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'I Know It's Good 'Cause I Practiced It'

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This post is by Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta

One of the distinctive features of the high school where I (Sarah) used to teach was a project that happened during the last two weeks of the year. The project entailed a shift in the school's usual "grammar"--instead of teaching in solitary 55-minute increments, pairs of teachers spent all day every day with one group of students, exploring a public policy issue from a range of angles. Looking back, I can see that the project involved several elements of deeper learning that we have repeatedly observed in our research: teachers chose issues about which they had personal convictions, students had opportunities to learn in a variety of modalities, the imperatives for content coverage were eased, and the boundaries between school and the outside world became more permeable.

The first several years of the project went reasonably well. Readings and field trips occasionally fell flat, but on balance the process was enjoyable and powerful.

The fourth year I led the project, a colleague and I planned an inquiry into adult literacy--a topic about which I cared deeply, and which, in a city with a stunning one-third functional illiteracy rate, promised to resonate with our students as well. As it happened, however, several of the tenth graders on our roster were annoyed to the point of rebellion that they had to stay in school after final exams. They made it clear at every turn that they had little interest in the project.

The most troubling case was a fiery student that I'll call Tanisha, who alternated between outbursts and apathy. Not coincidentally, Tanisha was a struggling reader--the type of student who, as an adult, might have difficulty navigating the complexities of the text-heavy world around her.

Toward the end of the first week, our students spent an afternoon designing lessons for a group of first graders whose classroom they were going to visit the following day. We had discussed and read about the importance of early interventions, and, as a way of taking action, our students had each chosen a children's book and a literacy strategy to pair with it. Some of them seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of interacting with younger students. Tanisha continued to doodle in her notebook.

The next morning, however, she came into the classroom and thrust a sheet of paper at me. It was a lesson plan. "I worked on it," she said. "I know it's good 'cause I practiced on my little brother." She gave me a look which said that under no circumstances should I remark on her change of heart.

In my surprise, all I could manage to say was, "Great."

And, despite some creative spelling, the lesson was great. It started with having the "teacher" ask the students to talk about what they saw when they closed their eyes, moved through a half-silly and half-serious visualization exercise with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and ended with a cheer: "Read to succeed!" Its appeal became clear that afternoon when Tanisha taught it to a group of adoring and exuberant six-year-olds. She softened when she talked with them, and, listening in, I realized that she had processed some of the key content from the project after all.

There are a number of dimensions of this story that are worth noting in light of deeper learning. There's the fact that exploring a topic relevant to our students' community didn't automatically guarantee engagement. There's the fact that the imperative to create and "perform" something for an authentic audience helped enormously on that front.

What most interests me, however, is that Tanisha knew her lesson was good because she had practiced on her little brother. Tanisha had spent countless hours with the children in her family and community, so she knew what kinds of activities might engage them, how long they might be able to focus, and what kind of energy would appeal. In essence, she had an intuitive sense of what made for good work, which allowed her to accurately self-assess.

This phenomenon is something that Jal and I have come across again and again in our observations of teachers and schools that aspire to enact deeper learning: the criteria by which they determine the value of student work are in some essential way "real."

Think of how one gauges the success of a little league game or a youth orchestra performance. Expectations are adjusted to match the skills of the participants, but the criteria for professional-level excellence serve as a reference point and an inspiration for those involved. Youth baseball players have watched major league games; young musicians have listened to symphony concerts. Good coaches and conductors capitalize on the intuitions that these experiences build, helping students to answer the question, "How do I get there from here?" (For more on this line of thinking, see David Perkins's work on "junior versions of the game" in his excellent book Making Learning Whole.)

So too in schools that support deeper learning. Rather than handing out a 4x4 rubric and leaving it at that, teachers help students to capitalize on or build understandings of how the relevant fields define excellence. In one instance, math students worked with professional architects to understand how proposals for new buildings are judged. In another, students creating exhibits for a science museum tested their prototypes with children who regularly visited the space. In a third, students had to discuss their economics projects with a diverse group of adults. Their teacher provided rubrics and feedback, but the ultimate benchmark was "to be able to explain what you're doing in a way that makes you sound intelligent."     

Tanisha still failed the project--a reminder that a single powerful experience is not enough to sustain deeper learning. But her momentary transformation has stuck with me as a reminder of how important it is that students understand the standards by which their work is judged--and that these standards are meaningfully linked to the world beyond the classroom. 

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