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Living in the Land of “What If…?”

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Jun 24, 2015

In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning. 

For many of us, summer is a time when we can clear our minds and truly think about our teaching practice. Questions like “What was successful?” or “Where can we grow?” ring in our minds even when our bodies may be engaged in fun summertime activities. Like many of you, my mind also delves into thinking about the possibilities for the upcoming school year. We peruse Pinterest or other digital mediums for new ideas or practices. With new ideas often come the questions that begin with “What if…?”

What if students didn’t sit in a desk all day listening to teachers talk? Learning is an action verb, so shouldn’t students be active to truly learn? How actively involved are students if the teacher is doing all the work and the students are passive? We know that our students become experts at playing school: appearing to be engaged in class when a teacher is talking while being a million miles away mentally. Wouldn’t that change if students had the opportunity to work with their peers, both locally and globally?

Students could share their strengths for the benefit of others while developing in an area of their weaknesses by collaborating with their peers. They could ask questions of one another and get many more perspectives beside the one that a teacher might have. If students are actively involved in learning, they won’t be able to go unnoticed and slip between those proverbial classroom cracks.

What if learning weren’t a “one-size-fits-all” proposition where every child is doing the exact same things at the exact same time? What if students actually had a choice in how they learn content?

We know that students have different learning styles; they learn best across different modalities and learning environments. Some students may learn best by reading and writing a reflection while others may learn best by creating something new to show their learning. Others may benefit from creating podcasts, videos, or interviews.

What if students were given the opportunity to share their mastery of learning standards in a way that was meaningful for them? What could happen if we let students create their own rubrics, break down standards, and assess one another?

Students would become experts at understanding standards while understanding where they stand on the learning continuum. Instead of every student creating the same teacher-directed project with very little variety or ownership, students can build an entire interactive digital world in Minecraft while others publish an anthology of writing or create a board game for peers to play. They learn how to take what they have learned and apply it in a way that is meaningful to them and impactful for those around them. With these opportunities, students gain a much deeper understanding of the content and how it fits within the framework of their lives.

What if students became their own advocates for learning? What if, while they are with us, they learn how to articulate their learning?

Students need the tools to communicate successfully with educators and other adults how they learn best. They need to be equipped with the terminology and research to argue for the types of learning experiences they need to get the most out of their education. If our students spend a school year discovering themselves as learners—their strengths, weakness, and goals—they build the confidence and the ability to explain to anyone not just what they need as learners but also why they need it.

So the question that may be ringing in your head is whether this works within a regular classroom of a diverse population of students. What does it look like? How can it be managed with everything else we juggle as teachers? I would love to show you what happens when students take the driver’s seat in their own learning. Be sure to join me on Sunday, July 19, at 9:00 a.m. at ILA’s Annual Conference for my session, “License to Learn: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat of Their Own Learning.” I’ll be sharing many of my students’ stories, their projects, and our adventures down the “what if…?” path. I hope to see you there.

Julie D. Ramsay is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”: Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3–8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog, eduflections.


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