What I Learn When I Set Students Free
Every year I forget what a difficult time the ending of the school year is. The last few weeks always have a few (but always too many) students who come to ask for “make-up” work, or ask what they can do to “pass” or “get a good grade” for the year. Depressingly enough for both of us, the answer is usually “nothing” because the work we have done builds on itself, and is designed to both practice and showcase the skills they have developed. Portfolio presentations make this better because I get to hear from the vast majority of students who as they reflect on all they have learned. But it can still have some depressing moments.
However, the end of the year is also one of my favorite times, because of the skills I see student showcase. I take a much more hands-off approach with student in these last few months. I expect them to be able to complete the tasks I have set out for them mostly independently, because they are tasks we have worked on all year. Students are also reading books in book clubs. While I always struggle to make sure all students actually read the required texts for the class, when they do so more independently the results are magical. This year a number of students read A Lesson Before Dying in their book groups. I will be honest: many students did not finish it, and that pains me. I’m still working out plans to improve this next year. However, the students who did finish it, or read most of it, came up with some pretty interesting insights. Quite a few students wrote about the way the character of Vivian functions to both bring out Grant’s guilt, as well as his good side. One student even suggested that she functioned as his conscience. Another student, completely independently, came to see how Jefferson was really the savior of his community (essentially a Christ figure). Even more students found varied examples where Grant’s description of people and places speak to the tension he faces through the book: is this place I live in good or bad? Do I stay or go? Gaines (the author) uses descriptive language and juxtaposes interesting words in his descriptions of the most mundane moments of the book to show this tension, and I was impressed with the ways several students picked up on that, pretty much on their own.
What makes these insights exciting is both watching the kids do this deep thinking, but also getting taught by them. It’s a bit embarrassing to say, but I had never focused much on Vivian and Grant’s relationship in the book. I had instead focused on Grant and Jefferson’s relationship. When I taught it as a whole class novel, I was focused on pulling kids through the book by guiding them to notice the things I thought were important. This year, when they were freed up a little, the kids observations and discussions about the book led to new understandings for me.
I have tried having book groups (as opposed to another whole-class text) the past could years because I have seen the value of student choice and student ownership over reading, writing, and learning. Interestingly enough, book clubs have been a wild success for some students, but simply another instance of an attempt at “fake reading” for others. But what excited me most about this year was the reminder that I have so much to learn from my students. When I set them free to read and think and discuss, they come back with amazing insights that make me think “Wow, I wish I had noticed that!” The insights of my current students will inform the way I talk about these books with my students next year, who will also surely teach me even more.
And so the wheel turns. I can’t wait to go around again.
Quick plug for the latest Education Week special report: Getting Personal all about personalized learning. There are some fantastic articles that focus on new initiatives around the country and several pieces that showcase practical ways to personalize instruction in real public school classrooms . . . such as the article I contributed Making Grading Personal and More Enjoyable. See, I told you it was a plug!