In previous years we have started school with a week of orientation. We did team building activities, had a huge, crazy scavenger hunt, and had students on a high ropes course. Although we felt those were successful approaches to the start of a new year we decided to do something different this year. So we started by continuing the Water Project that we ended with last year.
The Water Project was our best project ever because of how much ownership the students took of it. But this was a new class of kids whose only connection to the project was seeing it in the hall. How would we get them to buy in?
On the first day of school we brought in two guest speakers from LGROW, a local agency of our city government that works to promote good management practices of the Grand River Watershed. They shared who they were and the needs of their organization. We also did activities to teach students about watersheds and management of them.
By the third day students were looking at local problems and proposing solutions. At the end of the day they selected one of three “realms” to be a part of: Helping LGROW, working on our local campus, or working more broadly on a watershed where they live (our students come from all across the county and live on many different local watersheds that all feed into the Grand River). Once they were in these groups, they broke down into sub groups of things like making professional posters, promotional videos, and designing a social media campaign for LGROW. Other groups are designing a rain garden and a rooftop garden to grow vegetables for our school. They were calling local businesses for information and networking with the culinary and Ag science programs on our campus. The third realm groups are designing projects around their local watershed and some have already brought in water samples.
Student leaders are emerging in all groups. These kids are skilled and passionate about doing these things. One of the really cool things to me is that I had no preconceived ideas of who the leaders would be because I am just trying to learn their names. So I don’t know their academic history, but it feels like all kinds of kids are finding their niche and rising to the challenge. Yesterday one of the members of LGROW came back to school and the students pitched their ideas to him for feedback. He loved them.
This project will be unique for us in that students will work on it every other Friday for two hours for the rest of the year. It will be the first time that we try to sustain a project over time. One of the advantages of this is it gives the students time to do real work and develop relationships with the community and businesses that is just impossible in a 3-4 week timeframe.
Last year ended with students taking over and owning their learning. This year we are starting off with students taking over and owning their learning. I am very excited to see the real work that my students will do this year. Instilling this culture to start the year is so powerful! I am confident that they are going to surprise me this year.
So how do you get students to own their learning? Challenge them with real work for real people for a real purpose. And then quite honestly get out of the way. Teachers are still there to guide, but we must not control the project. One of my strengths is a lack of organization. So I dream big possibilities and give them to students. My lack of planning everything to a T gives the students space to take over and run the project. Sometimes all it takes is less of us so that there can be more of them.
What have you done to let students own their learning this year?