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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rigorous Engagement for a Community of Learners

The following is a guest blog post by Starr Sackstein, one of my favorite education bloggers. Starr is an ELA/Journalism teacher in New York and true innovator and leader in the field of education. I am honored to have Starr's contributions to this blog as she is an extremely insightful educator who understands how to prepare students to be successful. The concepts Starr shares are important aspects of ComPassion-Based Learning, as she explains how to promote a culture of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as well as teaching them to become self-directed learners. Building this culture is a critical element in empowering students and allowing them to "make a difference".

I recommend following Starr's blog at:  and following her on Twitter @mssackstein

Rigorous Engagement for a Community of Learners
by Starr Sackstein, NBTC
World Journalism Prep School, NY
 Students in my AP class work in groups to create modern day comic strips of scenes from Hamlet. I assigned the scene and they did the rest. How they want to present, how they want to create, completely up to them. As you can see in the picture, kids aren't in seats, but working wherever it works for their groups.

Some may say that it takes a room full of type-A kids completely motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic prizes to create a community of learners.

I say, we can create engaged community by supporting authentic choices to share responsibility for learning in a classroom for all kids, all the time.

Shake off your image of traditional classrooms: desks in rows, kids silently working to signify engagement.

And now consider a noisy, multi-tiered room where kids are working on similar skills but are choosing the means through which they show what they know. They work alone or in pairs or groups, whichever suits the learning best.

It’s a little chaotic, but completely worth it.

Building a classroom like this takes some effort. First you have to reset norms and erase years of traditional learning.

As a teacher you need to consider that a quiet classroom is not necessarily a productive one. Productive noise shows real student engagement, so remind kids that you want them to participate and that will sometimes mean working in groups or alone, moving around, talking and/or using technology.

If learning is truly going to make an impact, they need to understand why they are learning what they are and have some kind of investment in it. So invite them to help make decisions about projects and class lessons and even what they read and who they work with.

A teacher who wants to be facilitating a truly rigorous environment maintains high, transparent standards and offers multiple ways and time for each student to meet them. Provide them with not only choice in content, but also choice of mode of presentation. Show them models and explore possibilities, most of all, make them hyper-aware of what they are doing.

Teach them about their learning. Let them rewrite standards. Let them set the goals and decide when they feel they have reached them. Support them through their authentic journey by making yourself available during class time and outside of class for conferences and answer questions like it’s your only job.

Realize that you don’t have to know everything they do; you just have to know how to support them in their pursuit of learning. Be honest and humble and learn with them, to truly be a part of the community.

A classroom that shares responsibility: takes risks together, pushes each other and creatively engages all kids, most of the time.

Not learning isn’t a choice.

If you see a child, not choosing to participate, engage them. Ask them why. Work with them to develop a strategy that works for them.

My Mixed Media class gave me a challenge at the start of last year. 10th graders with learning challenges from all over the spectrum. If it wasn’t an elective class, I would have had a second teacher in the room with me. To add insult to injury, my class was first period and many of them were repeaters. 32 students, almost all who didn’t want to be there.

“I didn’t choose this class. I’m not interested in journalism.”

At first, I ardently tried to follow my curriculum map to no avail. We talked about media and the messages that media conveys segueing into the presidential election which I was assured of that non of them were interested in.

By November, they all knew what was going on. They could all write news articles about political coverage and they were interested in who would win.

But it didn’t stop there. Then came Hurricane Sandy and the break in learning was hard to rebound from. But rather than stick to the program, I decided to take a visual approach moving into a photojournalism unit.

The kids responded to the visual - well, even better than expected. They did project after project and became really good at writing cutlines and creating compelling images to tell stories.

But the best success of the year was when I cut the reins completely. I told them that they would design their final projects: write the assignment, create the rubric by which they planned on being graded, do the assignment and then reflect on their learning based on the standards. If they completed this process, they could NOT, would NOT fail.

The whole room looked surprised, but took on the challenge not realizing that it was harder than it sounded. I knew it would be harder than anything I could create for them.

You can read about the whole process here.  (once on my website, you can see some of their work in different posts)

Overall, what the students produced far exceeded my expectations, even the kids who didn’t work all year.

Giving the students the opportunity to take control of their own learning paid off big time and despite our disagreements at the beginning of the year, almost unanimously, kids thanked me at the end, wishing they would have me again next year. This was a huge change from the beginning when the mass exodus tried to happen.

Human beings are inherently engaged when they have choices over what they do and the appropriate help to be successful. Give it a try. If you’d like my help, I’d love to collaborate.

 Students in my AP class work in groups to create modern day comic strips of scenes from Hamlet. I assigned the scene and they did the rest. How they want to present, how they want to create, completely up to them. As you can see in the picture, kids aren't in seats, but working wherever it works for their groups.


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