When Students Create the Curriculum

In my third year of teaching Research Seminar, students continue to surprise and delight me with their work in the course. The course has a generic title so that each class may shape it as it wishes. This year’s class began the way that the other two have, with students choosing topics to research and then present to the class. The topics are always different, though. This year I have learned about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tuvan throat singing, serial killers, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, German artists affected by WWII, the Ryder Cup, Zionism, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the elixir of life, among other things. While most students did power point presentations, one student who studied witch trials set up a class simulation to illustrate the dynamics of the witch hunts. The class enjoyed it so much that they asked to do it again. Although I tell them they can do whatever they want – if they wanted to read a common book and write essays about it they could, I think they take the course because they like the freedom to learn what they want individually. It is after this first project that things get more interesting. They start to get creative. They have to hash out the curriculum in class discussion in order to set up the guidelines for the learning.

For the second project, the students decided that they want to do something short. After much discussion of various ideas, they came to consensus that they would each put three potential topics into a hat. Then, each person would select three topics from the hat randomly and choose one to research. The product is to be a three minute presentation with a maximum of five slides, due in less than a week. Some were pretty nervous about getting topics they were not interested in doing. The majority convinced them that it was only a short project and it would be a good opportunity to grow. The argument was that they might realize they were interested in something they would not have thought about or chosen. I have been urging the students to take risks and move out of their comfort zones. Some have embraced that challenge more than others. With this activity, they all had to take a leap. I am looking forward to see how they do. For me, what will matter most in this second project will be the reflection they write about the experience afterwards.

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IFS – Individual Feedback Sessions

I am currently reading the book Creating Cultures of Thinking. It really resonates with me in a lot of ways, and I read about a potential game changer today in the chapter about time. An English teacher in Australia employs what he calls the Individual Feedback System for grading essays. I am trying to think about a way to test it out.

The way it works is that he sets up a weekly (or bi-weekly) meeting time with each student which is the time that the writing is due for that student. With the student present, he reads, provides written feedback and grades the papers. Students can take notes or record the session. He takes no grading home, which is a really attractive feature of the model. But he also gets to explain the feedback and talk about the writing with the student present. Too often, I feel like students don’t read my comments. Sometimes they don’t know what I mean, and they meet with me so I can go over the feedback. I can imagine how much more effective it would be if my students were there when I wrote my comments. It would be a step towards personalized learning. It would be an ongoing conversation.

So, how might this work in our setting? Meetings might need to take place once a cycle rather than weekly. It would mean changing the way I think about assigning writing. Not everyone would be doing the same thing at the same time. It would require more of my in-school time to be scheduled. Due to where the cycle days fall around holidays, there might be a really long time for some kids to do an essay and a shorter time for others.There would probably still need to be some assignments that all students would do together, but maybe not. I have to think about that. I don’t think I could manage doing this with all of my classes all at once, and it would definitely require a little explanation and set up time.

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about this and the potential problems that may come with it. I definitely see the upside, and sometimes when I get excited about something, I don’t consider the issues associated with it. I am thinking that I will start this with my juniors after the Research Paper. I may even offer for them to set up their appointment time and begin meeting during the paper, so that students who want more feedback along the way can get it. I will explain it to them soon so that anyone who want to set up a cycle meeting now can do so. I have the chance for a fresh start in a new unit, the first thematic unit of the year, after the Research Paper. I could see having one essay or a few short pieces due, like blog posts, each meeting. I know this won’t play well with Assignment Center, which does not allow for customized due dates, but I will try to figure something out.

Grading papers generally drains energy and meeting with students often replenishes it. Students will know when they will get their feedback, and it will be much closer to when they finish writing, I assume. For me, the grading will be spaced out, so I will not face the mountain of essays at once. This seems too good to be true, but also too promising to not try.