September 15, 2012

Do the Changes in My Teaching Make a Difference?

At this point, all I can really offer is anecdotal evidence. I don't have a research grant, or a research team, or even the personal interest to conduct research. I'm a teacher, not a researcher. But, I do have some things to share about the effects of the changes that I've made to my classroom instruction.

Before sharing the evidence, I should share some of the differences.


  • Teaching someone how to be a great writer is akin, in my mind, to teaching someone how to be a great singer. You can provide them with the basics, you can provide them with exercises, but eventually, they have to find their own voice, their own genre, their own direction. You can't just feed it to them. The same happens with writing. 
  • In my classes, students are given very loose instructions for their writing. In addition, they create their own goals for their writing, which are then amended, at least once, and then adapted into commitments. It takes a while, but it's important. The students need to individualize themselves.
  • In addition, I never tell them what to write about. The closest that we come to that is if the class votes on an overall, very general, topic for everyone and then groups choose sub topics.
  • Format is a big deal in most English classes and it is in mine as well, but not in the traditional sense. My students are encouraged to seek out new formats for their writing that will engage them. Want to write a comic book? OK. Want to write a story so you can then script it into a film, film it, and then present it to the class? Why not? The goal is to teach students to fluently and coherently tell a story that makes sense to other people. How do those formats fail to accomplish that goal?
There are other things in my class that have changed over time, but the biggest aspect to the picture is the freedom for students to customize their work, their projects, and their learning. This happens when they come up with project ideas, writing ideas, format ideas, seek out help and collaboration from other students, seek out my help when they need it (HUGE SKILL IN ITSELF, FINDING HELP).

I DON'T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO. I guide them toward their goals and toward fulfilling the commitments that they make along the way. Learners who can do that can do pretty much anything.

On to the evidence.

Teachers - My best friend teacher Jean tells me this year that she can see differences in the students that had me for English the previous year.

  • They don't ask nit-picky questions - where does my name go on the paper, how much do you want me to write, what font should it be in, what is the due date...?
    • Those questions CAN have their place, but if teachers really want those things, they should hand out a manual at the beginning of a course for the students to follow
  •  They think about things more deeply without being prompted
    • When analyzing literature they are willing to pipe up and throw something out there without the fear of failing - they are not failure averse, they have begun to learn how to embrace
My other teacher friend, Cheryl, told me last year that she could see differences in the students I shared with her.

  • They would look for opportunities to extend projects
    • Not so much as they want to do more work, but they saw new opportunities and aspects that could be explored in ways that made everything so much more interesting

Parents - Parents like to drop anecdotal comments to teachers all the time. Sometimes constructive, sometimes in praise, sometimes out of confusion. However, I have been given some very good comments.

  • The best comment that any teacher can get from a parent is that their student loves the class
    • It's not a love of it being easy, but a love of it being interesting, or even entertaining. It's a love of getting them to think.
  • One parent, very recently, said this: "As I would tell my wife you brought [our son] closer to learning than the traditional method of "enforcing" learning."
    • As Daniel Pink, and many others in similar fields, would say, you can't force anyone to do anything, you can only set up a best case scenario situation that can encourage them, hopefully intrinsically, to do something. I can't enforce learning, I can only encourage it through allowing the students to learn as opposed to constantly being taught.
These things are all really exciting for me, but I'm always interested in what others think. How do you teach your classes? Better yet, how do you look back at your previous classes and see what you can, or even need, to change?

Comments below would be great!

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