And despite my success in building a completely student-centred classroom in four periods, I still had one that Just. Wasn't. There.
So going in to the final block period of the year, I wasn't happy with their progress. They needed me to manage their behaviour still. They still asked me about grades, constantly (which Drives Me Crazy). And their grades were the lowest of any of my classes.
Something had to change. So I sat there, watching them take the final quiz for the novel, Indian Country. It has actually been a massively successful unit. We've had very interesting discussions, they've reflected a lot, engaged with the characters in the novel, and they've been encouraged to read, rather than being punished for not reading, or doing it out of fear of failing or falling behind. But I'm still the one directing the learning; it's not anything like my other classes, where they show up and just get right to work, sometimes without me even asking.
I felt like a failure, sitting there in front of my students who were pretending to take the quiz seriously but really wanted to just get it done and talk about the stress of finals, the drama of relationships, and the holidays that are quickly approaching.
But I had an idea. One that worked in the other classes. I knew the other classes were FAR more ready for the responsibility when I handed it over. And even knowing that, I decided that I was going to just let go. Get out of the way. And see what happened.
I told them that my other classes had been in control for longer. I asked them why they thought their class wasn't ready. We talk too much, they said. We aren't motivated enough, they said. We don't know the rest of the class (outside our group), they said.
But they were wrong. Here's the REAL issue: they have never been asked to take control of their behaviour or education. They've been punished, coerced, manipulated, guilted, and pushed. They've rarely done something out of their own drive; most of the time, they've needed someone to drive them. They've never been asked to be creative...well, that's not entirely true. They haven't been asked to be creative for a really long time. When I said that, no one argued. They actually agreed with me.
So I told them we were going to do something about that. They had the rest of the period today, class on Friday and Monday, and the two hour final. They had to write their final essay during that time. But otherwise, they could design the final activities and plan how to use the class time for the rest of the year.
Then I sat down. With little expectation.
For about ten minutes, the groups just talked, as usual. A few good ideas were suggested in those individual groups, but they weren't listening to each other. So I decided to give them one bit of help. I walked over to Andrew - the only person who regularly stood up to lead the others and take control; he did it through a unique, unexpected and engaging personality. And people listened when he talked. I told him that he was the main hope if the class was going to do something productive together.
He accepted the challenge and I sat back down. Again, I had little expectation of something productive happening, but Andrew IS pretty awesome (seems to be a pattern that's true of most Andrews I've met).
He went up to the front and asked everyone what they wanted to do. They came up with several options for a whole-class project - a rap cypher, a music video, a collage...
And after lots of discussion, the two best (most popular) ideas emerged:
- A Socratic Seminar on the Big Ideas - the meaning of life, what love really is, human nature...all the things we had talked about all semester. They thought they could finally draw some conclusions now that the course was almost over.
- An Album - they each would have two pages (both sides of one 8 1/2 x 11), and one side would be for a writing assignment about what they learned in the course. The second side would be a collage, either digital or on paper, to represent Who They Are as a person.
They planned out the rest of the days of the semester - start the writing today, write the final essay on Friday (as planned), work on the image part of the album on Monday, and on the final day, compile the album, have the seminar, and bring food to share.
I added a few modifications: I told them I thought they should make the album digital so that they could always have access to it. I also told them I'd like them to include the one assignment for the class that they were most proud of - a project, an essay, or even a journal or their Blank White Page project. I told them that, with the help of Mr. Thomasson's Desktop Publishing class, we could put it all together so that videos would be embedded, and the pages linked together coherently as a webpage.
The one flaw in the plan for doing a group project was that some people had started their own individual final project. I asked them for a solution, as most people were way more excited about the group project. They suggested that if people completed their individual final project in addition to the album, that they could replace their lowest grade, or a missing grade for any assignment from the semester. I thought that was fair - trading a project on which they spent time and effort and that showed something they had learned was a fair trade for a missing journal assignment, or quickwrite, or class discussion.
I don't know how this will turn out. Their final project might be something that doesn't show mastery of learning, or pride in their work. It may fall to the eight students who tend to carry the class anyway to make it successful.
It's hard to admit that I have one class that requires a teacher-centred approach, discipline, and has traces of point prostitution. So what is really so different about this class? Students didn't sign up for the course because they liked the subject, and the ones who did were more interested in the teacher they had last year and whom they expected to be teaching the class this year too. The students didn't understand or like each other, and many face fairly overwhelming problems in their own life and academics. Their skills were lower than most of their peers.
So relationships, passion, skills. That's what the difference is. That's why they never got to ownership of learning.
Their lack of those three don't excuse their performance, but they do help explain it. And maybe, just maybe, this project will ameliorate those divisions and show them just how much they are capable of when they commit themselves and invest their personality and individuality into their learning. Maybe this project will build what they lack in relationships, passion and skill - it is, in fact, entirely their own design and creation.
Here's hoping that I'll remember this class less for my own failure, and more for their tremendous success in this project against pretty significant odds.
Because there is finally reason to hope they can make it.