Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ownership of Learning Begins in Kindergarten

  A student in Ms. Regner's  class reads his 

  original story aloud to fellow kinders.
School is where kids go to watch adults work. As much as I’d like to dismiss this aphorism as ridiculous and irrelevant, it is painfully true. As we all work to transfer ownership of learning  to our students, we must consider that classrooms have successfully placed students in the driver’s seat of the learning since the very first day of school. Kindergartners in our district are working in teams, making choices about their learning, evaluating their own learning, and demonstrating their work to the class. If you have just started to give your students more ownership of learning, you may have noticed that this change is not always received enthusiastically by students (especially in the upper grades). If you are starting to doubt yourself during this journey, keep the following in mind:

  1. It is happening! There are great examples of student “owned” classrooms throughout the district. Ask to observe another teacher.
  2. Expect some resistance (especially in middle school)
  3. Just because you face resistance doesn’t mean it is not the right thing to do in the interest of students.
  4. Examine what might be getting you “stuck” - what are your beliefs about learning? Struggle? Your role?

In several classrooms throughout the district, students are owning and showing learning.  While observing Mrs. Regner’s kindergarten reading and writing workshop, I noticed students engaged in a variety of learning activities and learning spaces. Some students sat in pairs at tables while others sat independently on a rug.  Some students used iPads to record and listen to their reading, while others flipped through personalized cubbies of picture books.  Other students worked on writing a story of their own.  At one point, I noticed a student standing in the back of the room near the sink holding something a boomerang. I  suspected that this particular student was not on task. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that it was his turn to look at Mrs. Regner’s items for sharing.
This classroom environment offers choice for learners.
This student knew what choices he could make during class time, and he chose to use five minutes during reading and writing time to take a look at the sharing items placed.  After observing a boomerang and a photograph, this student returned to work on writing his story.
This example highlights the benefits of offering students clear choices in the classroom. Given more ownership of their learning, these kindergarteners are able to exercise choice as independent learners.   Noticeably, these kindergartners demonstrated a sense of pride while organizing their learning materials and working on a skill of choice. By giving our students choices, we communicate our belief  that they can make choices of their own regarding their learning. In addition, when we give students ownership of their learning, we communicate our belief that they are capable of being independent learners--which they are.

If you teach in the upper grades, you may experience a different response.  Stay positive, but do prepare for resistance, eye-rolling, and groaning. For our historically passive learners, this “gift” of independence and ownership also means that we expect students to do more.  
A  few years ago, I decided that it was time to give my seventh grade students ownership of their work through choice and reflection. Even though I knew better,  I romanticized that my students would enjoy being given more responsibility and choice. How wrong I was. Of course, there were some students who appreciated the opportunity to select a topic of choice for research, but the overwhelming response was a resounding groan of the seventh grade type . Many students had become perfectly accustomed to being spoon-fed. And now I wanted them to think and question and select?
After this initial shock, students eventually became more comfortable with the idea of thinking on their own and making choices about their learning. Some students who had not been very engaged earlier in the year  seemed to burst to life. Seeing students rise to the occasion made me realize that I had been underestimating their ability. Unless we give our students a chance to own their learning, we may never know what they are truly capable of.