What if students had the power to choose what they wanted to learn?
What if learners had the ability to choose how they learned?
What if our students could choose how to share their learning?
What if we lived in a world where a student's ability to think, imagine,
and create carried more weight than standardized test scores?
As teachers, I think we often live in this Land of If. If only...fill in the blank. We know that our students' learning should be meaningful with connections to authentic, real world purposes, but it seems like in so many of our schools, we have so many mandates, practices and procedures our ability to teach (and our students' ability to learn) is shackled.
What can we do to help our students reach their maximum potential? My answer to this question came three years ago from Josh Stumpenhorst and Pernille Ripp as I saw their tweets and blogs about Innovation Day. Using their inspiration, the first two years, I facilitated an Innovation Day with my single group of students. With me changing schools this year, I knew there would be a greater challenge. I now teach three different groups of students in a middle school setting. When I presented the idea of Innovation Day, the wonderful, willing-to-try-anything team of 6th grade teachers embraced the idea of us planning an Innovation Day for the entire grade...200 students.
This day puts the students' completely in charge of their learning for one full school day. With the use of a planning sheet and one-on-one conferring with their ELA teachers, each student selected a wondering question or topic about which they have no knowledge, but they had a high interest in exploring. They devised a plan for creating a product to share with their peers to teach about what they learned. As teachers, we know that there is power in being able to not only learn something, but to turn around and teach others about it. Their topic, process for learning, and product were all in their own hands.
Welcome to the Land of If. On Innovation Day, students were grouped by similar topic with a teacher who could lend their expertise, if needed. Our learners engaged in a full day of learning, imagining, and creating only taking breaks to attend their elective class, PE, and lunch. By the end of the day, we had 200 phenomenal projects as diverse as our students.
The following day, students each took two minutes to share their learning with their peers. After about an hour of presentations, one of my learners said, "I can't believe how much I've learned in just one hour." All of the learners were excited by the passion exhibited by their peers. Although the students remained respectful of one another, they struggled to maintain focus for all of the presentations. After speaking with my teammate, Shelly Huver, who recommended that we turn their presentations into a gallery walk next year giving the learners the opportunity to learn and share at their own pace.
There were moments these two days where I felt that what I was witnessing was surreal. Had I fallen into an alternate universe where students were highly motivated while employing higher level thinking linked hand-in-hand with creativity? No, we had given students the opportunity to pursue their own interests. We gave them the opportunity to put into practice all the skills we had instilled in them this year. We had simply gotten out of their way and let them soar.
One of my colleagues, Lindsay Kilgore, came into our classroom and asked me the question that prompted the thoughts in this blog, "What if we could do this every day?" What if, indeed. Imagine the possibilities if we let our students drive.