I love what Susan Wolfe, an elementary school teacher in Boise, Idaho does in her classroom. She starts by creating classroom culture and helps the students brainstorm what makes a great student, a great teacher and a great learning environment. This shows the teacher what the kids expect of her and shows the students what they expect of themselves. They are going to be more likely to rules they made up together and feel ownership over.
“The kids need to believe that they’re not here to have learning crammed down their throats,” she said. She says it is fundamental for teachers to take the time to build a class culture for which students take ownership. And contrary to many stereotypes about disadvantaged kids, in her experience, every child, no matter their background, wants that learning autonomy.
“Students have the ownership of the critical factors, so I’m no longer the ‘heavy,’ ” Wolfe said. “They designed this so they have to hold their own feet to the fire, and I’m just here to help them out.”
Self discipline is a skill I never fully learned and I would have likely benefited greatly from this strategy.
The next piece that I love is how she intrinsically motivates her students. She uses what she calls a Genius Hour to allow students to learn about whatever excites them. This gives students power over some of their learning and might be one reason they look forward to school. These projects can also work out to be community service projects as well, which is a category of learning that is very effective and powerful.
For example, a group of students wanted to be outside more, so they are working to build an outdoor classroom. They teamed up with a group of parents who were interested in the same concept, connected with the Bureau of Land Management and eventually designed and began clearing the way for a native plant garden.
They’re working with the community, learning to fundraise, using Excel spreadsheets and building websites. But there’s no grumbling because students are invested in the end goal of the project.
“A lot of teachers spend a lot of time trying to motivate kids, but if they can tie it into students’ passions, you can tap into a lot of energy,” Wolfe said.
This next example reminds of the teaching style at the MET school in Providence RI where my sister attended high school. They allow students to learn about whatever they want to with guidance. The model is teaching them process not content. Here is a perfect example of that here:
“I had a student that I could just not connect with,” Wolfe said. “I could not get this kid to do anything.” But she knew he loved skateboarding, so she suggested he research and become the expert on Tony Hawk and skateboarding. The principal even agreed to let him do a skateboarding demonstration at the end of the project.
The student made a total switch. He was staying in at recess to work on his report, asking for help and doing a great job on his work. Recently Wolfe bumped into him around town and he still remembered that project. He’s in college now, getting straight “A”s.
Giving students the autonomy to direct their own learning teaches them process to do the rest of their school work later. By researching about a Skateboarder, he gained and developed research, writing, reading and analytical skills and had a positive experience in school. All of these skills translate into continuing to do well.
“Kids want that ownership, they want to be in charge of their learning,” Wolfe said. “We just have to give them little pieces at a time to be in charge of and give them a space where it is safe to do so.”