My last few posts have really been all about the need to act, to step up, and to do something. To deliver, as SethGodin might say. I came away from Teachmeet slf2012 with that buzzing feeling you get from too much coffee only you haven’t had too much coffee. There were was so much positivity pervading the day and so many inspirational people and I wanted to do something on the first day in school; not wait as usual, wait for an appropriate break in the planner or time to think more. There has been too much time to think. The time is now.
Neil Winton’s work was inspiring and painted a picture of what school could be like. On the Monday, my S4 class (Year 11) and I discussed the possibilities of school change. They are a smart bunch and, mostly, enjoyed school but there is still a lot of what we do which seems meaningless to them. That’s not to say that it is meaningless but we simply are not convincing them why it is important. We cannot keep sticking our heads in the sand or our fingers in out ears over this. So, what if we allowed them to choose topics, based on the work we are doing in class, and asked them to go away and use all of the learning they have done in school to produce something amazing? As Neil has shown, incredible things can happen.
We are studying ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, an old English class staple for a reason. It is one of the greatest books ever written and I always teach from the point of view that ‘It is harder to the right thing than the easy thing.’
It is a long, challenging novel but I have never taught a class which didn’t get it and love it. No change here. What I wanted to do after speaking to Neil was to try and explode the Experiences and Outcomes and try something which passed responsibility for learning on to the students. They begin each year knowing what is coming. Some lengthy study on character, plot, theme, imagery etc. An assessment or two on the way, a Critical essay at the end. But why do we study literature? What did it give me? What can it provide for them? On the train in to work the next day I sketched out this.
Each of the ‘What is…?’ points cover themes in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
What would happen if students could begin to use the skills and knowledge they have gleaned across the curriculum but were, up until now, unable to do so? They could use their skills in historical research, art, music, modern studies, ICT, anything else. They could create art which represents ideas, music which reflects feelings…
Would we see a move toward true active learning? A need for students to do it themselves, to take responsibility? It would not makes things easier for us but would change the focus. Our role in the process becomes provider of challenging opportunity.
And we still do the other things. We learn about sentences structure, imagery, connotation. We study tone. We write regularly.
We spent the first couple of classes playing about with various web tools – Wikispaces, Pinterest, Prezi, for example – until they became comfortable with the ones they liked. The only stipulation being that they use many to collect their ideas and present them to me at the end of November. That same night, I received an email. Two of my students had gone home and filmed a Vlog (video blog) of themselves discussing the topic and what it meant to them. They comfortably – if somewhat light heartedly – made plans for their project and addressed the film to me. Nine minutes long. I was amazed. Of course that doesn’t mean that the end result will be fantastic but it is a fair indication of how enthused they are by the project.
So what are the next steps? I have been providing them with challenging materials – articles, blog posts etc – which will guide them to where they want to go, with luck. We are still covering the usual skills. But I want to focus these posts on those in the class from whom, perhaps, I wouldn’t expect the most creative work. Those kids who do the work but rarely sparkle. How would a project like this change their attitude to schooling? Would it? Would it remove the safety net which they have relied on for so long? This is an ongoing process. I have been impressed so far but I’ll keep you up to date.