How the emphasis on independent learning transformed my most at-risk students


The first time I saw Kevin, he rushed into my classroom, his eyes on the floor. It was the third day of the new school year – he hadn’t come to my room the first two days.

“Hi. You must be Kevin,” I said with a smile.

Kevin didn’t look at me. He only groaned a slight noise and looked around for a place to sit. It turned out that Kevin was predominantly non-verbal with emotional and learning disabilities. He was also an apathetic student who had neither the ability nor the desire to start on his own or to persist in his educational tasks.

Over the weeks, I tried to connect with Kevin, but he was indifferent to my attempts. He only shrugged or ignored me when asked questions and refused to do his job. I started to wonder how he was going to fare when the learning centers started.

Centered learning

Since I started at university, I wanted to develop a classroom entirely managed by learning centers. I spent the first four years of my career developing the activities and classroom management skills that I would need to be successful. Of course, the centers in elementary school made sense, but I was not entirely sure at first that a college biology course would be successful.

To begin with, I set up five centers: laboratory, scientific skills, reading, technology and a makerspace. The idea was for students to spend an entire block of class time in a single center, performing a content-based activity or an open prompt. For two weeks, the students alternated every day between being in a center and being in direct instruction. At the end of the cycle, they would have completed four crosses and spent four days with me. The other two days are free for whole class reunions, assemblies, remediation, large labs, or other activities. The students would build a portfolio of the center’s work, add a reflection and I would have the perfect assessment, tailored for each student.

Looking at the number of students who could work in the centers simultaneously, I decided to cut my classes in half, by creating two groups. Instead of needing to find room for thirty students in the learning centers, I realized that I only had to find room for fifteen. While one half was at their centers, the other half worked with me in “direct teaching” where I focused on the skills of the students and reinforced the concepts they were learning on their own. I would halve my teacher-student ratio! It seemed more than perfect, if only I could handle it all….

To prepare for the centers, I spent the first three weeks reviewing lab safety, reiterating class expectations, and guiding the class through a cycle so they could see what it was all about. each center.

At the end of September, it was time to give the students their group homework and Kevin wasn’t the only one that worried me. There was Jimmy, a boy with severe ADHD and learning anxiety – he wanted confirmation that every answer he found was correct before he wrote it down. Emily, a girl with an emotional disorder that prevented her from going to the bathroom on her own because she couldn’t stand being alone, particularly concerned me about the need for students to be able to work and learn without I watch them. every few minutes. I wondered if Mike, a boy prone to abusive verbal outbursts, could be allowed to work with a partner without the teacher’s mediation.

In general, I was concerned that unmotivated students left alone would spend time at the center using their phones – Kim was one of the many students who fell into this category. How could these children, who seemed to need so much attention, learn – or even function – in an environment where they had to complete difficult educational tasks without the help of an adult?

Despite my apprehensions, I continued to move forward. The scientist in me knew I wouldn’t find the answers if I didn’t take action, and the teacher in me knew I would do whatever I needed to take over my centre’s program for these students.

The centre’s first rotation went quickly and quietly. There was no explosion, no breakdown and few incidents forced me to leave direct teaching to help students working in the centers. I thought it had to be fine too much well, i was dreaming or wishing and i only saw what i wanted. After two weeks it was time to collect and grade the portfolios.

Jimmy, for whom writing was a particular struggle, had not only completed the four centers, but also had written a fifteen-sentence reflection on how much he appreciated the lab center because he “felt like a real scientist. “. Emily also did a long reflection, including a full list of suggested activities for other centers, including diagrams. At the end of the first term, Mike brought home a report card with an A and an “Above Average” behavior comment: something that had never happened in his three years of college. Kim still had her cell phone, but she learned to silence it at the start of class and put it away when working in centers.

When learners take responsibility

I was delighted with the success of my students, but I still worried about Kevin. He struggled with the reading and tech centers. He did not return work at the scientific competence center for two consecutive cycles. Then, during the third cycle, Kevin stopped me in my tracks.

The prompt for the creation space was: “Use Legos to create a model that shows one of the stages of mitosis or meiosis.” Looking at the work, I saw simple Legos laid out on the table, solid walls in different colors strategically placed in the middle to look like chromosomes and blocks of bricks that needed to be explained.

Kevin created a moving model that accurately portrayed the process of cytokinesis during cell reproduction.

I watched, unable to believe how her response to the prompt was above my expectations. “Kevin, this is amazing,” I said.

He still didn’t speak – he just shrugged a shoulder and refused to look up from the ground – but he smiled.

Over the next few months, Kevin slowly came out of his shell, producing increasingly impressive work in each center. He always struggles with face-to-face teaching, but when given a prompt, materials to design, and space to learn in his own way, he continues to outperform many of his peers.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this model works so well, not just for students like Kevin, but for everyone. I think it comes down to students being responsible for their own learning and realizing that no one will support them, forcing them to learn. In their reflections, students answer three questions: Which center are you reflecting on? Why did you choose this center? What did you learn about the content or yourself in this center?

Universally, students turn to writing more about what they have learned about themselves (e.g., learning styles, interests, skill levels, strengths, weaknesses) rather than the content, which shows me that they are really connected to the learning process on a personal level. It stopped being “The teacher told me” and moved to “I decided to do it”. In my experience, this can make all the difference.

Amanda Lotz is a professor of life sciences at Southside Middle School in New Hampshire. The names of the students have been changed for this story.

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