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I started out on this student-centered journey knowing that I had to offer my students more time for true collaboration, not just teacher-chosen ones, as well as give them control in the classroom. I started out dreaming not quite sure what it would look like, what the products would be and whether the learning would even be enhanced or would suffer.
Now 19 months into the journey, I have made some humbling realizations:
- Not all units lend themselves well to choice but it is doable. It can be a challenge to cover the material you feel you need to cover in a textbook for example, but you can. I have spent many nights thinking up how I could possibly engage my students in this without just lecturing and it takes time. That time is well spent though when you see the students light up at what they will be doing.
- It also gets easier. After a while your brain switches from "How will I present this" to "How will the students work with this?" It is a subtle difference and you create a toolbox of ways. Also, if you include students in the planning process you have many more ideas, so that's leads me to:
- Include the students! When I have been stumped over how to make a unit more engaging I have brought it to those it will effect the most; the kids. It does not have to be a long conversation but just a brainstorm. It is amazing to see what they come up with.
- Trust the students. There have been combinations of students that I have shuddered at inwardly and in the end they created beautiful projects. There have also been combinations where we needed to have some serious reflection on whether or not it worked. The big thing is including the students that it involves, don't just make the decision that a partnership doesn't work. We are too quick to decide what collaboration looks like, let the students in.
- Be honest with the students. I have very high expectations for projects and I have called students out on poor work quality. There is a way to do this though without creating a "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" scenario. Ask them to evaluate their own work, it doesn't even have to be done, and have them take time to reflect. Point out what you see as a possibly gap and help them out. Not all students can just create at the drop of a hat.
- Scaffolding at various levels. Some students just need an idea and they fly, others need hand holding and even a cheer or two before they get off the ground, and some are just too boxed in to even know where to start. Get to know your students and their work style, scaffolding at its best simply. Invest the time in relationship building and you will see direct results in their output.
- It will not always work. I have had some epic ideas that turned out absolutely ludicrous. Or ideas that got to be so complicated that the students lost interest. There have been times where it hasn't been a fun , engaging work environment or where a project has taken too long and the interest level is near zero. That happens. And yet I don't give up, I keep going because I see how invested the students are. I see how excited they get to use their hands and their minds, to explore on their own with guidance from me, to learn from each other.