, our classroom will function similar to a “game” in which students will master concepts and “level up” (the idea of “gamification” in learning.) Yet, to get to such a point, I needed my students to understand I can’t be the leader of their learning, they needed to be such. I needed them to learn to ask questions, and to have the desire to ask questions. This week has been a struggle for my students (and especially for me!) Yet, what an incredible experience it has been!
A Strategic Vision
When walking in, it is complete “organized” chaos as there ever has been before. I have always had a chaotic room, but this is to an entirely new level. I have at least 6 different concepts being covered at this time, with all students mastering different concepts in one room. So I have some students still learning 1st Quarter material, while others are getting into the end of 2nd Quarter material (this has left me wondering the purpose of my EQ’s/I Can/I Will statements being posted if they’re all different…) But first, it meant a strategic set up of my room (which has taken me much time to plan!) During 1st Quarter, I used various forms of data, and helped students understand the role of data in their learning. No longer are they viewing themselves as a “score,” but rather as a point in which they know where they need assistance. From there, we have learned to practice “soft” skills of communication, and have tough, honest discussions on how to act as lead learners and communicators. With a foundation set, I organized strategic groupings through the continuum of data literacy involving perception, student learning and processing information.
Through an open discussion on the “why” behind standards mastery and MakerSpace, my students began the journey. We are using Discovery Education (and other blended approaches) that incorporate components of literacy, addressing specific sub-skill deficients by students (from data reports), and to build foundational skills. Each day, these personal learning teams CAN (and WILL) change!
You’d think, “won’t the students on lower standards be discouraged? Will all students be able to learn this way?” As I found this week, it has been motivating for them to learn in a way unlike anything before. As I collected from perception data, students are “thrilled to be in groups that help them where they need help,” and “excited to get new challenges as we learn the concepts.”
With the combination of a standards based mastery- meets-makerspace culture, they are (without knowing) learning the strategy behind “gamification.” I have students who I have pushed to understand high school level concepts, and others who are, for the first time, actually beginning to understand the basics. More so, I have students questioning their surroundings to the point they say, “I love learning this way!”
Keys to Success
1. There should not be prescribed criteria. I am probing my students into different avenues, and guiding them to ask questions that will help them understand the concepts. Now, isn’t this to be my role to begin with? I should not be the dispenser of all knowledge. So while prescribed probes/questions would help, such would limit my students to not transition into the culture of “questioning!” You’d be amazed on how such probing creates ownership and growth, as the questions being asked become personal and empowering. It is a struggle at first (and still is at this moment in my room), but with struggle comes the equitable parallel of positive, strong growth.
2. I am constantly tired! I have been more exhausted this past week than any other week in my entire career. BUT WOW! The growth has been incredible; I’ve had my most struggling students gaining concepts that they struggled with all of 1st Quarter finally having those “aha!” moments. By working in small groups and 1-on-1 specific to student needs, I’ve been able to strategically understand students deficits, question them better, and praise them specific/credible to their needs. (Although, I do feel I need to clone myself now!)
3. One must accept students will struggle. As I mentioned before, with great struggle comes great gains. The concept of students owning their learning means they must be responsible for how they find information, for seeking the answers within the “few guidelines” I’ve provided them. And ultimately, for them to ASK questions. I’ve always led them to the questions, but it is so different for them to find the questions to be asked. It was a beautiful site this past Friday, when at the end of class, you could look around, and after probing with each student, they were learning EXACTLY what they needed to be learning, and they were gaining knowledge without knowing it. Was it messy at first? Yes. Were students “lost” at first? Yes. Did it take days to get to this level? YES! But it has been worth it. We still have a really long road ahead with this, but it is a road worth taking.
4. It has taken a lot of energy for buy-in. Honestly, I’ve had students say, “why can’t you just tell me what to do. This is too hard.” And this is the question I’ve struggled to figure out how to address over the years. I have to fight instincts to them what they need to know, and instead, help guide them to the resources they can access for answers to questions they’ve created. This is difficult.
5. I must be okay knowing that there is no one way for students to get to their learning, and others need to, too. Each child is learning and creating in a way to display their knowledge that is unique to them. Each student is building their knowledge one “level” at a time. This means, at any given period, throughout my room, students will all be on different concepts (and will have different guiding Essential Questions), and on different “levels” within the concept. Student “levels,” are also very dependent on how comfortable they are in the “maker” culture, too. I have students on the first “level,” where they are creating models. I have students who are on the second “level,” where they are developing functioning systems. And I have some students who are risking it all, and taking their knowledge to “invent!”
6. I am amazed! And I have found joy in this learning, as my students have too…we have started another layer in our “standards based mastery-meets-makerspace” culture, the “Aha” board where they write the moments in which “it clicked!”
It is THOSE moments that learning happens. And more learning has happened than ever before.
Is it still a struggle? Yes. It is more work than ever before. Is it worth it? Without a doubt. It’ll look like your room has no parameters, but thats the beauty. Students are TRULY owning their learning, and becoming responsible for it.
As I collect more data and as I introduce blogging to students, I will share out on the successes and failures of such. For now, and as we move forward, I invite anyone willing to experience such into the classroom of 607!
Join us on this incredible learning journey; it is a beautiful mess!