Join Jason Augustowski @MisterAMisterA and the #bowtieboys tomorrow, Sunday, September 18, at 8 p.m. ET, for a Twitter chat around “Elevating Student Voice and Choice.”
The #bowtieboys are a group of students led by Jason Augustowski from high schools in Northern Virginia committed to educational research with a focus on student engagement. The content of their tweets, blog posts, and YouTube videos are the amalgamation of hundreds of students’ thoughts and feelings regarding the current state of American schooling.The #bowtieboys believe that a strong partnership between student and teacher, whether in
The #bowtieboys believe that a strong partnership between student and teacher, whether in design of instruction, assessment, environment, or management style, will render the most productive and engaging classroom for all parties. These students are working at home and on the road (including speaking at the NCTE Annual Convention) to change the face of American education for the better.
The #bowtieboys will be participating in #NCTEchat this Sunday:
In Wentzville, Missouri, some high school teachers changed how they taught reading, and after seeing the results, they report they will never go back.
Eight teachers from the Wentzville School District wrote an article for our February 2016 English Leadership Quarterly explaining why they now love letting their students choose their own reading material. Before, these teachers would have entire classes read the same novel, and they now see that as a mistake:
When we assigned the same book to every student to read, we turned reading … into a chore—and that’s if the students were actually doing the reading!
Determined to teach more effectively, these teachers decided to let students choose their reading and to give students class time to do that reading. These teachers now love this new system, and they list five reasons why.
Choice Empowers Students
Most students spend their day being dominated by adults. An assigned book becomes one more humiliation, and students “end up dreading the reading and often fail or refuse to complete it.” Empowering students to choose their own books, on the other hand, makes reading a pleasure for students and “sets them up for success as lifelong readers.”
Valuing Student Choices Values the Student
As students choose books, they reveal insights about their personalities and interests, which in turn makes it easier for teachers to build connections with these students and to succeed in teaching them:
Book choices tell us a lot about our students. We learn about their dreams for the future, interests we have in common, and why they act the way they do in class. As we provide more opportunities for choice, we discover realities, such as high school boys enjoy reading nonfiction. They … want truthfulness and honesty; they want something real. Knowing this changes the way we see them and react to their participation in class.
Choice Leads to Meaningful Conversations
When students are free to choose their reading, they read books that are more applicable to their lives and their interests. As a result, they care more about these books, and discussions about these books become more lively and meaningful.
Choice Helps Deepen Relationships
Not only do students who choose their books have better conversations with teachers, they have better conversations with their peers:
Often students are hesitant to talk to classmates they do not know. When conversations are about books they have read and enjoyed, suddenly students are more willing to talk to others—even if they have never spoken before.
As the reading culture takes root, students enjoy sharing with one another their reading recommendations. “Reading for fun can be contagious,” these teachers observed, “and it’s the most enthralling thing for a reading teacher to watch spread.”
Choice Leads to Independence
The real mark of success for a reading teacher is when students start reading on their own, reading not for a grade or to keep a pestering teacher off their backs, but for the sheer pleasure of doing it. And this, too, seems to spring from a strategy of letting students choose their reading:
Teachers in other content areas are beginning to report seeing students reading in their classes more often than before. They also have observed that students are not all reading the same text as they have seen in previous school years. Instead, students are reading all different titles more often. While we can’t follow our students around to monitor their reading habits, we know, anecdotally, that many of their reading lives have been positively impacted by this shift in our instructional approach.
In the October 2005 Talking Points, Angela S. Raines offers some thoughts on how the teaching of reading can prepare students for participating in our democracy, if the teacher takes the right approach to reading.
Drawing on the work of Louise Rosenblatt, Raines explains there are two different stances readers can take in their approach to reading material: aesthetic and efferent. Efferent reading is done to gather information. Aesthetic reading is done for pleasure. The aesthetic approach is more personal, as the reader applies her own interpretation, drawing on her own individual background and taste. Efferent reading is a more public act, as the reader is driven to find the teacher’s interpretation of the material more than her own or to find objective information that should mean the same thing to all readers.
In an English class with an aesthetic approach, students are more likely to share their interpretations and responses with one another rather than receive the teacher’s “correct” interpretation. And in a democracy, Raines argues, this is the more valuable approach:
Rosenblatt also emphasized in Literature as Exploration the importance of reading and discussion of texts to participation in democracy by championing “the value of interchange among students as a stimulant to the development of critical and self-critical reading, essential to citizens of a democracy.” It is in this transactional experience that students learn to construct their own meaning of literary texts, and perhaps more important, learn to articulate their own construction. As students participate in discussions of their transactional experiences, they learn to listen to multiple perspectives and make comparisons between their own transaction and others’ transactions. Most assuredly, citizens in a democracy are required to construct knowledge based on multiple perspectives and to make informed choices.
As educational leaders apply transactional theory and practices at all levels, especially in literature classes, students will be able to create those habits of mind that are required for participation in a democracy. Students want to be critical thinkers, and they want teachers who help them read to fully experience literature as works of art and as sources for insights and connections related to their life experiences. If educators wish to foster students’ critical reading and thinking abilities, then certainly students need to be able to develop, trust, and give voice to their own aesthetic experiences with literature. However, if students are taught that the goal of reading, even for literary texts, is to extract a correct, public meaning (usually one established by the teachers’ guide), they will adopt efferent stances for reading that promote factual rather than thoughtful comprehension, inhibit critical-thinking skills, and limit preparation for enfranchisement in a democracy.
Unfortunately, Raines reminds us, English classes traditionally use an efferent approach to reading. Students are often “given study guides for answering specific literal-level, in-the-text questions about the literary works they [are] required to read.” If students can complete the assignments by reading SparkNotes instead of the actual novel, then they completely miss the aesthetic experience and focus exclusively on the efferent.
How can teachers lead students to approach reading aesthetically? Raines, herself a teacher, shares a few of her own strategies.
First, of course, is to give students a choice in what they read. Raines helps her students find books tailored to their tastes but also encourages them to abandon a book early if it doesn’t engage them and to start another book.
Then comes the next step:
After students selected books, I emphasized to them that they would not take a test on the books they read. I truly wanted students to focus on the aesthetic experience—to enjoy and “live through”—their literary texts. … However, some were still skeptical… They did not believe that I would give them class time, typically 30–45 minutes per day, to read a book of their choice.
When the class does read something together, a teacher can create a more aesthetic experience by having students exchange their views rather than the teacher giving his own views:
Students often feel inadequate about their own construction of meaning and get the impression that teachers are the ultimate authority and that there is just one correct meaning for literary works. However, when given opportunities for literary discussions, students are able to hear their peers’ connections to and interpretations of the text and realize that the connections made by their peers are not the same as those made by teachers. Thus, students realize that construction of meaning is very personal, and that one person’s construction will not be the same as another’s for the same text. In addition, during these literary discussions, students are able to hear multiple perspectives, which sometimes results in lively debates about specific aspects of the text. As a result, students return to the text to defend their perspective, which results in a more powerful comprehension of the text. An added benefit is that students also learn to value each other as contributors to the learning community.
Last week’s piece about the Nova Project explored two benefits of democratic societies that also seem to benefit democratic schools like Nova: a better educated population, and a population more enthusiastic about their society’s (their school’s) success.
But there are two more benefits that may be part and parcel with democracy as well: a responsible freedom, and a culture of equality.
Teacher Brian Charest, who left teaching in a traditional high school to teach ELA at Nova, reports that equality is certainly a benefit found here. Traditional high schools, he says, divide students into at least three tiers: advanced, general, and special-needs. But at Nova, where students work with teachers to create the classes they want, where students choose the classes they take and can choose independent study as well, tiers aren’t needed any more than tiers are needed in colleges. Students work enthusiastically and at their own pace.
Students are not ranked or judged with grades, either. All courses at Nova are pass/no pass. But to receive a passing grade in any course, Charest says, students must present a project that demonstrates their mastery of the subject. “In some ways I feel like we’re a more rigorous program academically than some of the traditional schools. . . . You can’t fill out a worksheet and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve demonstrated competency.’ You really have to be able to show clearly that you understood, that you learned something.”
Most public schools struggle with bullying. At Nova, students work to be more sensitive to one another. Students form various committees to help them express their needs. There is a committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students, another for students from racial minorities, and more. Students who have been bullied in other schools, Charest says, are delighted to find Nova a welcoming environment. Every floor of the student-run school, in fact, has three restrooms: one male, one female, and one gender-neutral, so transgender students can know that they, too, belong at this school.
Equality between students and staff is part of Nova’s culture as well. The staff does not dictate what classes students take but supports them in following their own curiosity. This freedom can require some adjustment for youth inured to traditional K–12 schools.
“There is a real process of unlearning that has to happen,” Charest says. “Many students start Nova not quite knowing what to make of it. ‘What do you mean I can pursue my own interests?’ Given the choice to learn what you want, a student is suddenly faced with an often overwhelming number of choices. We work hard to support students through this discomforting, yet ultimately liberating, experience. And, over time, most students begin to embrace the deep learning that happens through inquiry.“
And as students take ownership of their education, their new-found freedom seems quickly joined by a sense of responsibility, leading students to get a stronger education. Principal Mark Perry says that, while he opposes standardized testing, Nova complies with all testing requirements, and he finds the test results satisfying. Nova students score as well in math as do students at traditional high schools that “teach to the test,” and Nova students actually score better in reading and writing.
“I attribute most of this to our liberal arts curriculum that is not driven by Common Core or [various standardized tests],“ says Perry.
And what happens to Nova students after they graduate?
“Students who go to a four-year college report back to us that what they learned [at Nova] about personal time management, making good choices, and their use and understanding of depth of analysis in all subject areas gives them an advantage over other students, [including] many who come from elite or AP programs,” says Perry. “We also have colleges like Mills and other liberal arts schools who directly contact us to recruit because of the success of our graduates at their schools.”
After teaching in more traditional school settings, Charest sees clearly the benefits of a democratic school. He says:
What I don’t understand is why our public officials, including school boards and local school district administrators, aren’t doing more to encourage and support the creation of more schools like Nova. There’s a lot of talk these days by so-called education reformers about the need for more innovation and collaboration in schools, but then these folks turn around and open a charter school that looks almost exactly like the school the charter was meant to replace (i.e. they continue to do school in very traditional ways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every school should look like Nova, but I do think it would be great to give teachers, students, and parents the ability to shape curriculum and decide for themselves what’s worth knowing and doing.
If you missed our interview with Brian Charest last week, read it here.
Most American high schools tell students democracy is the best governing system, but the Nova Project practices what it preaches. At this Seattle public high school, students decide what classes are offered, how the budget is shaped, what hours the school is open, and what rules are enforced.
Brian Charest, a second-year Nova teacher, came to the school after teaching English for six years in Chicago’s traditional high schools. At NCTE’s 2015 Convention, Charest gave an eye-opening presentation about Nova and the possibilities that unfold when students are invited to make the important decisions.
The school’s 380 students came to Nova by choice. Youth in Seattle can choose to go to their neighborhood school or to an “option school” offering something different. Nova is an option school that utilizes inquiry-based education, with students encouraged to investigate topics of their choosing.
Students at Nova work with teachers to design independent study or design more organized classes. Among the student-shaped classes at Nova: Terrifying Samurai (the films of Akira Kurosawa), Food History, Utopias/Dystopias, Philosophy, the History of Skateboarding, and That’s Funny (a study of comedy). And those are just the ELA courses.
Some may wonder whether students get a serious education in The History of Skateboarding, but Charest says they do. “The idea is for students to learn about the evolution of skateboarding and its place in our culture. We watch documentaries, read articles, and discuss how skateboarding has been marketed over time,” he says. “Students are required to write one-page conversation papers every two weeks on a skate topic of their choice. And, as a final project, students need to do a multi-genre research project. Students can make a ‘zine, do a video edit, interview local skaters, map local skate spots, or something else entirely. So, yes, I think the class is as much about writing and inquiry as it is about skateboarding.”
Charest adds, “We are an academics-based program [but] we provide something that’s missing from a lot of schools, and I think we provide something that looks a lot more like college than you’re going to find in a lot of big schools.”
Nova is run by a governing group called the Mothership Committee, made up of several students and staff. The students here can easily outvote the adults, but Charest says the students deliberate carefully and tend to make good decisions. When asked if he has ever seen the students make a decision that worried staff, only one example came to his mind. Some students wanted to eliminate the Mothership Committee and restructure how decisions were made. The staff largely opposed the restructuring, but nevertheless, they put it to a vote of the entire school and agreed to abide by the students’ decision. The students voted to follow the advice of staff.
This system, he says, does have drawbacks. “It’s like any sort of democratic system. It’s messy. It can be challenging at times. Committee meetings can take a long time. . . . If you want everybody’s voice as part of the decision-making process, it can take a while.”
But democracy has at least two advantages that have made it a popular way to run nations, and Charest finds these advantages in a democratic school as well.
The first advantage is buy-in. Machiavelli advised rulers they would enjoy more power as elected leaders than as kings because the citizens of a democracy are more loyal and more invested in their society’s success than are the citizens of a dictatorship. That buy-in, Charest reports, can be seen at Nova. “[D]iscipline problems (e.g., fights, class disruptions, etc.) are not really problems that we face regularly at Nova. Yes, we have students who need extra support and coaching to help them deal constructively with their problems and behaviors, but we don’t have the kinds of problems you might see in a large, comprehensive high school.”
The second advantage of democracy is a better educated population. As Dr. James Brent, a political scientist at San Jose State University, explains, “Decision makers study to make good decisions, and they learn from the results of their bad ones. The process of deliberation forces participants to examine and reconsider ideas. So the more that people are included in the decision-making process, the deeper their understanding becomes.”
That, too, can apply to a democratic school. Charest reports:
At Nova we link our committees to courses so that work we do in these spaces is connected. Students learning about democracy can see firsthand how democratic processes function when they work on a committee like Mothership that makes schoolwide decisions. Linking committees and classes creates a connection between academic work and civic or community engagement in much the same way that a lab links the work in a science classroom to experiments and work in the field.
After teaching in both traditional schools and in a democratic school, Charest is sold on the benefits of bringing democracy to high schoolers. “It definitely works here,” he says. “Having student voice be a part of what we do makes this a better school. It builds a kind of community of the school that’s not present when students feel like they don’t really have a say in what’s going on.”