[updated Sept 2, 2018]
“Show yourself as a learner to your students” is sound advice from Milton Chen, one of the panelists from the opening “creativity” panel discussion at EduCon, a phenomenal conference I attended in Philadelphia the weekend before the Super Bowl in 2018. Here’s a link to the video of Friday night’s panel discussion, which was phenomenal. It’s seriously worth an hour and a half (or at least 45 minutes — you can watch at double-speed).
Here’s the moment when Milton Chen (far right) said that teachers need to “show yourself as a learner to your students” — it’s at the 1:53:10 mark of the video (the video looks like it’s 2 hours long, but the program starts 27 minutes into the video, when a student welcomes the audience).
Given that the name of my blog is “What I Learned Today,” I could not agree more. The opening panel resonated with me and inspired me to blog about my teaching and how I try to both show myself as a learner to my students and give my students agency in what they learn about in my high school US History class.
Every day to prepare for my U.S. history class, I do work in a Google Document that typically has 5-6 pages of notes for each day we meet (sometimes more — I like learning). Those are my shared notes for the class. In class, we don’t get through all of the pages of my notes — the conversation often goes other places — but the notes are there so that students see me modeling the sort of inquiry I want to see from them. My notes are a record of the learning I do every day to prepare for class (and in class — I often add to my notes as we go, based on questions students ask). A bonus of this approach is that if a student misses class for any reason, they don’t have to ask “what did we do in class?” because it’s all in the shared Google Doc.
Students come into class, open my notes, open their notes, and copy relevant sections of my notes into their notes. As class goes on, they add to their notes to show what they’re learning in class.
[Note: I teach at a 1:1 school, with a policy of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) — and a few students have computers that load slowly — the computers literally take 5-6 minutes to load. This makes it harder for them to experience the class in the way that I intend.]
In a recent class, we learned about James Meredith, because MLK mentions James Meredith in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.
In class, I asked my students if they knew who James Meredith was — most did not. But the modus operandi in my class is: “if you don’t know, look it up.”
So here’s what Wikipedia says:
James Howard Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is a Civil Rights Movement figure, writer, political adviser and Air Force veteran. In 1962, he became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, after the intervention of the federal government, an event that was a flashpoint in the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy‘s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi.
I mentioned that JFK’s inaugural address must have been a good one if it in fact inspired James Meredith to decide to apply to the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s — we will listen to that inaugural address in a few weeks (it’s just 15 minutes long — you can find it easily on YouTube).
I scrolled down the Wikipedia article to show my students this picture (see right) of federal troops making sure James Meredith could attend classes:
Then something very cool happened — one of my students observed that “it must have been really hard for him to be the only black student at the University of Mississippi — I wonder how the other students treated him.” And that phenomenal question led us to look further into the Wikipedia article, where we learned these telling details:
Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus, but others accepted him. According to first-person accounts, students living in Meredith’s dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. Other students ostracized him: when Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students would immediately get up and go to another table.
Those are powerful images — bouncing basketballs above a dorm room at 2 a.m. and people standing up and making James Meredith eat alone in the cafeteria. Students who are paying attention in class will not forget those images. And that deeper learning happened thanks to taking a student question seriously. I’ve updated my notes to show — wait for it — what I learned today (see? that’s the title of my blog) — and students in my other classes can theoretically learn from the student who made that observation about James Meredith.
I also don’t give tests (this should probably be a separate blog entry, but I’m going to write a bunch now and refine later). At my school, we use a learning management system called the PLP, which is part of the Summit Schools learning platform. Students take short multiple choice tests on their own at their own pace to make sure they know the basic information. That counts as 30 percent of their grade. The other 70 percent of the grade comes from projects where students show what cognitive skills they have learned.
The main project in my class is the Big Final Project (abbreviated as BFP). To prepare for that final project, students complete a few short research projects called an MIT — it stands for “Most Interesting Thing.” Students are supposed to think about the time period we’re learning about and choose one person or event to dive in deep and learn about. When I wrote this blog post, my students were studying the time period from 1945-1975, with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement. I let my students choose topics that will help them better understand that time period and make connections. They propose a few possible topics, and I approve one. Then they conduct their own research (I help if they need help) and write a short paper that talks not just about what they learned, but what they still want to learn.
It’s always seemed odd to me that we ask students to write a conclusion at the end of a paper when they have only studied a topic for a few weeks. How can you have a conclusion when you’re just scratching the surface? Instead, I ask each student to end the MIT with five further questions that show the student understands and appreciates how complex the topic is — all of history (indeed all of life) is wonderfully complex and interesting, if you ask the right questions.
I recently asked my students to write three sentences about their topic and list their top three questions that they hope to answer by doing research. They should actually come up with 10 questions in their notes — but they were supposed to share their top three questions with me. That paring down from 10 to three requires my students to exercise some judgment by curating the questions. Here’s what a few students are writing about. These are juniors in high school:
|My topic for MIT #3 is the Loving vs. Virginia case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967. This case was about an interracial couple who were denied the right to get married to one another, because at the time, people of different races were prohibited from getting married to one another. This case was a very important milestone in achieving equality and fundamental rights. Also, I want to learn more about this case because it had a big impact on the relationships between citizens of different races and it was a step into eliminating segregation.
Top three questions:
|I am currently planning to do MIT #3 on the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits one person from being elected president for more than two terms. The reason for this is that I have, in recent years, developed a personal interest in term limits for public officials, which arose as I learned of the extraordinarily long amounts of time for which some Senators and Congressmen had held their seats. While the amendment does not affect Congress, and, as I understand it, was more a direct reaction to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times in a row, it is one of the few official legal measures (that I know of, at least) which have ever been taken in the United States to limit an individual’s time in government (I remember being rather surprised when I first learned that Supreme Court justices could serve for the remainder of their lives if they wished), so I became curious as to the details of its passing.
|The topic I choose was NATO, from when it was first created (1949), to the end of our time period. I wanted to do this topic because of the fact that I’ve heard about it a lot, but I still don’t quite know what it is, or what it does specifically. I also think it would be interesting to know why it was created. THREE QUESTIONS: What was the original purpose of NATO, and did the purpose change? What were people’s response to NATO’s creation? How was it created, was it just made by political leaders of the countries, or by some other means?|
|In 1965 MLK led a group of protesters on a March in Selma to fight for voting rights. If African Americans were trying to vote they would be attacked by the KKK so it was a major fear to see black people have any type of power to try to take the “White mans” perspective of a good country. With all the hate MLK wanted to use peaceful protest and he was very inspired by the works of Mahatma Gandhi. Even with his house bombed he told people not to take arms.
1. How much money was MLK making yearly to provide for his family?
2. If King was such a problem how was he able to get out of jail time and time again?
3.Where there good African American lawyers available to help people who got arrested?
And that’s how an MIT in my class works — at least the start of one…
My students this year will be writing one or two MITs, just to get down the idea of writing a coherent paragraph that starts with a topic sentence and that integrates information from multiple sources (and cites information properly).
I want them to focus more of their energy on the BFP. The idea behind all of these projects is that I let students pick their own topic that they find interesting. This emphasizes the importance of student choice in learning, which was one of the major themes of EduCon in 2018.
By modeling for students how I learn, I hope to encourage them to do some learning of their own. I’m going to be out of school for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and I’m going to ask students to read my blog post about Booker Spicely, which I think does a good job of what this post purports to be about — showing yourself as a learner to your students.