Asking the Students

February 12, 2016 by Bill Ivey

It wasn’t until the second year of our middle school that I threw the switch that committed me firmly to a democratic classroom path. The first year, I listened carefully to students’ suggestions and incorporated them into the course, as when I built a unit around A Midsummer Night’s Dream that included a project in scripting and filming a trailer for a movie version, but I retained the ultimate decision-making authority. The second year, I began with the same model, but as I found myself repeatedly bumping up against student resistance, I had to face the reality that I was incorporating student voice but not agency into the class. The first unit students actually designed from the ground up in Humanities 7 had the theme question, “What is music?” and was, from multiple perspectives, the most successful unit so far.

By the third year, I thought I had the course down to a science. Unit planning proceeded flawlessly, students loved the course and were thoroughly engaged throughout the year, and they made solid progress not just in the typical skillset of ELA and Social Studies courses but also in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. I breathed a sigh of contentment, and awaited my next class...

… which, of course, was a whole new group of students with a whole new set of interests, skills, and needs. For one thing, unlike the 2006-2007 class, by halfway through the year, these students had no investment whatsoever in the questions they had generated in the first week of class. Fortunately, they had sufficient investment in the course and sufficient trust in me to express themselves, so we were able to agree to generate new theme questions from scratch for the rest of year, double-checking for relevant questions from the initial lists still posted in the classroom. They taught me the importance of making mid-course corrections with every future group.

Thus, every group has contributed to the ongoing evolution of the course. Over time, I’ve gradually reduced the number of units we do from nine to six, to allow more time for deeper thinking and careful revision. Each Monday is now set aside for students to read their free-choice independent writing, and each Tuesday to share about their free-choice independent reading.

This year’s group felt that reading group novels on top of both independent reading and our community read-aloud book took too much time away from other priorities. During our discussion, I presented research on the fundamental value of free-choice reading and said there were few areas of the course where I would refuse to bend, but that given what research says and what my experience had shown me, maintaining independent reading as a non-negotiable was one of them. They seemed to understand. They were also personally committed to the notion that reading and discussing a novel together was valuable. Eventually, we agreed that group novels could count as independent reading and each student would be required to read at least one group novel a year. Currently, by class vote out of all suggestions offered, six students are reading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares as a group novel while the read-aloud book is Pretties by Scott Westerfeld.

Significant as that change is, it may not be the most important evolution arising from this year’s course. For our current unit, I gave them the chance to design not only the substance of a unit but also the underlying structure, something I’ve never done before. While our model of “theme question - read-aloud book - related questions for group activities - individual Focus Questions for research, essay writing, and presentations” works well, I’ve found that taking a mid-winter break from that routine can be helpful. For the first nine years of Humanities 7, they wrote original plays in the winter for production in Theatre 7 in the spring. Last year, Theatre 7 took on the entire task of creating and presenting a seventh grade production, so the Humanities 7 class chose to do a winter unit in movie-making. I set very few parameters for this year’s break in routine: I wanted them to take in information, process it, and share what they’d learned in whatever format(s) seemed appropriate, building group skills along the way.

The conversation got intense at moments, but their desire to care for each other along with their willingness to listen to each other, express themselves with mutual respect as an ideal, and work through misunderstandings saw us through. They settled on a unit on persuasion, beginning with a persuasive essay which would then be remolded into a speech they would deliver, continuing with a formal prepared debate, and ending with three days of impromptu debates. They decided they wanted me to participate along with them, to make an even number 12, and so I drew my first slip of paper assigning me the topic of plastic surgery and the position supporting it as a net positive in the world. I shared my essay with the class, reasoning they had to share their essays with me, nonetheless assuring them I was not requiring them to read it even as I welcomed any comments they might have. So far, one of the students kindly went in and gave me feedback, and it was helpful.

I’ve wondered for years whether the entire Humanities course might be based on the above model of ground-up design, and the success of this unit moves me in that direction. I’m still pondering two main questions, though.

One is how much they can take on in the initial weeks of the class while we’re still building community and they’re still getting to know each other. At the end of our most intense discussion, I said, “I know that got really difficult at times, and I also know we did an amazing job of working through those moments in a really positive way. What do you think - could we have done this in September?” They laughed heartily, and I said, “Well, that’s very much to your credit then.” With that in mind, would a gradual shift from structured unit-building to from-the-ground-up design make better sense?

My second question is exactly how I continue to ensure they’re building the writing skills they need for Humanities 8 and beyond. With six essays a year on top of their independent writing, they all show steady, solid, sometimes dramatic improvement from September to May. What would be the best parameters to set to ensure that level of improvement continues?

Of course, as I type the question, I have to laugh at myself. The answer is obvious, and should have been all along.

Start by asking the students. They’ll know.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: student voice, girls' school, Education, Democratic classroom, student agency