Bringing Learning To Life in the Classroom

by Eileen Landay

“I agree with that kid over there!” The tenth grader pointed to a student seated on the other side of the room.

It was the beginning of the spring semester in a large urban high school. The student teacher, having just taken over the class from her cooperating teacher, was attempting a class discussion using a protocol in which students talked to one another rather than through the teacher in the usual wagon wheel format. As her university supervisor, I was seated in a corner, observing, taking notes, and preparing to offer support and feedback.

The third time I heard a student refer to a classmate as “that kid,” the point finally penetrated. It was February. These students in this class had been together for five months, yet they did not even know one another’s names.

As a seasoned teacher and a frequent classroom observer, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But on this particular day, the observation really hit home. After months together, these students remained virtual strangers. That had to affect how they were feeling about one another and about the class. Maybe that was part of the reason for the overwhelming lethargy I sensed in the room. A few students were making a modest effort to participate. Most were not. Several had their heads down on their desks. This classroom was socially and academically asleep.

What would it take, I wondered, to wake them up?

After raising the question with fellow teachers, we agreed on some approaches to try. We’d bring some artists into the classroom. Actors. Dancers. Musicians. Visual artists. We’d get the kids out of their seats and on their feet. We’d pair artists and teachers, link professional development and curriculum development, and learn from one another. We’d immediately add kids into the teaching and learning mix and establish a real-world purpose that everyone could sign on to and take responsibility for.

In the years between those first efforts and today, colleagues and I have identified several principles that bring learning to life in classrooms:

  • Students need to see the purpose in what they’re learning.
  • Students collaborate with adults, each bringing his or her skills and talents to the classroom community
  • Community efforts lead to the creation of original work using multiple symbol systems or “multiliteracies”

The community’s work involves audiences beyond the teacher

In the most successful iterations of this work, we identified a pattern we labeled “The Performance Cycle.” It begins with community building and ends with a “performance of understanding”—both essential ingredients. In between, participants identify important questions and themes and work with a variety of existing high-quality texts. In response, they create texts of their own.

While this approach may not provide an immediate shortcut to higher test scores, the many examples of its implementation we’ve collected suggest that it leads to deeper, more memorable, more permanent learning.

We’ve learned there are many ways students can go to sleep academically, from sleepwalking dutifully and perhaps even successfully through a superficial curriculum in order to meet the expectations of others, to remaining physically present but mentally absent, to opting out entirely by no longer coming to school. In contrast, we’ve identified and documented practices in classroom communities that are effective in waking students up. These classroom communities bring us closer to the kind of world we wish to create as we educate students and ourselves.

Previously published here on the blog of Harvard Education Publishing.

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