Students Can Own Their Learning

At times I take for granted how far my students have come in their ability to own their learning. It has not always been this way but over the past five years so much has changed in how I view students as learners and how I teach. Formative assessment is at the very core of these changes; the result – student ownership of learning.

This year, as visitors entered my room to view formative assessment in action, many educators spoke of how surprised they were at my students’ ability to articulate their learning. Students would quickly share what they were learning, how far they had come and where they still needed to go. They would pull out their criteria sheets and discuss how they could meet with success and share peer feedback, communicating how this helped improve their learning. This was also evidenced within students’ self-assessment pieces they shared on line, in journals and through discussions. The students were demonstrating how they learn best.

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But something happened on the last day of school that has left me in awe of the changes and growth that has occurred with so many of my students.  When I opened up the thank you gifts and cards something dawned on me, many of the cards were not written by parents but by the students themselves. In and of itself this might not be unusual but it was what was written that had taken me aback.   For many it was not a simple thank you but a  letter sharing their thoughts and feelings of the year(s) they has spent with me. It was not thanking me for the wonderful activities we had done, or the field trips that they participated in, but focussed rather on how they had grown and changed as learners. It really was quite something to read their words and understand the significance of what they were saying.

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A grade 7 student wrote:“You have pushed me to do my best and taught me to take risks and helped me to enjoy learning more. When I first came into grade six I was always worried about the final grade instead of taking risks with my learning and enjoying the process. Thank you so much for helping me realize learning is a journey we take through life and it is not about a final grade. You helped me understand that when we take risks we will make mistakes but instead of feeling sad we should use them to accomplish our goals.”

Another student shared: “Your learning strategies like peer feedback, reflections and self-assessments have been super beneficial to my learning. … You really inspired me to be a better learner; always challenging me to dig deeper.”

These are just two examples of the kind of letters the students wrote to me in their cards; I was, and still am, amazed at their words. Formative assessment practises can and do change the way students view themselves as learners. My evidence comes not from test scores but from the students themselves. To me there is no evidence more powerful than that.

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Small Changes = Big Results

Sometimes it is the little things we do that make the biggest impact for others.

This year has been another year of change for me professionally. I have continued to reflect on what it is I am doing in my classroom and whether or not I am meeting the needs of my students and what is best for their learning and personal growth.

Even though I have always loved and embraced changed I still kept some things the same. How I managed my class is at the top of that list. Having students sit in partners, but always facing the front, allowed me to be in control; it helped to ensure I could get students’ attention and they were less distracted by their peers. What I was not doing was allowing the students to learn how to self monitor their behaviours, taking ownership of this and allow them to make some choices as to how they learn best.

So I decided to make some changes. My first decision was to get rid of their desks and bring in tables. (Thanks again to Joy Kirr for her inspiration and to Yrsa Jensen for always supporting her teachers and their visions.) My classroom is not overly large so it was a challenge to fit in 14 tables. Finding the best set up was difficult as we were restricted by space. The students and I, at first, put the tables in a similar format as the desks had been.  The tables were still facing forward but we changed the angle with which they were placed. We had two to a table and they loved the extra space to work. It was an okay start.

But after two weeks I decided it was still too restricting and the students were not yet able to make choices with how and where they learned. So we pushed tables together, turned some, rotated others and used our space as best as was possible. The result – students move and shift easily depending on what is happening in the class, what type of learning is taking place. They can work with others or on their  own without having to shuffle desks. And we can work with 2 full classes (almost 60 students) in the room and each is able to contribute to the success of the group, being a part of the team. Amazing to see.

One other small change I have made to the set up of the room, which has made a big difference in student choice for learning, is a reading nook. When students were given the chance to design the space in the classroom they all asked for an area to sit, read, visit, learn. By convincing my husband to let me bring in our love seat that was not being utilized at home, by sending out requests to parents for a coffee table and bean bag chairs, by going out and purchasing some plants and a lamp, we were able to fulfill the vision of the students.

Every day, whether it is before school, during class time or at recess and lunch this space has become the hub. It is the space that all want to use and use it well. Before creating this space I did not realize that we all need different spaces to learn – some prefer a table, some prefer a corner on the floor while others want the couch as their place to be no matter if it is reading, writing, drawing, thinking. When given the chance, we all choose what works best for ourselves. One size does not fit all!

Now that we have implemented many little changes to the learning environment in our room I feel that big results have happened. I truly love walking into the class each day as these changes have brought about a sense of comfort, a second home. Students have proven that they can make good decisions for how they want to learn and my need to control this before was so very unnecessary.

About a week ago, at the end of the day as the students were walking out the door, I had a parent come in and without saying anything but a teary ‘thank you’,  gave me a very big hug. I responded with  ‘you’re welcome’ but was confused as to why I was receiving the hug. She explained that  her daughter was excited to come to school each and every day, she loved being at school and loved the learning and that she had shown so much growth in her own desire to learn this year. What better gauge, that some small changes I have made is making a big difference for my students,. is there than that.

Little changes, such as creating a new learning environment, can make a world of difference for our students. And is that not what we are here for? Releasing the need to feel like I am in control and by allowing students the chance to take this on themselves, tremendous growth can occur for all. I love what Yrsa Jensen, my principal, always reminds us – “but it’s not about you, it’s about the kids!”