Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.
Early on, I lacked the experience to demand attention from my students. I taught decent lessons about the Renaissance and Reformation, but the majority of my students joked around, played on their cell phones or iPods, and freely walked in and out of the classroom. I quickly fell into the mentality of “I’ll just teach the ones that want to learn.” Still, I believed that students would take my classes more seriously if only they faced disciplinary consequence for not doing so.
So I reached out. My principal, an imposing and charismatic man, had offered to “push-in” to my classes and I took him up on the offer. I hoped his presence would help me re-establish a stern tone, particularly at the beginning of classes. However, he bristled at the idea of playing the disciplinarian and instead proposed a radical change of course.
“Don’t worry about the Regents exam,” he told me in his office one day after school. Students were disengaged, he suggested, because I was too focused on delivering content that was not relevant to them. Why not let the students pick their own content, he asked, and focus instead on teaching skills? I was willing to try anything by this point, and so we discussed a plan together.
Each student would identify a research question of personal interest. This question would serve as a basis for a long-term research project. In the mind of my principal, the original question would lead to additional questions, leading the students down several paths of intellectual discovery. Excited about the possibilities, he even ordered over $300 worth of resources for my classroom (including books by Howard Zinn to Noam Chomsky) and arranged for me to have computers each day.
For my part, I played the concrete thinker to his abstractions. I set about creating guidelines and deadlines, daily and weekly learning logs, and templates for research notes and bibliographical information. The final product would be a 10-page research paper, in addition to the creation of a museum-style exhibit that presented their findings in an artistic or interactive way.
My principal actively helped me promote the project to the students on day one. “Do you enjoy learning in this class?” he asked my students. “Be honest,” he added. “No,” was the consensus reply. He then turned to me and asked, “Have you enjoyed teaching them?” “Not really,” I answered honestly. He told the students that they should learn because they want to, not because they have to, and therefore should think about what really interested them. Though we encouraged students to pick questions of historical import, we allowed each student wide latitude in finding a question that spoke to him or her. We ended up with questions ranging from “How was the Holocaust allowed to happen?” to “Who killed Biggie and Tupac?” At the very least, I thought, my students would have to forfeit the excuse of boredom.
And so a three-month-long experiment was launched. The results were decidedly mixed. Once the ball was rolling, my classes more or less consisted of students coming in, getting a laptop, and searching the internet (our school had no library). Of course, many of the students didn’t actually do any research, but instead played video games or downloaded music. I did my best to monitor progress, but it was difficult to keep tabs when everyone was working on a different topic. If I called out a student for being unproductive, I often was given the excuse “I work better at home.” Because the final project was so far in the future and so large in scope, students felt no sense of urgency on a day-to-day basis. I was able to mitigate this slightly by imposing mini-deadlines, but many students ignored them.
As the final deadline approached, many students finally got serious. The final day of the term was a hilarious flurry of productivity as I stressed the students out by intermittently announcing the time remaining before the end of class. A few students turned in truly remarkable work, and felt rightfully proud of their accomplishments.But a full 30 percent of the tenth grade turned in absolutely nothing, leaving me no choice but to fail them for the term.
I was left with an overall feeling of failure. The downside of this student-centered experiment, I felt, was that there was no way for me to hold students accountable for making productive use of class time. I gave three months over to allowing students to explore topics of their own interests, and some of them took the liberty to avoid doing any work at all. For the second semester, I vowed that I would impose new structures that would help students stay focused and on task.