Passion is the spark that ignites the fire of learning
Why giving students voice & choice in classroom is important
CASTLE ROCK – Every year, Mountain Vista High School English teacher Jake Sabot faces the same challenge; how to keep his students engaged in a subject that they and most teens across the country are just not that excited about.
“Because I’m an English teacher I fight that struggle every year with all of my students. They get turned off to English and it is really hard,” Sabot said frankly. “There is quite a bit of reluctance to do anything.”
The old format of reading the classics, writing about the characters and taking a test just wasn’t working. While he says the students would reluctantly “jump through the hoops,” it was an annual struggle, so he took a risk and decided to try something different.
“I’ve been trying to shift it to what is really important,” explained Sabot. “Is it that they read a particular book? Do they have to read Huckleberry Finn or Romeo and Juliet? No. The important thing we are looking for is can they analyze a piece of literature? Can they express their thoughts in an organized manner and can they synthesize information from multiple perspectives, whatever that might be or whatever skill it might be?”
With that in mind, he began to give his students the ability to choose literature they were interested in, as well as how they will demonstrate their learning.
“I’ve moved away from forcing things on them and I’m trying to give them more voice and choice in the classroom,” Sabot said. “At times it works fantastically and at other times it is a struggle for the kids and myself as a teacher, but they do appreciate having some say in what they are going to learn—as opposed to always being given everything.”
For instance, instead of an essay, the students could choose to present their writing through an editorial, video commercial or a print advertisement.
“You still have to do the writing and you still have to communicate, but it takes a different form. Once you take away that stress of essay, essay, essay—then sometimes they loosen up and write better because they’re not thinking about whether it is in a five-paragraph essay format,” Sabot said. “They still have to organize their thoughts and they’re still going to use formal language, as well as those skills that they need for effective communication, but it does not need to look like an essay.”
Sabot says this type of educational transformation has to be a team effort. He has had the opportunity to share ideas and experiences with other teachers through Create Something Great, as well as daily interactions at Mountain Vista.
“My colleague, Kelly Paulson, and I plan everything together and bounce ideas off of one another. If it weren't for her support and willingness to take risks with me then I am not sure how much I would have pushed myself,” Sabot explained. “When something fails in terms of a lesson or unit she and I debrief and make a plan for improvement. I know there are many teachers in our district that feel as if they are on an island and are therefore hesitant to take risks and try something new. And, on one more level, I have a principal that is willing to let us take risks and fail because he knows that we will reflect and re-envision how to make something work for kids.”
Given the fact that secondary students are being prepared for college and careers, it would seem like this type of flexibility and empowerment would be natural in a high school environment; after all that is what it is like for adults after school. In reality, however, it is often more difficult.
By the time American students reach high school, they have spent nine years in a system built around compliance. As explained in Our students’ needs bring focus to our curriculum, the traditional assembly line-inspired education system is incredibly regimented and focused on students who are able to keep pace with the lessons. As a result in most cases, authentic and engaging opportunities were reserved as a reward, especially for those that are ahead of the learning curve.
“In many school districts, it is usually gifted learners that are given extended learning that is more hands on and engaging,” Sabot said.
As we have explored earlier in A Case for Change, this system does not fit the needs of our students or today’s industry, but some students have exceled at the game. Those that are able to listen well, memorize, and give the “right” answers get good grades and succeed, while the rest lose interest in learning.
“We have a bunch of kids coming to the high school level that have lost their passion for learning. They are focused on achieving a grade,” explained Sabot. “They are used to asking, ‘where is the basket? What do I shoot for? If I do that then I should get an A.’”
Shifting the focus can be a daunting challenge for teachers, since so much is riding on those grades.
“Today we are saying the goal is somewhere out there, go find your path,” Sabot said. “Students don’t know how to do it. They are reluctant to take risks and try things, because they are afraid that it will impact their grade and ultimately their grade will affect their GPA, which will affect their college entrance.”
This burden is felt at every grade level. While students must do well in high school to get a scholarship or accepted to college, middle school teachers want to make sure that students are ready for high school, and the elementary school teachers feel the same about preparing students for middle school. It is certainly a risk to abandon the old system, even if we know that it is best for children—because most colleges are still centered on the old way.
Giving students voice and choice at every age
DCSD’s teacher leaders, however, are undaunted. Informed by the latest research and greatest minds in education, they know that instruction must change, in order to engage students and prepare them for their futures, in an ever-changing world.
“They have to feel that the work they are doing is important, meaningful and matters,” explained Sage Canyon teacher Keely Vaughan. “If it does matter to them then they really take a lot of initiative and they are really motivated to drive it to a place that we as teachers can never even imagine.”
While Sage Canyon Elementary has long been an innovative school, including implementing a Project Based Learning instructional model, Vaughan saw an opportunity to give her sixth-grade students more voice and choice in their learning when she looked at the students’ final (summative) projects.
“My kids were producing 30 of the same product,” Vaughan explained. “Yes, they have a real world problem to solve and they have an authentic audience, but they are still on the same path and still producing the same products. It was a goal for me to be able to say, ‘how can I push that?’ How can we push kids to create a product that represents themselves, is meaningful for them and showcases their learning? Realistically, I should have 30 different projects.”
Now Vaughan’s students are empowered to write their own learning targets, choosing what content they would like to focus on, as well as the ways they intend to show their learning.
Currently they are focused on the World Class Outcome, “analyze how interactions impact the development of sustainability.” Specifically they’re looking at how the surface of the Earth is changing, how that can create potentially destructive forces and the impact it has on communities. Vaughan says one of the students has found his passion in erosion.
“He has taken it to this whole other understanding. He is also really passionate about animals, so he is looking at how animals are causing erosion in our state and our country, and there are different agricultural practices that, in his words, ‘are destroying the earth’” Vaughan said.
Another student has chosen to focus on tsunamis, researching efforts to protect people from the giant waves.
“He is looking at building a tsunami evacuation pod that would withstand the force of the waves coming in, providing a temporary shelter against a tsunami and keeping you safe,” Vaughan said.
She says the students’ excitement about these projects cannot be contained in the classroom.
“They have so much fun and they are so engaged, I hear them having conversations outside of the classroom,” Vaughan said. “They’re extending their own learning.”
This is exactly what all teachers want, students who have a love for learning.
“It is not just about the child being engaged during school hours, it is about them being in control of their own learning,” added DCSD Director of Elementary Schools Dr. Carrie Stephenson. “Teachers provide sparks of ideas. It is up to the students to take the spark and turn it into a fire, that allows them to explore different things and explore themselves as a learner, so they can begin to examine what that is going to do for them in their lives.”
As more and more classrooms offer voice and choice, Stephenson said this would become an expectation for students.
“I think the kids will start to demand this type of instruction,” Stephenson said. “That is what we want. We want them to know themselves as learners so that they understand what style works for them and what doesn’t work for them. We want to provide them with enough choice so they can pick the style that is going to make them most successful.”
Sabot shares this dream and hopes it will be in place soon for his own children. His oldest is just beginning his educational journey as a kindergartner.
“Maybe it is pie in the sky, but my hope is that by the time my kids are in high school they haven’t lost the drive to learn, that they still have that curiosity and creativity.”