Don’t let HW get in the way of learning

This is an argument about why students (and teachers) should blog, and why, once we let them blog, we should give students the curricular flexibility to follow their interests and passions. When they go deeper into material they care about, they will develop their literacy and numeracy in a real-world context. The learning will be more genuine and more meaningful. They will own the learning.

I have been blogging for more than a year, and one of the benefits is that now I have enough material that I can connect unfolding events to previous blog posts I’ve written. Because I’ve been blogging, I can make more sense of events in the world.

The idea behind having middle school students at Triangle Learning Community (TLC) blog about world events for three years (6th through 8th grade) is that they will bring three years’ worth of thinking with them to high school and beyond. They will also develop the habit of paying attention to the world outside the US, which is a good thing for an empathetic global citizen to do.

So here’s the cool connection that made me appreciate my blog — and made me want to have students blog.

I was reading my friend James Kessler’s Facebook page, where he noted the senseless violence going on in Syria (about which I am deeply disturbed and about which I will blog soon):

Now one of James’ friends, Michael-Ann Kelly (who I’ve never met) asked if James is following @acarvin on Twitter.

Who’s @acarvin?  That’s easy enough to find out:

So I went to Andy Carvin’s twitter stream, and I found lots of troubling reports about Syria.

But also in his stream, I found this reference to Wael Ghonim:

Why did that name mean something to me? Well, back in March of 2011, I wrote a long post about Wael Ghonim, and how amazing it was that I was able to follow current events as they were unfolding in Egypt.

Here’s an excerpt from my earlier blog entry:

Now let’s just think about how incredibly cool this is — he’s in Cairo, Egypt.  And he gave a speech at a TED talk in Cairo.  In MARCH.  And I got an email on March 9, opened it, read it early in the morning, clicked on the link, and started learning from Wael Ghonim. I mean, this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible when I was growing up.  We read history in the textbook, which was written several years earlier.  Now, we can access primary sources that allow us to think about events as they happen:

On a second look, we don’t just want students to think about events as they happen — we want them to get active and put those events into context, by using such tools as Google Earth to locate Egypt and by conducting online research to do what I call Applied History.

But the point here is that my earlier blog post about Wael Ghonim became a part of me in ways that I fear most students’ study of history and/or current events does not often become a part of them.

My investment in blogging about Wael Ghonim’s story 11 months ago makes me want to listen to this NPR story (pictured below) Well, maybe not all of it since it’s 38 minutes long — I’ll likely listen to the first 5 minutes to get the sense of it and hear Wael Ghonim’s voice…   Then I’ll go back and read the transcript once it’s made available online in a few days:

Apparently, Ghonim has written a book about his experience.  As you can see from the highlighted portion below, he felt like he had to do something, so he started a Facebook page to dramatize the killing of Khaled Said. He was anonymous when he started the page, but Egyptian officials figured out who he was. Shortly after that, they  kidnapped him.

This is gripping stuff.

Imagine being a middle school student who followed this story back in March. Imagine now wanting to follow-up, but not having time to do so because you are swamped with homework.

Imagine if you had the flexibility to pursue your passion. At TLC, students will learn how to assign themselves homework. They will also spell out the rationale for that HW so everyone is clear about why they are reading that play or working on that math problem.

This means that a TLC student in my position — one who was following events in Egypt — could give herself the homework assignment of reading Wael Ghonim’s new book over the next week. As she read, she would blog about sections of the book that the student found most compelling. When she finished, she might write a review of the book and post it on Amazon.

Many students are passionate about events they learn about, but are stuck doing their teacher’s homework. We need to mentor students so that they are able to learn on their own, and then we need to trust students enough to let them blog about events they care about. Then we need to allow them to follow-up and learn more.

I just watched a great video by Alan November, who says early in the video that the one question he asks when he wants to determine whether a school is a good one or a great one is this:

Who owns the learning?

If it’s the teachers who own the learning (and the curriculum) — if the teachers are working harder than the students — then something’s wrong. The teacher’s job is to create a learning environment that make the students engage with and take ownership of their learning.

If the goal is for young people to become empathetic global citizens — which happens to be the goal of TLC — then why on earth would we stop them from getting to that objective through an unexpected route, such as following up on the Arab Spring?

We need to have students blog more, and we have to give them the flexibility to follow their curiosity wherever (within reason) their blogging may lead them.

This does not mean drop math so you can focus exclusively on Wael Ghonim. But it does mean that if the plan was to look at poetry next week, there would be enough flexibility to let that student focus on Wael Ghonim this week and catch up on poetry later.

If we did it right, the student might even be able to write some poetry about what’s going on in Egypt. She could post that poetry on her blog and we could connect her with a school in Egypt who could read her blog and comment on her work.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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