I have not always been a student-centered believer. It took a few years before I could really understand how to implement this approach into my classroom and grasp the unlimited acceleration potential it could truly have for my students. I’m a second-guesser and I often doubt my techniques—worrying that I am not giving my students the absolute best opportunity to learn and a quality education. But, I found myself grappling with the questions: What does learning look like? And, how can I be absolutely sure ALL of my students are learning and learning what I need to teach them?
Initially, group work felt like a cheap excuse for stretching class time. I remember my first group work activity asked students to collaborate on a paragraph about an article from the N.Y. Times. I hadn’t thought much about the quality of the article, each groups’ dynamic, their partners’ skills, assessment or diverse learning styles. I just wanted them to write a paragraph, based on a model I provided, together. I really didn’t think about the magical layers of learning that could and would emerge through the group work process, with some carefully strategic choreography. So this was my first dip– a gateway that opened a new door and then another one and another. One idea led to the next and each time I implemented a new method or activity, the learning got bigger and better.
The collaborative process is packed with great advantages but like most things, the hardest things in life are usually the ones that require the most effort and resilience. This applies to teaching and learning as well. Now, in 2015, years after implementing that first group work assignment, I think of student-centered classrooms, as a method to encourage robust, active and stimulating learning, so full that it could burst at the seams.
Last week, while participating in the ultimate student-centered experiment (being a student in the Mapping the Futures course), I was inspired to take my student-centered practice to a new level. Shawnta Smith posted a prompt our Mapping the Futures Group which asks everyone and anyone, to Map their favorite places at CUNY.
Here’s the prompt:
Help us discover the hidden gems that CUNY has to offer! Respond to this forum thread (or post to Twitter using the hashtag #CUNYfave) with your answer to the following questions:
What is your favorite place in CUNY?
1) Name the location.
2) Give the exact address.
3) Add an image to the location (in this post or on Twitter using #CUNYfave).
4) Tell us why it’s your favorite spot.
All students and faculty connected to the Futures Initiative should complete this prompt.
You give us the data; we’ll create a new layer and put it on the CUNY Map of New York
At first, this was simply an interesting course related activity. But during a random internet browsing session, I came across an article from Russia Today that was totally related to the theme of the course I was teaching. I wanted to share this article with my students, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Somehow, while contemplating this article’s emergence into my class, I remembered the different CUNY locations my classmates and professors posted and I thought, something like this could work in the Freshman Composition research class I’m teaching. It would be a quick, low stakes, collaborative activity and hopefully, generate some personal research interest.
I called the post “Quick Research Prompt…” and added this to the thread:
Protest rally in Ireland against biased journalism according to RT (Russia Today). Sounds great and all, but I think we need to confirm this story.
If anyone finds a source discussing this event or bias journalism in Ireland, post it here.
1) Name the source:
2) Tell us if the source confirms or refutes RT’s version and point us to the discrepancy:
3) Provide a link:
The goal was to show students: Multiple perspectives, model an argumentative discussion with evidence, compare differences between texts, identify author’s bias or objectivity, develop students overall researching skills and pay attention to sources that lead to relevant implications.
Out of 50 students, 9 have responded, so far. They’re slowly coming in because I’ve given them the time to respond. I will implement a deadline soon, but for now, I’d like to see who voluntarily brings something new to the discussion. The responses are carefully explaining the sources their finding, comparing their source, not only with the initial source I provided, but also with each other’s sources. Students are referring to what others have mentioned, confirming their data and also presenting logical arguments.
Every time my email alerts me of a new message and I start reading the new responses one of my students posts and I start reading, I realize how thought out and articulate each contribution is. They are engaging with each other in a whole new way, and learning how to research, develop their writing style, and note nuances and implications, from each other. They’re offering new perspectives and gather new data to contribute to the overall discussion. This is happening while they’re on the move, at home and/or at work. My main goal: to keep them thinking and connecting throughout their day.