Free Range Teaching

I was listening to NPR last month when they did a story on free range parenting. The story covered the debate about the pros and cons of this approach, which values self-reliance and independence. The free range movement is a response to “helicopter” parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives, thus stifling their ability to cultivate the qualities valued by free range parents.

As I listened to this debate, I immediately thought of it in the context of the classroom. There is an interesting shift happening in education right now that touches on a similar tension between control and compliance versus freedom and self-reliance. Many traditional teachers are reluctant to transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. They fear that the classroom will plunge into chaos if students are given the autonomy to make decisions and drive learning.

In a teacher-centered classroom, the focus is on the teacher. The teacher is in control of the classroom environment and the activities taking place there. By contrast, the student-centered approach places the focus on the students. Students are at the center of the learning happening in the classroom, which requires that they make decisions and work together. One values control and compliance while the other values freedom and self-reliance.

As I approached our final unit of the year, I decided to embrace a free range approach to teaching. I wanted to see what would happen if students were given complete autonomy and freedom to design and execute a 5-week unit.

This is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to literature circles, which requires members of the group to complete specific jobs. I’ve always been torn about assigning students specific roles. I worry that roles are limiting because students are myopically focused on one task (collecting vocabulary, identify a theme, analyzing a character) and, as a result, miss out on deeper learning. I’ve never been entirely happy with this more controlled approach to literature circles, which inspired me to embrace a free range approach to this unit.

I told students this was their unit. I gave them a list of skills taken from the Common Core Standards that they needed to demonstrate over the course of the unit, but they had complete autonomy over how they demonstrated those skills. I encourage them to design performance tasks that reflected their talents and interests.

When given time to plan their units, this is what happened…

Instead of crumbling into a state of chaos as many teachers might fear would occur when students are given complete freedom, the level of focus and engagement was remarkable.

As they began to design performance tasks to demonstrate their skills, I was impressed by the wide range of assignments and tasks they came up with. I initially presented them with a list of 9 Common Core reading and writing standards that I wanted them to demonstrate mastery of over the course of the unit. They brainstormed ideas and groups worked at their own pace to complete their various performance tasks.

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In a single class, I had groups designing everything from RSA animation videos to creative board games based on their novels to multimedia vocabulary videos. Watching their creative minds a work was a reminder that sometimes students do their best work when they are able to approach learning through a lens that interests them.

This experiment into free range teaching was really positive. It was a perfect end to the year because it allowed students to take everything they had learned in my class and put it into practice. After this “free range” approach to literature circles, I realize that the more I let go of the control in the class the more my students impress me.

After this “free range” approach to literature circles, I realize that the more control I give up in the classroom the more my students impress me. If I want to cultivate students who are confident, independent, creative, and self-reliant, then I need to give them the freedom to make decisions, collaborate with peers, and decide what learning looks like for them.

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Creatively Teach the Common Core with Technology

Educators today are facing two major shifts in education–a move to the Common Core Standards and increasing pressure to teach students with the technology they’ll be expected to use in their lives beyond high school. Both seasoned educators and those new to the teaching profession must confront these daunting challenges, which demand fundamental changes in the way teachers teach and students learn.

I’ve written Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology to support English, history/social studies, and science teachers as they shift to the new Standards using technology. Instead of simply teaching the way we have always taught, we have an opportunity to rethink our approach and use technology to breath new life into our classroom. Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 10.19.50 AMHere are just a few of the creative ideas included in this book:

  •  Using Instagram for research and narrative writing.
  • Creating multimedia notebooks for science.
  • Engaging in KQED’s Do Now global Twitter conversations for prewriting.
  • Writing dialogue with Google Story Builder.
  • Designing infographics as a creative alternative to the research paper.
  • Capturing voice recordings.
  • Inspiring creative writing with Google maps.
  • Connecting with Voxer to create study groups, encourage asynchronous conversations, or offer virtual office hours.
  • Real-time editing with Google docs.
  • Creating dynamic digital stories with mobile devices.

This book provides teachers with a clear, easy-to-understand explanation of the Common Core Literacy Standards and identifies key points of emphasis in the Standards. Throughout the book, I’ve highlighted tech tools that can be used to make teachers more effective and efficient. I’ve included ideas for using technology to differentiate learning, provide scaffolding, and support students at different skill levels. Unlike many Edtech books, I’ve included concrete strategies and lesson ideas that leverage web 2.0 technology to encourage students to be active and engaged participants in the learning process. My goal is to get teachers resources and activities they can use with students today!

Although the aim of this book is to provide simple, easy to understand explanations about the Standards and creative ideas for using technology to improve learning, my focus as an educator is always to create a student-centered classroom. The theme of the student-centered classroom is an undercurrent throughout this text. I believe powerful learning begins when we put students at the center of the learning process, so my approach values autonomy, choice, collective construction and creativity.

My book is now available for preorder! Add it to your summer reading list and start the 2015-2016 school year with the tools you need to creatively teach the Common Core with technology!

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Last Day of School: Write a Letter to Your Future Self

The end of the school year typically blows by in a blur of exams. I’m often left wishing I had done more to get my students reflecting on the year. Not this year! This year, I am going to have my students write themselves a letter to be delivered in the future.

Instead of collecting stacks of paper letters in envelopes to put in the snail mail years after my students have left my class, I am going to use Remind2Me to get my students reflecting on the year, articulating what is important in their lives, and setting goals for the future.

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Students simply go to Remind2Me and give their letter a title and begin writing. Then they can decide on a delivery date. Do they want their letters to be delivered at the end of summer, during their senior year, or after they’ve graduated? Students can decide when they want to receive their letters!

This is a fantastic way to build in reflection at the end of the school year! Plus, their future selves may just benefit from hearing their current thoughts, dreams, frustrations, and goals. Life goes by so quickly. It’s easy to lose track of what we really want to achieve. Maybe a letter written to our future selves is the best way to stay focused on what is truly important in life.

Preorder your copy of Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with TechnologyJust in time for summer reading!

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