This school year, I’ve been on a journey to put my students at the center of our learning. That means finding ways to make the learning meaningful to my students as people — that is, personalized. And it means being responsive to their needs as learners — in other words, customized.
Most of my efforts to meet this call have meant developing completely new units, and that’s been exhausting and won’t scale for teachers with multiple preps or those seeking life-balance. Moving into the fourth quarter of this school year, I sought support. I sat down with colleagues to learn how to work toward these ends from our existing curriculum for 10th grade English. The unit from which we worked had two summative assessments: a literary analysis essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a multimedia presentation based on a social issue.
The first step in our process was to dig into the prompt used for the summative assessment to identify key skills and knowledge from the standards that students would need to be successful. We then chunked that learning, which happened to divide into three discrete topics. What came next is where there was new learning for me regarding my teaching practice.
We used details from the standards to design learning checks on each chunk of that learning to yield insight into specific strengths and weaknesses in student learning. We then designed learning experiences for the next chunk of learning that would allow me the opportunity to pull groups of students based on performance on the previous topic’s learning check. This small group instruction allows me to target and fill gaps in student learning or extend the learning of strong performers, while continuing to progress with new learning within the same class period.
In past practice, I’ve conferred with students composing through multiple drafts, I’ve urged students to come for help after school, and I’ve spent, cumulatively, weeks of my life writing detailed feedback and wishing students would understand and integrate it. But this level of intentionality in creating learning checks and designing brief, follow-on lessons or coaching within our class time, while not glitzy, is exciting in its potential to really close gaps and push successful students further.
And while this is nothing new to many elementary teachers, it’s rare in the practice of the secondary teachers I know.
For me, planning with this intentionality is so valuable that I’ve recorded a screencast of the process in hopes that hearing me talk through a concrete example can help others pursue this pedagogy for their own practice.
I value and appreciate my curriculum guide and the thoughtful design that has gone into ensuring students develop a sequence of skills. But, I believe my call as a teacher is to take that guidance into my own process and prowess in designing learning experiences that are also highly informed by the identities, interests, and curiosities my students bring to the classroom.
For an earlier unit, I polled students to determine current-event topics of particular interest. For this unit, I used the results of a poll asking which essential questions peaked their interest. The top results hold the common theme of identity:
How do we form and shape our identities?
What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?
In a culture where we are bombarded with ideas and images of “what we should be,” how does one form an identity that remains true and authentic?
For the second half of this unit, students will read a novel (or short stories and poetry) of their choice, with those three essential questions guiding their reading. They’re also choosing two of the following identity investigations: one focused on self, and one focused on others. The combination will allow students to take these chosen essential questions and ask them of themselves and others (see the assignment sheet).
Self-focused options are a This I Believe essay, a spoken word poem and performance, or a Letter to the Next President. Others-focused options are a Humans of Patapsco (HONY-modeled) product based on interviewing peers or people important in their lives, an in-depth interview with one person using the StoryCorps app, or a vlog-u-mentary. This final option (inspired by Can’t Do Nothing), calls for students to use a smartphone to capture interviews with others about identity, and their own reflections on their learning from the interviews. Students will then combine and edit the clips into a mini-documentary. I’m stoked to see what the students working on this particular option create, and they are too!
In the end, I continue to pursue the classroom experience I believe students deserve — one with the flexibility to honor who they are as humans and learners, while being agile enough to meet students’ needs and grow their skills and agency. I don’t want students to learn out of compliance, but out of a self-driven commitment to what they find compelling with consistent support to meet their needs.
This work was made possible through support by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County’s STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with him on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.