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November 2008 | Volume 66 | Number 3
Giving Students Ownership of Learning
We asked students to describe a time when they felt in charge of their learning in school—when they were working not just for a grade but because they were excited and interested. Here's what a few of them said.
As I knelt on all fours, groping through my closet for a shoe, I knew I was embarking on a completely novel learning experience. The shoe had to be brown, close-toed, and professional. It had to say, "Take me seriously." This was the message I hoped to convey to the Port Jefferson Board of Education at my first board meeting as student representative.
Later, as I walked down the hallway to the meeting room, my heels clicked like a teacher's. I took my place behind my nameplate at the table where the board sat. As the meeting began, I waited nervously for my turn to speak. When it came, I spoke honestly and watched as the adults in the room considered what I said.
That newfound respect enabled me to be productive and in charge in a new way for the rest of the year, as I slowly became comfortable in my business-casual heels.
—Kyleen Burke, grade 12, Port Jefferson, New York
My regular U.S. history teacher taught strictly to guidelines, spoon-feeding us the information required to ace tests. But when she left due to a pregnancy, my class was privileged to have a refreshing substitute who taught differently.
He focused on the big picture of topics and the lessons we could derive from them. For instance, we talked about the causes of the Vietnam War and its results—an unhappy America, the formation of a whole new cluster of people known as "hippies," and a president frightened to run for reelection. We discussed the insight that people often rise up against wars that seem to have no clear purpose.
He printed out primary documents to illustrate every new era or issue we tackled. For example, we read two letters—one written by Booker T. Washington and the other written by W. E. B DuBois—that showed how their ways of thinking differed tremendously and sometimes split African Americans apart.
He made room for debate in class. We debated such topics as the different plans to revise the Articles of Confederation and Barack Obama's speech on Reverend Wright.
He showed us movies and clips that helped us vicariously live what we learned, such as the opening war zone scene in
The Patriot, which shows what the Revolutionary War was like, or the closing scene from Golden Gate, revealing the harsh immigrant examination lines.
He always portrayed several sides of every argument and opened up our minds to information that many textbooks fail to mention. For example, we discussed how the aftermath of the World Wars led to an unsettled situation in the Middle East, which continues even to this day. In these ways, he evoked deeper thinking in all of us.
—Sima Dajani, grade 11, Vienna, Virginia
I felt in charge of my learning at school when I joined the Junior ROTC male drill team as an extracurricular activity. As a result of joining this program, my self-respect and discipline level increased tremendously. I learned to assist others without expecting something in return, and I learned to view challenges as just obstacles trying to get in my way. Challenges will occur in life; the key is how you deal with them. This experience is the start of my many accomplishments.
—De'Twone Lomax, grade 11, Oxen Hill, Maryland
My favorite project this year was when we adopted a family during the holiday season, and we gave them a lot of stuff like food, clothing, toys, and household items. Our teacher, Mrs. Lockhart, took a van full of stuff to the Salvation Army. The lady said, "How many families is this for?" Mrs. Lockhart told her it was all for one family. The lady started crying.
—Jack Thode, grade 4, Cedar Falls, Iowa
The first time I felt in charge of my own learning was when I made my first film for Communications Technology class in grade 10. I got to help develop a script and direct, film, and produce my own movie on my own terms. I love telling stories, and I learned how to bring them to life on film. The teachers provided the needed equipment and instructions, gave us some encouraging words, and sent us on our way. Sure, I had times when I needed help, but other then that I was in charge of learning how to become a better video producer.
The satisfaction I got from viewing my first film exceeded that of passing a test or writing a good essay, because, as Frank Sinatra sings, "I did it my way." My teachers stepped back and let me learn for myself instead of holding my hand all the time. Because I was given the chance to learn how to be independent in my learning, the remaining three years of my high school career went smoothly. I made movies for courses outside of Com Tech, such as science, civics, English, Spanish, drama, and art. In the future I will not be afraid to be in charge of my own learning.
—Olivia Vidal, grade 12, Oakville, Ontario
I understand about learning for passion rather than just for grades. I often experience this phenomenon when I see an article as I'm surfing the Web. I'll read it and look up additional information if I'm interested, even if it has nothing to do with any of my other obligations.
It's harder to think of a time that I really enjoyed learning in the classroom. Let's face it, high school is just a means to an end; it's a stepping stone to something bigger. Every student is always in charge of his or her learning. How hard we work in school, how much we take charge of our learning experience, depends on our goals in life. Those students who want to be doctors and lawyers have to work very hard; those who have no dreams tend to slack off. We never learn in school purely for the enjoyment of learning but for the promise of enjoyment that will come later when we attend a university and enter a fulfilling occupation. We inspire ourselves, and we make our learning experience into whatever it is, be it positive or negative.
—Andrea Vander Heyden, grade 12, Oakville, Ontario
Helping out with the younger kids and teaching them to read made me feel good because I could tell that us bigger kids were making them more comfortable than when they went with the adults. I remembered how stressful it can get to not know how to pronounce words or letters. After we had been working for a couple of days, they were getting the hang of it. They finally whizzed through a whole little five-page book, and we all got so excited. I would never have thought in a million years that I would help someone do something as special as that. I will never forget that moment.
—Brittany Noye, grade 5, Grand Blanc, Michigan
Mrs. Gaies, my teacher, is awesome. One time I told her that Monticello was on the back of the nickel and that it was Thomas Jefferson's house. She made a real book for me. It had all sorts of pictures of other cool buildings. I was able to write sentences about all of them. That was a lot of fun because I like to learn about new things. There were some buildings that I didn't know, but I was able to read about them and write new sentences of information. She makes me interested in learning so much more.
—Samuel Lockhart (as told to mom), kindergarten, Denver, Iowa
When a homework assignment involves art, is open-ended, and depends more on my creativity than on what I learn in class, it's easy for me to get lost in it, as I would in a good book. For instance, designing a poster based on lab safety didn't teach me every single guideline, but it did help me grasp the basic idea. When I have to write a poem or draw a picture, there are fewer rules and more room for creativity, and I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I'm done.
—Susie Lui, grade 9, Arlington, Virginia
In our Buddy Circles project, we learned about students with mental and physical disabilities. I felt in charge because I could have chosen to be mean to my disabled buddy, but I chose not to do that. It was a wonderful experience. I learned to not judge disabled people.
—Olivia Fabos-Martin, grade 4, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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