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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