To accomplish any goal, begin with the end in mind. My goal in education is to create confident, collaborative and independent students. Over my 28 years as a classroom teacher I have found that the best way to reach this “end” is to first create an atmosphere in which we all feel safe, form relationships, and engage in meaningful content. With that foundation established, I then gradually guide my students toward self-directed learning in a student-led classroom. This balance between comforting structure and confident independence brings amazing results.
One paradox of this teaching philosophy is that in order to reach the end goal of student independence, I have to start the year with strong boundaries, structure, and routines. Once we put in the hard work to lay this foundation, there is an atmosphere of relaxed focus where all students can flourish. Quiet students come out of their shell while others learn to channel their energies productively. As the year progresses, I can gradually loosen the reins and, by the end, the students are running the show!
One useful exemplar of how this teaching approach plays out over time is our year-long inquiry projects. Gone are the days of pouring information into students. Inquiry-based learning is a great alternative. Units are designed around engaging provocations, essential questions, making personal connections, and responding in a scholarly fashion. Early on, students choose their inquiry topics to be explored both in small groups and individually and, over the course of the year, students move from structured to free inquiry. My students have challenged me to allow them to delve into self-selected social awareness issues like self-harm, anxiety, overuse of technology, and unfair immigration laws. Another source of inquiry topics is the UN Global Goals. These year-long inquiry units are showcased in a Celebration of Learning attended by the fourth and fifth grade GATE classes, parents, and members of the community. We’ve had a Social Awareness Seminar with student EdTalks, a Global Goals Carnival with student-made games that advocate for the Goals, and even a student-led EdCamp with students sharing and teaching others about their Passion Projects. Although I’m a GATE teacher, these experiences are provided for all students.
Two other positive results of my “structured independence” approach are a deepening of relationships and increased equity. One element of our “safe space” atmosphere is a “Just Be You” mantra where each student is valued for their uniqueness. Students of all backgrounds and ability levels are respected in our classroom and this, in turn, leads to more diverse friendships. Our classroom routines help solidify these relationships: from student shout outs, peer-editing, student-led stations, and small group inquiry projects, bonds are strengthened.
I have always held that if you focus on what matters, learning will happen and test results will take care of themselves. This has been true throughout my career, even in one of the most underprivileged areas of the state. My students’ test scores have been consistently impressive. Despite the combination of low socio-economics and a high number of English Language Learners, I have closed the achievement gap, and more. My most recent SBAC scores are from the 2018-2019 school year. In English Language Arts, 86% of the class met or exceeded standards compared to 50% in the state. In Mathematics, 72% met or exceeded standards compared to the state average of 39%. My teaching philosophy provides the nurturing environment to allow all students to thrive and the high test scores bear this out. This validation that my approach closes the achievement gap while also building character and relationships is deeply rewarding.