I am the first to admit that teaching in a self-directed school takes a lot of effort. But, I am also the first to say, even louder, that all of the effort is absolutely worth it. By taking time to listen to my students, gain inspiration from them, and make negotiation a regular part of the classroom culture, we all come out on top.
When I first started teaching at Banbury, the creation of resources almost overwhelmed me. It seemed like every time I turned around, I was making something new for a student. Sometimes, it still does. But, over the years, I have collected a large range of assignments and project ideas, which, now, sometimes just need a little tweaking before they are ready to go with someone else. Negotiating projects, and working through students’ interests created a situation where I had to get creative, and continuously find new and interesting ways of teaching concepts. This continuous reinvention and innovation has meant that I am always engaged in, and stimulated by, my teaching. Being excited by what I’m teaching, and having a large stockpile of resources at my disposal, makes every day that much easier!
One of the biggest reasons why I advocate for this kind of teaching is the victories that come along with it, everyday. Victories are not always grand ones – like The Avengers Initiative. Sometimes, the best ones come from day-to-day learning. A high school student recently joined Banbury, and one of the first things she told me (as her new English teacher) was how much she hated essays. Sure, lots of people hate essays. But, with diploma exams fast approaching, it is a necessary skill to master. Knowing that this student was joining us from a stressful situation in previous school, it was important to me to help her feel more in control, more confident in her own voice. So, I gave her free reign to start with absolutely anything she wanted to. She immediately chose to read Peter Pan, and absolutely devoured the book. She was so happy reading it – discussing how the book compares to movie adaptations with other students. And this is where I saw an opportunity – a chance to guide her enthusiasm into a strong leaning opportunity for her. I suggested that we use her excitement for the novel as the basis of building her essay skills, which she agreed to, albeit hesitantly. But, we did it. Step by step – thesis, arguments, paragraphs – all the way up to a full essay. And, because she enjoyed the book so much, it was easier to keep the momentum going, and get her to a finished product. My student told me that this was the easiest essay she had ever written, and that maybe they weren’t so bad. Essays might not be her favourite thing, still, but she can handle them. And that, in my books, is a victory.
When I consider this situation, there are so many different ways things could have gone: I could have limited my student’s choice in readings; I could have given her a different project to work on; I could have done any number of things other than what I did. But, letting students have choice, have a sense of control over their learning is so important. I know that I never would have been able to help my student move forward in her essay skills as easily as I did without her enjoying the novel so much. And that enjoyment, largely, came from her being the one to choose it. So, win-win situation: my student gets to read something she loves, and improve a weaker skill, and I get to have an easier time teaching – no rolled eyes, no dramatic sighs, no power struggles.
There are numerous benefits, for teachers, that come from this style of teaching: more interesting time in the classroom, a growing collection of resources to pull from, increased understanding of the curriculum, and the satisfaction that comes from small victories with your students. But, it’s not just teachers who benefit from this. Students also get a lot more out of it than just completing the curriculum: they are more engaged in the learning process, walking away with a deeper and stronger understanding of concepts and skills; their confidence in their own ability to make decisions increases; and, they have a chance to develop the “soft skills”, such as negotiation, collaboration, and communication, which are so important in the workforce.
Yes there is more work involved, initially, creating assignments and rubrics. Yes, you have to take time to go through the negotiation process. Yes, a lot goes into individualized instruction. But, in the end, all of those victories with students, the joy that comes from on-going innovation, and the added benefits for students make it worth the effort.
Coming Soon: Valuing the Individual Part 1: Celebrating Small Victories