California Educator

August/September 2019

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What does it mean to have high school students play the whole game of the academic disciplines? We watched an 11th-grade English teacher at a high-poverty urban public school unwind a recent column by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In short succession, he had students annotate and summarize the essay, debate its thesis, and then examine its form — a form that was strikingly different from the classic five-paragraph essay. Finally, students drafted and refined essays in which they took a stand on Coates' thesis while also making strategic choices about the form of their argument. In essence, the teacher was inviting students to participate in the world of column writing by exploring argumentative journal- ism as it is written beyond school walls. A promising next step would be to have students craft original argumentative columns on topics relevant to their communities — and then try to pub- lish them in local newspapers. USE YOUR OWN POWERFUL LEARNING EXPERIENCES AS A COMPASS What was the most powerful learning experience you've had as a learner? What characteristics made it so powerful? How were you as a learner guided through the experience? Who did you learn with and from? What was the goal, and why did you care so much about reaching it? How did the learning accumulate over time to help you go deeper in the domain? Both of us regularly sit down with groups of educators and ask these questions. Every single time, no matter how wide the range of examples might be, participants end up identifying the same list of characteristics that make powerful learning powerful: purpose (there's a real reason I want to do this), choice (I have chosen to take this on), community (I'm part of a community that cares about me and is supporting this work), apprenticeship (I'm being coached rather than taught toward developing a skill), peer learning (I'm lea r n ing f rom fel low pa r ticipa nts in the field), and learning by doing (I'm learning from trying, getting feedback, and trying again). What does it look like to bring some of these qualities into the classroom? Start by asking yourself what students are going to do or make that they will be proud of. is is easier if you're working in a project-based environment, but it can also happen in traditional schools — a fourth-grader drafting, revising, and performing a spoken word poem is playing the whole game too. Next, ask yourself if there are ways to give students some choice, even while building the core skills that you want to hold common. From elementar y school reading to middle school science experiments to high school history papers, stu- dents are more likely to invest if they can choose the content of what they are doing. Embrace the notion of productive struggle — your powerful learning experience likely wasn't spoon-fed to you step-by-step. Give your students different roles, teach them the standards of your field, and have them give feedback to each other as they're developing their work. Finally, remember that ultimately you're trying to build a community, a team, or even a family : a group of people who care about each other and work to help each other accomplish their goals. FIND WAYS TO SLOW DOWN When it comes to powerful learning, less really is more. Socrates himself couldn't create deeper learning if he were charged with covering history from ancient Rome to the French Revolution in a year. It takes time to unfold the layers of a topic. Try to identify the core events, moments, ideas, books, and skills that you think are really important for students to learn, and prune your unit plans relentlessly to give those things the time and space they deserve. For exampl e, on e t each er in our study had a mom ent where students got really interested in the fact that some of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. What, the students wondered, does that mean for our Constitution and the foun- dations of our nation? The teacher told us that earlier in his teaching career he would have def lected the question and moved on. is time, however, he developed a mini-unit around his students' question, allowing them to probe a range of perspectives and consider how the racial contradictions associated with the nation's founding continue to reverberate into the present. If y ou're n er v ous ab out th e pro sp e ct of covering less material, remind yourself that students won't remember all the details of the content anyway. ey 're much more likely to remember salient things that have surfaced via in-depth explorations. And while it may not seem as if you have the flexibility to shift your curriculum, if you develop a great unit you likely will build support among students and parents that can buy you more leeway the next time. Creating powerful and lasting learning in your classroom won't be easy — but the rewards are well worth the effort. Start small and celebrate every victory! Jal Mehta is an associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah Fine is program director of teaching appren- ticeship at High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Their book is available for purchase wherever books are sold . This story first appeared in Edutopia. 53 A U G U S T / S E P T E M B E R 2 019

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