Julie A. Cunningham

Academic Advisor

End of Semester

Well, I’m on vacation! After an amazing first semester filled with self-doubt, questions, and trial and error, I can say with gratitude that children are resilient. I know this as a parent, but it’s nice to see that it is also true in an educational context.  I’ve tried and adapted more things in the last four months than I thought possible… and we all have lived to tell the tale.

In this independent learning environment, I’ve been tinkering with student choice and self-pacing in the learning process.  I began the year with a fairly loose structure based on the Daily Five method for both math and literacy.  Lots of freedom and choice. For lots of weeks.  What I found was that my fairly high group of students elected to take the easy way out more often than not.  We discussed challenging themselves, and I set up a reward structure for when I saw them making what I deemed to be challenging choices. (I know this negates the ‘choice’ aspect… but I wasn’t sure how else to steer them towards better choices than the ones they were making.) And still, they defaulted to the easiest choice possible.

So I changed. Added more ‘required’ elements into their blocks. Started using Latin word games and worksheets ((Guess what? They’re not evil incarnate… I know *you* knew that, but I needed to really absorb it.)). What I have learned so far is that young students enjoy freedom- in limited amounts. As I have adapted our schedule and added to their ‘required’ load, they are happier and more content overall.  They make better choices during the time they have to choose.

I know I’ll step on some toes of the unschooling and ‘free choice 24/7’ crowd, but my experience is that students thrive on challenge that they are often unable to provide for themselves.  The trick is to provide an appropriate level of challenge- not frustrating the child but encouraging them to think. I’m still thinking through the details, and will reflect more on this topic in particular over the holiday.

I’m also learning much about the competency-based approach to education. In this school, competency means 80% or better.  I actually though that would make school a breeze for higher achieving students, but in several of the curriculum choices it means that the are regularly confronted with material that they really didn’t understand…. and that they need to actually learn in order to progress further. It’s interesting, especially for students who fake their way through one concept, and are not confronted with it again until the next year.

One of my greatest hopes for next semester is that my students will stop seeing missed problems as some great failure on their part, but rather as an opportunity to really learn and understand.

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