“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” (Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man)
It’s fascinating for me to be one of two English teachers at YSC Academy. How we split our classes into groups and the relative community of practice that results from those splits is intriguing. As the Director of Language and Literacy and a recent student in Richard Elmore’s Leaders of Learning course, I am reminded of how essential student buy-in is to their goals and motivations for learning. In my years of teaching this cannot be more relevant than this first year I am experimenting with no grades. NO GRADES! Indeed, students’ academic, intellectual, and collaborative reflections play a three-fold part in their standing. There is nothing more important than the students themselves striving for competency, proficiency, and even mastery within the field that I am presenting them and me acting as their guide to help them get there.
I notice I have to remind my students of their powerful roles they can play in their learning. I am inviting their questions about the material in order to help them make meaning out of it. I am using the “I – Thou – It” triangulation so that they may get the most out of their reading/writing development, the same way a teacher would want to get the most out of his or her professional development.
Last semester, we focused on short stories, essay-writing, and graphic novels. We read American-Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. We ended the semester with a field trip to The Barnes Museum. There semester final was a Reflection Essay on the combined experienced of reading the two novels and visiting the Barnes. Many of them immediately flocked to the Pablo Picasso painting because of their familiarity with him. The beauty of the field trip was the self-direction associated with them choosing their own adventure. The Leaders of Learning class would call this scenario “Distributed Individual” — students learn, from the trust their teacher has in them, that they are charge of their learning and that learning is seen as more distributed among individuals and they are responsible in some way for reflecting on and demonstrating their learning through the vehicles of English and Language Arts.
Learning is an experiment. So is teaching. The students earn feedback on their demonstrations in various forms. They are working towards their goals of becoming the kind of learner they wish to become in the writing and reading field. Analyzing for tone and mood, searching for theme, writing for paraphrasing and summary, understanding voice. These are truths they must come to internalize in themselves as they develop as writers and readers.
This year, we have focused our attention on African-American Literature from Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston. We have started with Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The goal of this content is to explore our country’s past from the perspective of the “other.” How often have we felt like the “other” in situations? In what ways should society create spaces for the “other” to feel safe, included, and honored? These essential questions cannot be answered right away, but they can be sifted through, require justification and complex answers that aim toward love and understanding. I am most surprised by the level of trust my administration and especially the parents have in my program. The ELA program at YSC cannot thrive and work well without the help and trust of the administration and parents. I encourage questions about the program from all voices about the goings-on of the program. Some of the frequently asked questions are:
- What proof do you have of my student learning?
- How will you determine the student’s grade at the end of the year?
- Is this system fair?
- Where can I go to see my student’s grade in your class?
- How is my student doing in your class?
These are questions that require time and patience. More often than not, we see grades do the wrong job of assigning value to learning. This year has required me to focus more on the different kinds of Leadership and Learning going on in my class. I am curious how students will respond to the complex tasks I am asking of them when there is no grid for them to know what each assignment, large or small, is worth. I have come to think that this kind of system can work when you invite more space for reflective and discursive learning within the environment.
From this perspective, the learning then focuses on various skills needed for success within this environment:
- Research Skills
- Socratic Seminar Skills
- Analytical Thinking Skills
- Reflective Writing Skills
- Persuasive Writing Skills
- Creative Writing Skills
- Annotating Skills
I think it is important to note that these skills do not exist within a vacuum. If a student is writing a Literary Analysis, it is my job to provide the support they need to succeed through various means. This might be scaffolding in the pre-writing stage to coach during the writing stage. More often than not, students always want to be given the opportunity to grow within the task we are asking them to do, and they ask us not to move on until they feel proficient at it.