Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Student-Designed Schools

By on June 26, 2009

This year, my 8th graders all produced a multi-genre project during 4th Quarter that focused on possible careers of their choice. But I went a step further with my 8th grade Honors class. They not only had to research a possible career, but they then had to each relate it to educational reform and school design.kid with globe

The assignment was to ask them how they could “give back” to education while still incorporating what they wanted to do as a profession, even if it didn’t initially entail schools per se. Then they had to create a model of their school and write a Persuasive Business letter pitching their points of reform.

For instance, one student wanted to study to be a chef. She researched a school in Berkeley, CA that works in conjunction with a restaurant to sell healthy snacks after school as a means to fund raise for their programs. The kids then learn how to garden, bake, and cook healthfully, using those skills to bring in money for their school.

Another student wanted to be a lawyer and gave back to education by offering free legal services to the school community. Other students created electives that reflected their professions. (The importance of a good elective program was a topic of Ed reform that popped up often in their presentations.)

It all started with my whole class brainstorming a list of topics of educational reform. Then each student chose five of those points to focus on, and then researched each of them more deeply. And, I have to say this folks, their lists were not so different from ours.

The class list of reforms, based merely on our original brainstorm session, ranged from teacher quality to classroom tracking. Many included their need to see schools more environmentally proactive. Some schools, they felt, needed more opportunities to focus on vocational education. Many of their schools were physically set up like universities: quads with themed buildings spaced around them. Every school had lots of green space. Many wanted additional funding for more technology to allow for more global collaboration, and almost every student pitched the need for a greater variety of electives. Not surprisingly, many students mentioned more student choice and student input in the educational process.

But specifically, it was my student Joseph who really got me thinking.

He wants to be an architect, and his topics of educational reform centered on teacher evaluation and student input in decision-making. As for his model, whereas some students used Google Sketch Up to create a 3-Demensional model, Joseph made his architectural dream out of Legos. But it was what he said about student choice, specifically in homework, that really got to me.

I frequently give students choice: choice in prompts, choice in assessments, etc…but I had a light bulb go off over my head as I heard Joseph talk about how much more ownership of his homework he would have if he could only choose the method of its delivery. Ding.

I’ve said it before: learn from them. And in this case, I did. You know, I talk a lot about student buy-in and ownership, but not once did it occur to me to let them individualize their own homework. Talk about a “duh!” moment.

So, taking a cue from my 8th grade student, Joseph, I’m going to allow student-choice in homework starting in the fall.

Of course, I’m going to scaffold it first. I’m going to create assignments, the standards of which I control, that they must first do in order to generate a list of possibilities to eventually choose from.

It will take time. It always does if I want to train students to achieve a certain level of rigor. But I believe that I will see results in the form of increased homework participation and deeper connection to the material. After all, I’ve seen a tremendous leap in writing quality when students have been given choices in their prompts. They pick what shows themselves off the best.

And maybe I’ll start it off with once a month, a “Homework Choice” night or something. But the eventual vision is that they will begin to design their own assignments in order to practice a needed skill with more enthusiasm.

Scaffolded choice is a powerful ally in education, and it took a student to remind me of that.

So, incoming 7th and 8th graders, don’t thank me. Thank Joseph.

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  1. H Mason
    June 28, 2009

    An interesting idea. The homework issues is one that seems to have no good solution. I would love to know how this works in your classroom. This age groups craves choice and autonomy so it may work.

  2. heather
    June 28, 2009

    I will say this, however: I’m not a big homework-giver teacher, so the thought of experimenting with its delivery doesn’t threaten my program. I would add to your list as well – choice, autonomy, and make their time meaningful. Tweens and teens can turn on you if what you deliver is there just for a grade. It’s got to be productive and have purpose or a teacher can loose ’em. Thanks for your comment and thoughts. Check in again soon.
    aka Tweenteacher

  3. Darlene Pope
    July 5, 2009

    Heather, I think you will love the results of giving homework choice. You will be suprised at how easily it will slip into your practice. I like giving homework choice not only because it meets the needs of our diverse learning community, but also because it allows me to focus on enduring learnings rather than a mechanical process. I am always suprised at what my students come up with. I provide a menu of ideas, but also encourage students to come up with their own ideas that draw on their styles and multiple intelligences.Can’t wait to see the results of your new approach.

  4. heather
    July 5, 2009

    Thanks for the visiting Tweenteacher, and thanks for the input. I know you have been offering student-choice for awhile, but didn’t realize it also included homework. How exciting! I’ve been using student-designed rubrics, student-created assessments, choice in assessments and prompts, but it just never occurred to me to throw options into the homework issue. I think the reason is that I’m not all convinced yet as to the value of most homework assignments, so I haven’t given it its due to try to up its rigor. But I’m excited to tackle this next phase of additional rigor in the classroom. I may check out your new blog, http://strategicteaching.wordpress.com/ in the hopes that you might bring some of your expertise to the discussion. Thanks again, for checking in and I hope to hear from you again!
    aka Tweenteacher

  5. Toby
    July 6, 2009

    I am not a huge homework giver either. For the past four years I taught math, and always tried to have my students start, and if possible, finish the “homework” before class ended. That way they could ask me if they had any questions.
    I am interested in your idea of giving students a choice on how to do homework. Do you mean the method of presentation, or the questions they will be answering. I will be teaching 6th grade language arts this year, and am trying to plan out how my classroom will work. I feel strongly that students should be given a choice on how to show they understand a concept. So many students are comfortable using the computer, and the internet, I am hoping to use blogs as a way they could submit work. Is this something you have done? I would love to hear any ideas that you have come up with.

  6. heather
    July 6, 2009

    Thanks for your thoughts. I too am mulling over how this will work. Yes, I think it’s about project and presentation choice. I also think it’s about prompt/question choice. But I also want to take a tip from Sheridan Blau who says, “Honor Confusion.” He goes on to say that Questioning is a form of comprehension. So I will start working (as I do every year) on teaching the higher levels of questioning. The students will learn how to develop questions to reflect the depth of what they are trying to learn. Taking a tip from AVID here. Great critical-thinking strategies in that program that should leak out to other programs whenever you get the chance. Thanks for your comment, and check in again!
    aka Tweenteacher

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