My Spring Break, and I miss my friend.

It was Wyatt’s trip. Wyatt is gone, but it was still his trip. He loved to paddle down a river, looking for adventure, testing his endurance, lost in the comfort of the wilderness. For Wyatt, he was at his best and at his happiest when lost in his wild home. He treasured his genuine relationship with his wilderness, giving it all of his energy and attentiveness. Each moment was theirs.

As I paddled down the Suwannee River with four of our friends and colleagues, I felt my missing friend, an empty place deep in my gut – like a hunger that will not be satisfied. Yet, at the same time, I felt closer to Wyatt because I was in his wild place. It was when I was attentive to Wyatt’s wild comforting home that I could hear his paddle strokes next to mine. And that made me feel good.

Wyatt 2012 - paddling the Altamaha.

Wyatt 2012 – paddling the Altamaha.

Wyatt Pasley: teacher, adventurer, lover of the wilderness, and friend.

Keeping score….

How do our assessments, rubrics, and project requirements influence student behavior and creativity? How are we keeping score?

These questions presented themselves during a recent class where I was observing the students working on their American Revolution project. First, a little background on the project and its requirements.

The students have been studying about the American Revolution for about 3 weeks. Classes have been a combination of teacher led discussions, student led discussions, and a couple of written assignments. I also gave them the classic review sheet followed by multiple choice and essay test. (Yuk.) After that, I announced the project. The only requirements for the project were research, a written proposal, and scripts if relevant to the project. The project options were suggested by the students, with some help from me. After they selected their option, they wrote a proposal for their project which included a full narrative description of the historical event or person they wanted to depict, why they thought it was important, and a list of people and materials they would need. I told the students that I would give them limited time during class to work on the project and that all resources would need to be coordinated on their own. This included getting costumes, reserving green screen time, reserving camera time, and borrowing actors from other projects.  When asked how I was going to grade them, I simply said that it should be good enough so an adult would pay $2 to go see it. And it would not be good enough if the only place you could find the project is stuck on the refrigerator by your mother. With this, the proposals started arriving: scrapbooks, comic books, children’s books, soldier recruitment posters, a movie trailer about the American Revolution, an iMovie production on one or more events in the American Revolution, a skit, a puppet skit, and more. Surprisingly, no proposals for a research paper. Ha! With that they got started, and here is when I made my observation.

There were two boys that started filming their project. They did not have costumes, but they had clever and detailed scripts. Another boy, working on his own project, then offered them the use of his costumes that he brought from home. They gladly accepted. Then I found that the assisting student was now being used as an actor in their movie.  Within the next 30 minutes, 10 of the 16 students were involved in the two students’ project.  They were all being directed perfectly; they were having fun and getting the movie made. Perhaps most important, they all experienced the magic of collaboration and assisting.  So, as I watched in amazement, I said to myself, “This is really cool.” Later that day I realized what I witnessed: this is the way the world really works. The collaborators and people who help other people in their organization are rewarded. Why is it that I don’t keep score and assess collaboration and assistance?

Keep score on helping hands.

Keep score on helping hands.

The next day I found the student who first helped the two boys. I told him I that I thought what he did was really neat, and that I was going to give him extra points on his project for helping the other students with theirs. In basketball, soccer, and many other team sports we value assists as much as goals. In business, we value collaboration and assistance by rewarding those employees. As I thought about how I am going to grade this project, I decided that I would give a large amount of credit to students who were not part of the project, but assisted with the project. Will this lead to more learning, better projects, and a better community? I think so.

Stumbling into a democratic classroom….

John Dewey  was a strong proponent of a democratic classroom and the importance of free-flowing knowledge. I think for the first time I really understand what he meant by this quote:  “The communication which ensures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions–like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.” Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:7

So, here’s how I stumbled into a democratic classroom.  I was discussing the Declaration of Independence with my 5th grade students, and as hard as I might, I was unsuccessfully trying to get them to understand how truly revolutionary the idea that governments derive “…their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It changed everything!  I knew by the looks in the students’ eyes, that I did not have them convinced. And that’s when I stumbled into the democratic classroom. I said, OK, lets use an analogy you will understand.

I first emphasized that they had no choice in selecting their history teacher. I did not need their consent to teach them. But what if we gave the students the power to choose their teacher?  I first asked them to read quietly the balance of the chapter in their Joy Hakim, A History of US book. I emphasized that any one of them may be selected to be the teacher for this chapter, and they needed to read with comprehension and take notes. Then I allowed them to discuss and figure out how they were going to make the teacher selection. I made sure not to say anything during the process, other than to give them a reasonable time to make the selection. It was interesting to see how each of the three classes used different selection processes. Once the votes were counted and the student teacher was selected, then the newly elected teacher began his or her lesson.  Again, I made no attempt to participate or guide the lesson or discussion that followed.  And it was here when I just dropped my jaw in amazement.

Yes, the student teachers did a great job, some using discussion facilitation techniques

One of my 5th graders facilitating a discussion.

One of my 5th graders facilitating a discussion.

that have taken me eight years to master.  However, the magic of the democratic classroom was revealed during the discussion among the students. The discussion was in depth, organized, and everyone was contributing.  Everyone began expressing their opinions, supported by what they read, and they stopped fixating on what is a “right” answer. They listened to each other, and supported an idea with different examples, or respectfully took a different opinion. We have always had good discussions in my class, but this was the best discussion I have heard. Ever.  I asked myself, what was happening?  And here is what I concluded:

1.  I took the KING, (me – the authority teacher), out of the mix. I removed myself from the discussion and the front of the room, and allowed them to select their own teacher. By doing that, the students found “similar emotional and intellectual dispositions–like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.” I removed the KING’s expectations, and the students were free to think their thoughts, not what Mr. Emmons was looking for.

2. Since each of the students was hyper-motivated to read carefully and take good notes, the discussion remained relevant and well paced.

This went so well, I have decided to use this method at least once per week. Also, since all of the students now want to be teachers in the class, they are all preparing diligently for each history session.

Teachers should derive their just powers from their students.  I think our founding fathers had it right.