Success Takes Care of Itself in a Learner-Centered Classroom

Q1_Institute4PL_Spring2018.jpg

On Monday I’ll be returning, bright and early, to my high school reading classes. With seven weeks left, the students are starting to think about the upcoming tests that will determine whether or not they are moving on or repeating the class next year. As a group, I know we are in a much different place than where we started. 

Many of the students in the class began the year proudly claiming the title “Non-Reader.”

OUCH! As the book-loving, literacy passionate, #ReadingIsEverything teacher in the room - that hurt! They didn’t want to be there and they would do whatever it took to get out as long as it did not include real reading.

I'm excited about a good challenge, but this has been some crazy hard work.  “What have I gotten into?” and “Where do I even begin?” has relentlessly driven my thinking for good part of the school year.

From the start, It was evident to me that we were a long way from the literary utopias described by Nancy Atwell and Donalyn Miller. These were kids who needed more than “choice” in order to grow significantly as readers. Breaking down the walls of defensive fear and misplaced pride was not going to be easy or comfortable for anyone in the room.

After a lot of trial, error, and reflection there are three key strategies that shaped my educator journey and made a difference for the kids in my classroom. For those entrenched in learner-centered classrooms , they will not be surprising. However, it has been powerful to witness how critical they have been for my most challenging, reluctant learners.

Relationships

Every student was there for their own reason. They each had a story and it took time to for us to understand and trust each other. The “Non-Reader” flags they proudly waved were held up as protection after past journeys of reading failure. Those journeys were unique for each of them. It was clear, the pathways to making progress had to be unique as well or they were unwilling to take the risk and try again.

In early August I was setting up my classroom when a student and his parent came in to see me. They both told me that they were worried about the class. The student thought it was stupid, and just being in the class made him feel dumb. His mom revealed a little more about his life as a reader. The things she said caught my attention because they sounded like students, including my own son, who struggles with dyslexia. Fast forward nine months and the testing from Children’s Hospital confirmed my suspicion. Now with trust and a plan, we are moving forward.

Engagement

Frustration makes engagement impossible. While I appreciated this, it took me a while to figure out how to engage the students in self-driven learning without having them get frustrated, overwhelmed, or distracted.  I kept insisting that along with becoming better readers they also had to learn how to learn so they could continue improving beyond the class.

After a few weeks of repeating myself, one student insisted that if I thought she could really do that than I should show her exactly what the test said she needed to work on. I disliked the idea of “teaching to the test,” but I didn’t know if I had any aversions to students “learning to the test” so I printed her report.

She looked it over and decided to start with the first standard - differentiating between explicit and implicit text evidence. We found a site called Mobymax that provided a set of reading passages with questions aligned to the standard.  I thought we might be getting somewhere, but after a few days she was frustrated and insisted that there was something wrong with the program because she was carefully reading the passages and finding the answers "right there within the text."

I read over her shoulder and pointed out that the question asked for an inference. I wondered out loud if the distractor answers had explicit evidence. It was an amazing “Aha moment” when she realized there was a disconnect between what she thought she was supposed to be answering and what the question what actually assessing.

Since then she has been systematically working her way through the standards using Mobymax and Vocabulary.com. I’d be lying if I said it’s been a storybook journey since then, but overall her progress has shown me the how important efficacy can be in building engagement. For the first time ever - she is taking responsibility for her own learning.

Interdependence

At the end of the first semester, I thought we were doing pretty well. According to the STAR test, 94% of the students had gone up more than a grade level. However, I was not convinced that they could take what they were learning and run with it outside our classroom. So, starting in January, I “raised the bar.”

I passed out the proficiency scales for the standards students were addressing and had them analyze and make a plan. Just from looking at the scale themselves, they recognized what they had to do. First, they suggested that they were really only working up to a “2” on the scale when they used short reading passages like the ones on the STAR test.  The proficiency scale called for a "grade level text" so they wanted text at their grade level (not reading level) to analyze. Another teacher suggested the website CommonLit.org where they could sort through different grade levels and genres to find a text that was both interesting and applicable to their standard.

The repetitive online practice sites were used as formative work as they began to read full length literary and informational texts and apply what they were learning. 

Finally, it’s been really fun to see what they “create” as proof of learning toward the standards. Armed with iPads they have crafted videos that highlight decisions made in dialogue, posted GIFs that illustrate figurative language in poetry and even sketched cartoons that point out the strengths and weaknesses of telling a story in different mediums. My students who were insisted that they were not readers, also resisted the idea of being creative, but slowly they have shown off their work and most importantly supported each other in becoming creators. In other words, they are able to apply what they are learning to create or respond in a new way.

I am not walking around with book baskets filled with novels that my reading students pour over and discuss. They may wave their “Non-Reader” flag again in the future. However, as students who were functionally illiterate a few months ago, I do know that they have learned how to analyze, think about, and respond to text in a way that they could not do before.

Managing the classes is honestly a whirlwind experience. A week off for spring break has given my mind a chance to realize just how far we have come over the past few months. I’m excited for them to take that last reading test so that they can see the results of their hard work, but I’m much more excited to be a witness supporting their courageous steps in their reading journeys.

Henry Ford who said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” I think it’s interesting that this quote sums up my thoughts on learner-centered teaching this year. Each of my students is moving forward at his or her own pace, working on their own challenges and taking risks to creatively show what they know.  Additionally, I’ve learned a lot about how to support and empower them on their journeys recognizing that as our collective energy moves us forward, success is taking care of itself.