Students at the Helm (for real)

If you’ve followed my work in the last few years, you know I’ve been leaning further and further into giving students choice. As I’ve been thinking of it especially this year, for every unit of study, I try to ensure students can choose either the content they study or the assignment types they complete.

I’ve also made it a regular practice to write what I’ve got on my mind for course development on the whiteboard. Here’s what I’ve got in the upper right-hand corner right now:

Plans for 2021-2022 academic year as they exist in my mind right now… shared with students. I try to make my thinking visible at all times.

I often put unit goals, performance task options, and random brainstorm ideas on the whiteboard as I develop the upcoming units of study to ask students what they think and invite them into the creation process.

I wanted to do more than that, though, so in December 2020, I offered the students a choice.

In my academic year’s course in Humanities, we had some academic goals focused on the stages of the writing process that could be achieved through a few different content avenues. So, I polled the students: In January, do you want to focus on economic revolutions or on personal revolutions (via personal memoirs)? They chose the latter, so through that month, I developed a 6-week personal memoir unit of study that we began when we returned from Winter Break. The students were invested, and they had made the choice. Those two facts are probably related.

I’ve been thinking about taking it further and doing more.

Here’s the idea: At the beginning of the year, I ask for volunteers. I make it plain that there’s no benefit to anyone’s grades, and that “volunteer” really means volunteer. I offer students a position on an advisory team. The team will meet to consider upcoming units of study in 15 minute pitch sessions – I pitch the committee the unit in terms of content and performance tasks (read: assignments), ask for feedback, and make adjustments based on the focus group’s comments.

Now, I’m the expert, so I won’t just take anything and everything they say and run with it. But I can get a clearer view of what they’re hoping for, and what they’d like to do – and I can prod the team for ideas that I couldn’t come up with on my own. And for non-committee members, I can continue and expand on my use of polling to get additional input. The mere facts that (a) they’re participating in a genuine, impactful manner and (b) they’ll see the results of their impact will improve buy-in.

I could probably write a book just about this idea. I’m sure there’s research around it. Who out there knows more than I do (which is very little at this stage) about this notion? I can’t be the originator. Help me out, learning community!

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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2 Responses to Students at the Helm (for real)

  1. Michelle Rua says:

    This is such a great concept – would love to see is really become a way of teaching

    • Steve Capone says:

      I hope I can bring others to the cause! I shared at some national conferences about giving students choice in this practical way, and I leave the video pinned atop my Twitter account. The more the kids get to choose, the better the buy-in!

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