Earlier this week, I stood next to one of my administrators atop the brick edges of a flowerbed for a better view of the beautiful chaos of a spring club fair. Students shouted and sang and waved neon posters back and forth, courting new members and future leaders; they were eager to refresh activities that might have gone dormant during lockdown. The outdoor location for the fair was new; we still didn’t want to risk a big indoor crowd at such close range. “This is so much better than when we had it in the gym,” the administrator said. “Another pandemic illumination.”
Her phrase–”pandemic illumination”–has stuck with me in this week that marks the two-year anniversary of most COVID lockdowns in the U.S. It seems well-suited to the lessons we’ve been learning over the past two years (and it feels more appropriately somber than “silver lining”). The COVID-19 pandemic has both spotlighted some of our society’s most broken places, demanding attention and action, and cast the rest of life in a new light, revising and challenging our understanding of the familiar.
One “pandemic illumination” I’ve come to appreciate is the truth (or rather a reinforcement of the truth) that my students can (and do) learn without me. I ought to be the facilitator rather than arbiter of learning. Two years ago, like many of you, I left for spring break and never returned to my classroom. The IB exams I had planned to spend much of late March and April preparing my seniors to take were canceled. We had an absurdist play next on our schedule that, given the circumstances, seemed absurd to teach. What would we do instead? And how on earth could I make any sort of learning meaningful for almost-graduates who had lost so much so quickly?
In a new world where so many of their choices had evaporated in an instant, my solution was to create new choices for them to make, new spaces they could control. I scrapped the texts I had planned to teach and asked students instead to scan their bookshelves and Netflix queues and select their own texts (books, movies, or television series) to study and analyze for the rest of the semester. I put them in charge of their learning. I organized a very simple plan for how the independent study would proceed and asked students to keep a log of their progress and thinking, knowing all the while that I wouldn’t be familiar with every text they studied and would need to trust their accounts. Every few class periods, I sent small groups into Zoom breakout rooms to discuss their texts using a set of questions broad enough to apply to novels, poetry collections, films, and television series. For assessment, students responded to their self-selected works in the way they would have written their IB exams. And on our last day of class, everyone shared a favorite line from their independent study work; the round of “last words” was cathartic and profound.
This independent study was a chance to beta test an idea that first emerged in the summer of 2019, when I attended an IB teacher training. Excited that the list of prescribed authors for the course had expanded to include more contemporary writers, writers of color, and songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Kendrick Lamar, and Stephen Sondheim, I drew up a curriculum map that included a whole semester of student choice. “Good luck with that,” my workshop instructor chuckled as he looked over my shoulder at my laptop screen, but I smiled and carried on, confident I could make it work. An advanced literature class didn’t have to look the way it did when I was in high school (or even college). I still haven’t tried a whole semester, but the success of our spring 2020 independent study broadened the scope of the next class’s summer reading assignment. And the success of that choice-directed summer reading assignment has led me to this moment, when I am inviting seniors, now attending in-person classes and back to our school’s regular schedule, to select their final text for the course and guide themselves through it. In my next posts, I plan to update you on our progress and share what I have learned.
If you are feeling the itch to shake things up and join me in the glimmer of this “pandemic illumination,” here is how I have organized the study and what we plan to do with it.
1. Create a student interest survey
I limited our available texts to those from IB’s prescribed list of authors and asked students to investigate and select their top three writers from the list.
2. Share the survey results and encourage book clubs
Using the survey results, I made a list of the top ten writers and encouraged students to select texts from that list, as it would create a built in book club/support system.
3. Make a calendar and declare selections
I offered a ballpark estimate of when students would need to finish reading their texts and briefly described the unit assessments (a write-alike assignment, and an analysis in the style of our exam) before asking students to declare their text selections.
Coming up, we will…
4. Check progress with book club discussions
5. Demonstrate knowledge, understanding, interpretation, and evaluation of our texts in writing
I recognize that the “beta test” my students and I enjoyed in spring 2020 was aided by my most of my students’ economic privilege; they had access to books, digital media, and time that many students trying to learn during that time did not. And, similarly, buying a new book for this year’s independent study is not a hardship for most of my students. But there are opportunities to collaborate with librarians for a text set or scour old department book closet class sets for options, too. Or meet students where they are and find out which books, movies, or plays they have seen somewhere or heard about and want to explore and work from there. You could also try creating some text sets of great essays or short stories available through resources like CommonLit.
And for those of you who make independent reading projects a component of your courses, what I am doing might not feel new or fresh or even ambitious, but for a senior literature class with a high stakes exam still left to complete, this feels excitingly dangerous–just what we need to keep everyone engaged as they start to match with roommates and make summer plans.
If you’ve had great success with independent study or are trying one now for the first time, I hope you’ll share your best advice or perhaps the other ways these past two years have illuminated new truths for you. Reach out in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. Until next month…shine on!
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