“What does it mean to be American?” “What is my effect on others?” “What is our relationship to nature?”
“What does it mean to be educated?”
It’s the 3rd week of the school year. We are well on our way to answering some of our guiding questions in the 11th grade English classroom. Students are speaking passionately about their opinions on Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. They sit in a circle, listening attentively, visibly reacting to the viewpoints of their peers. “I think it makes sense that Chris McCandless did what he did,” says one usually quiet student.”There’s so much pressure to conform in our society, and after he finished college he was just like ‘I’m done living for everyone else. I’m going to go do my own thing now.’ I can relate to that desire to rebel. School is so restrictive.” Several heads nod in agreement.
We have spent the last few weeks building to this moment, interweaving our study of the American Transcendentalists (Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller) with a critical inquiry into the nature of education, with the aim of making our own classroom simultaneously less restrictive, more rigorous, and more relevant. In this class students are responsible for collecting evidence of their own learning, regularly conferencing with me, their teacher, to identify areas for growth and challenge, and measuring the results of their efforts over the course of the year. In addition, they’ve been asked to personalize the course by selecting skills they want to improve, texts they want to study (50% of the curriculum is self-selected), and ways they want to learn or demonstrate their learning. I’ve been collecting, reviewing, and responding to all kinds of student work– student writing, annotations, presentations, discussions, artwork, and even a standardized reading test. My goal is to make the course challenging and interesting to each individual student while also creating a supportive community in the classroom. Judging from the level of enthusiasm in the room, it’s working. Students who were hesitant and confused about this approach just a week or two ago are actually taking risks in the classroom, reading and responding because they are curious and passionate, not just for the grade. These students are alive, and they are not just living for someone else.
But here’s the problem: I’ve logged 20 hours of overtime just in the last week, trying to keep up with the data, and I need to put in another five hours (at least) in order to be prepared for the first round of my one-on-one conferences tomorrow. It’s 4:00 pm. Personalizing the learning of 90 new students is time-consuming and exhausting. At this rate it looks like a sure route to teacher burnout, the kind of experience that might cause me to say, “I’m going to go do my own thing now.”
There must be a better way, I think. And I am dedicating this year to figuring out what that is. If only I can find the time…