Generate a passion for learning

  • Christianna Rivet Courtesy photo—

Monday, November 07, 2016 5:1PM

With the start of each new school year, we are faced with a new roster of students to teach. The beginning is always a bit challenging with setting expectations, navigating the new personalities, and developing activities that will engage them. It may be difficult, but ultimately, we live for this time of year and the experiences that come by welcoming twenty or so new faces into our classrooms.

As a second year teacher, I’m constantly looking to find ways to interest my students in the course content. As a naturally talkative person, I see my strength in inviting young adults to share their thoughts through discussion. This works… sometimes. This fall, however, that wasn’t the case. For my Block 3 class, something was different. Our first unit was focused on a memoir, “The Glass Castle.” For the first half of the text, I exhausted myself begging students to share their thoughts and prying their opinions from their minds. At that point, I decided to try a different approach.

One day, I started class by asking students to describe the types of activities that would help them see learning as meaningful and worth the investment. As I looked around, many were confused without any idea of where to begin. Again, I instructed them to make a list of specific elements and activities they would like to see in our English classroom. From the responses, I learned that students see value in artistic opportunities, connections to the real world, and discussions.

I was ecstatic because I could work with these, but then something occurred to me. Research shows that students are more invested in their learning when they work collaboratively and on topics that interest them. With these format and content pieces coming together, I began to formulate an on-going assignment that would include all the elements students listed. I also decided to include skills they needed to practice more, as well as topics that highlighted the themes of the text. After gathering data on where students perceived their strengths, I created groups of three who agreed on and selected their theme.

We were on our way.

For four days each week, each group works collaboratively to complete the project requirements. They have time to use computer resources, create artistic depictions ranging from colored pencil pieces to photography, and pick my brain with any questions they may have. “The Glass Castle” is about a dysfunctional family and a young protagonist who perseveres through the challenges she faces. The themes of neglect, forgiveness, alcoholism, parent versus child responsibility, lost dreams, and homelessness run rampant throughout. Each group must capture their theme through an artistic element, an analysis of “pithy” (important) quotations, connections to current events, and a classroom activity. To hold students accountable for the second half of the book, I assign chapters due on Fridays that provide the basis for a whole-class assignment to wrap up the week. Each student has access to our grading rubric and the expectations they must meet throughout the project, but much of the inquiry depends on the area they’ve chosen to explore. For most of them, this has been the most difficult part.

If you were to poll teachers for one of the big FAQs they encounter, it would probably be “Am I doing this right?” The beginning of this project was littered with that desperate inquiry. My response has been the same every time: Show me how you see this relating to your theme and tell me why you are interested in this. Once students began to feel empowered about their ability to make decisions, forge connections, and locate topics that interested them, it became a constant scavenger hunt for more and more information.

After reading about the sad plight of the protagonist and her siblings, many class-members asked: “How could this have happened, and why did no one help these children?” Sam, Kaelie, Margaret, and Jake, who selected the theme of neglect, decided they needed to answer this question. They spent many days researching DCYF in all the states the protagonist lived. These data continued to strengthen their investigation and fueled a deeper “Why? How?” A similar thing happened when students tackled the other project requirements. A different group chose to trace the idea of forgiveness through the memoir; Hannah, Dina, Kali, and Melanie located text examples of times when the protagonist forgives her antagonistic parents. Next, the girls determined that, using photography as their artistic medium, they would create a small picture book which recreated these acts of forgiveness. I started to see interest ignite and spur students on to think about how best to tackle the challenging tasks in front of them.

I designed this project with the goal of generating passion for learning in every one of my students. In my perfect world, this is what teaching and learning look like. Unfortunately, with a roomful of seventeen very different young adults, it’s difficult to inspire each of them every moment of every day. But I look ahead. This has been our first time working together this way, and there is much I can adapt and improve for a stronger execution the next time. I am optimistic. What I can say is that students have been able to hone in on their strengths and work collaboratively to bring this memoir to life.

As teachers, we are constantly reworking our activities and assignments to engage the different learners who come into our classroom. We are constantly using our strengths, skills, and passions to inspire the same within our students. We are constantly trying to prepare them for the world they will face beyond ConVal. I want them to possess all the resources they will need to be successful. I have watched students work collaboratively, investigate topics they find interesting, and embody the elements of our school-wide self-management rubric. This has been my first experience with a project like this, as it has been for some of them, too. Together, we are learning. From my perspective, I’m able to reflect about how I can better cultivate 21st century skills in my students. From their perspective, they can think about how learning doesn’t always have to look the same.

Christianna Rivet teaches English at ConVal High School.