Today, Jason will share the daring and forward-thinking classroom model he created and implemented. His approach rests upon two main pillars: choice and autonomy. If you’re an educator or an active parent looking to better structure your weekend/summer family activities and “lessons,” read on to find out how to make your learning environment an unforgettable one.
ES: Thanks for stopping by The Corner today, Jason! Why don’t you start with a summary of what you like to call “the curriculum menu.”
JA: Hi Eugenia. Thanks for interviewing me. In sum, here’s how my classroom works, and it requires a class that is non-sequential, meaning it’s only for subjects (and parents!) who don’t need the concepts to be learned in a certain order.
In a traditional classroom, everyone covers X units in Y time, the whole class at the same time. What’s different about my class is that the kids get to pick the order in which they go through the units, and they get to pace themselves. The units are still tied to the state standards, so they’re covering everything they need to learn. There’s a binder for each unit (subdivided into the multiple parts of each unit), with notes on the basic concepts and vocabulary. Each part of the unit has a very simple assignment to show me that they learned it (in teacher-speak, a formative).
Then comes the exciting part. The kids get to pick their own project for that unit that shows me they learned all the different parts of that unit (in teacher-speak, a summative). So if the kid loves to sing and they want to compose and perform a song that demonstrates understanding of all the major concepts in that unit, they get the chance to do that. If the student loves to act, they can write their own screenplay and record their “mini-movie.” As long as their project clearly demonstrates that they understand the major concepts of that unit (or the standards and substrands, as teachers would call it), the sky is the limit on their creativity.
ES: Wow! I mean one of the things I love about this approach is that the kids are truly motivated to take ownership of their learning. Since they are choosing their own projects, they are invested in making sure they create a polished final product they can be proud of.
JA: Exactly. Another big part of making this work, though, is the independence and trust I place in them. For example, I got rid of all our desks and chairs because the kids said they preferred to get their work done on couches and bean bags. So parents donated the furniture, and we were up and rolling! The important thing here is, much like adults, if you’re getting your work done and abiding by certain very basic rules, you can do whatever you want. The focus is on learning, not on following rules and procedures just to follow them. I mean really, there are lots of adults out there who focus better on their work when they’re listening to their favorite radio station, so why shouldn’t our kids be able to listen to their ipods while they get their work done?
ES: So for a parent who wants to implement this to give their families some kind of structured but fun learning environment on weekends and summers, what might you recommend?
JA: Well, let’s say your kid is having a hard time with grammar. You pull together some worksheets that explain a basic rule and gives them a few practice sentences to try it out on. You check it, make sure they get the basic concept. That’s what we teachers call a formative, and in my classroom, it’s their “pass” to being able to create their final project. Once they’ve collected their “passes” for that unit (whatever grammar rules the teacher told you your child struggles with), then they can create a project that allows them to apply the lessons they've learned to a more real-world environment.
So let’s say your child has also been struggling in science – maybe with memorizing eras of the earth’s development. They can pull both units together into one project by creating dioramas of each stage in the earth’s development, and the plaque on the shoebox that explains its contents can incorporate the grammar rules they learned about!
ES: I never had a grammar lesson that ended with such a fun project! Now I’m wondering – what about behavioral issues? How do you control the fact that you’ve got sometimes up to 5 or 6 different units going on all over the room? And what about those couple of kids who just aren’t motivated to buy into this?
JA: Great question. I actually run a mini-military in my classroom. Even though we play it as a game, we are honoring the fact that the military has a system by which respect and effort are duly rewarded.
Let me back up and talk grades for a second. Sometimes I’ve got kids who did the minimum in order to show me they understood a unit, and other times I’ve got kids who are killing themselves producing this amazing project, and it breaks my heart that they both end up with the same grade because I’m grading to the standard. I can’t – and I won’t – grade “effort.”
But in the military, if you aren’t giving 200% and going the extra mile, you will not progress up the ranks. And that’s what happens in my class. Even though their actual grade in class is the same as the kid who did the minimum, students who go above and beyond on their projects are promoted up and up until they eventually become officers. At that point, they sit at a special desk in the middle of the room where they serve as experts who can be consulted with questions, other students who are of enlisted rank are required to salute the officers, and so on. And yes, that means my class stands and salutes an adult who enters the room. The kids love it, and it creates some serious class bonding.
ES: Amazing! Congratulations to you for going out on a limb and being the first at your school to try out such an innovative and student-centered learning experience. Belmont Ridge Middle School and Loudoun County are very lucky to have you!
JA: Thanks for having me, and I welcome anyone out there who’s interested in learning more about this and/or implementing it in their classrooms to contact me by email.
ES: Thank you all – have a lovely holiday and a Happy New Year!
If you would like to contact Jason, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His twitter handle is @MisterAMisterA