“But what all the high-performing systems in the world do is currently what is not evident, sadly, across the systems in America — I mean, as a whole. One is this: they individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.”
“Are sculptures allowed? Paintings? Videos?” students asked, as my high school philosophy teacher explained our project. “Yes, all of that is great–as long as you can back it up.” He was a very progressive teacher, known for his kind demeanor and unique classes. For this project, we were supposed to interpret Aristotle’s ideas of telos and eduaimonia. The up (or down) side was that we could use any medium we wanted, so long as we explained the concepts thoroughly. Some students felt overwhelmed by this leeway, asking if there would be a rubric with guidelines spelled out. The teacher encouraged them not to worry. The final result was an array of creativity that spanned from PowerPoints to interpretative dance. Each student’s project said something about them. They all showcased their incredible painting skills, poetry, and music. One girl made video montage, and then she felt inspired afterwards to continue the project. She makes monthly montages even two years later. Also, those who opted for more traditional projects, like PowerPoints, didn’t feel alienated or awkward because they knew they’d chosen what was right for them. Most, if not all, students felt they had a better grasp on Aristotle after this project. The personalized approach to these presentations established a valuable connection between the teacher, students, and course material.
I took another class with this teacher a few years before. Though this one was more rigorous, he made it engaging and enjoyable. Like the philosophy class, this course emphasized the power of the student as an individual. One way the teacher did this was by offering an option of earning a curve. His tests were difficult, but students could get a curve (up to 10 points) if they submitted answers to guided-reading questions. Typically there were about 30-40 GRQs, each requiring at least a few sentences–maybe even a few paragraphs. Despite the amount of work necessary for this route, most students chose it. Additionally, he allowed students to be creative with their GRQs. Some answered in essay format, others informally on notebook paper. Some incorporated pictures; some didn’t do the GRQs at all. The teacher put students in control of their own grades, and he respected everyone’s decisions. He made it clear that this option was a choice, not an obligation, expectation, or even a strong suggestion. By trusting his students, he fostered their autonomy and their own methods of learning.
Students learned the material well, but they also learned how they learn. This skill helped prepare them for the rigor of higher-level courses and of higher education. The most influential teachers I had in high school believed in the people they were teaching–as long as they could back it up.