As we settle into this school year virtually, I’ve been a little nervous, but I am committed to providing my second grade students with the kind of student-centered instruction that transformed my classroom last year.
I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and last year was my second year using a new English language arts curriculum that emphasizes knowledge building. Lessons are built around driving questions that spark critical thinking and great conversations. The approach is flexible enough for me to adapt it to my local context, an urban community in Baltimore, and I work to integrate real-world connections that are relevant to students’ “here and now” experience.
For me, student-centered learning means my students actively own their learning and engage in rich discourse and inquiry. I’ve shifted my thinking about what they can do and what success looks like. Too often, my students have been seen as struggling. And, unfortunately, sometimes, that’s all people have seen.
So much of the conversation surrounding them is about how to catch them up and make them, well, “better.” Of course, I want all my students working on or above grade level, and I work hard to help them get there. But it has occurred to me that only focusing on my students’ deficits, or what they can’t do, doesn’t help them succeed.
Last year, I decided to see what would happen if I explicitly taught to my students' strengths and interests and empowered them to play a more active role in their learning. After reflecting on my teaching, I wondered how much growth my students would experience if I spent less time penalizing them for what they didn’t know or couldn’t do and focused more on using what they knew and could do to move forward.
So, in our second unit, during a discussion on the American West, I didn’t just stand in front of the classroom and read assigned texts. And I didn’t belabor a point until they got it. Instead, we engaged in collaborative conversations, readings, and research to deeply understand the Great Plains and the Native American tribes who lived there.
Releasing control and allowing for more of an exchange of knowledge and ideas meant listening to connections students were able to make to the American West, even when those conversations touched upon cartoons they watched or video games they played at home. That was OK—it was a way in.
Students had questions that drove class discussions and contributed to self-guided research projects, which was a great link to Social Studies. We found links between our lives and those of the Plains people, created a timeline to sequence events and discuss chronological order, and discussed the life of indigenous Americans back then and how they live now.I might have previously rushed them along to maintain my pacing, but I came to realize that allowing these authentic conversations made the learning more meaningful.
Another way we deepened engagement and created a more student-centered environment was by weaving in sustained projects. Some teachers fear project-based learning, thinking it will take up too much time, be chaotic, and won’t align with educational standards. But I found introducing projects and giving students voice and choice around them added a wealth of excitement to the learning experience.
Students worked on projects that required them to study an Indian tribe we discussed in our reading of the core text “Plains Indian.” Students explored the homes Plains Indians lived in and designed and built model houses. They also cooked traditional recipes and recreated traditional Native American board games and artworks.
The result was a more inclusive environment. Some of my students who might have had trouble with text-based assignments were able to demonstrate what they knew and could do in robust ways. We continued to read complex texts and work on writing skills, just as the curriculum called for. But by extending the learning in this manner, students were able touse multiple modes of learning and were more motivated to read or listen to assigned texts because of the deeper interest they developed in the topic at hand.
My plan is to purposefully seek out ways to incorporate student interests and strengths into our lessons. I will utilize both whole group and small-group instruction to encourage rich conversations and I’ll continue to integrate project-based learning, possibly asking students to develop slide-show presentations, dioramas, YouTube videos, and other products that they would like to create while keeping in mind that we are working in a virtual space.
I knew I was on to something when I switched from mostly teacher-directed instruction to a student-centered approach when one of my students, who was usually withdrawn and generally reluctant to participate in our daily whole group instruction, was the first to volunteer to be our leader for a Socratic Seminar we had surrounding “Plains Indians” in class last year. He was able to ask the provided question and keep the conversation going. This young man shocked me because he never seemed to be paying attention or even remotely interested in what was happening, but he had been actually listening and learning. He did an excellent job from that day forward. After being praised for his work, rather than being corrected for prior perceived defiance, he came to class with a smile and participated more.
My teacher-centered approach would have demanded his attention while I was teaching, while my new student-centered focus allowed him to learn his way. It meant being okay without eye contact and allowing him to hang back when he needed to. I will no longer deny him or any other learner the opportunity to lead a discussion because they don’t conform to my idea of what paying attention looks like.
When you have an experience like that as a teacher, there’s no going back. One way or another I plan to lead a student-centered second-grade classroom again, even if it is a virtual one.