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On Engaged Learning

January 15, 2009

I walked out of my class for a minute today to get some water, and none of my kids noticed.

Let me say that again – I walked out of my class for a minute today to get some water, and none of my kids noticed.

Yeah, I teach middle school (at the “middle school” of all middle schools, no less), and I walked out of my class for a minute, and none of my kids noticed.

There’s something very wrong with that picture. Seriously.

For one – considering the particular kids I work with (so-called “at-risk youth;” the kids that other middle schools cast away) it’s crazy that I left a room full of students completely unattended. The fact that I even thought about it is kind of crazy (considering what would normally happen if I did that).

The second part – even crazier than the first – is that they didn’t even notice. Not a one. They didn’t even know I slipped out.

Why was that? Well, considering how “bad” those kids must be, it’s probably because they were fighting. Or playing violent video games. Or maybe they were so crazy and “out of control” that they didn’t notice me leave because they never pay attention to me, anyway. Right?

Nope. They didn’t notice because they were totally engaged in learning. Yeah – you heard me. A room full of middle school kids didn’t even know that I left the area because they were too intent on learning to look up and see me gone. They were too happily discovering new things by themselves that they didn’t even think to find me to ask for help.

I kid you not.

Now, this is not a post to talk about how great a teacher I am. Because, to be honest, this is the first time this has ever happened (could be the only time, too). No – instead, I write of it because it was so amazing to me. It is also a good representation of what’s wrong with the education system today.

The class the kids were in was my elective Music Production class. In this class, I am teaching (along with another teacher) kids to write original music; use digital software to sample, loop and edit tracks; make their own beats using a digital drum machine; and to write and record lyrics to produce a complete song (that will be burned to a cd and given to them at the end of the trimester).

Today, the kids were so engrossed in putting together their music and playing with samples, that they didn’t have time to “get into trouble.” They weren’t messing with each other. They weren’t putting each other down. They weren’t complaining about being bored or getting frustrated because it “didn’t make sense.” No – they were just creating something new, and learning how to do so through the experience of playing with sounds.

And it’s easy to say – “Well of course they were into that, because it wasn’t real learning.”

But it was. In the last few weeks, they have been intently writing lyrics for their songs – expressing joy, pain, love, and other emotions they never share with each other (or anybody else). They have been learning to get comfortable with the computer software. They have learned about beats, bars, rhythm, and how to keep musical time. They have learned how to determine a song’s tempo. They’ve created hip-hop music, rock songs, motown-esque ballads. They’ve had art, math, social skills, language arts, and a little bit of history all in one class.

And every single one of them has been in it from start to finish. And it’s not like these are some special selection of kids. I have two classes of Music Production, with a very representative cross-section of our student population (almost half the school, really), they have been learning more – and actively so – than in any other class I’ve ever taught.

But there’s one huge problem: this is the exception. It should not be such a huge f-ing deal that I left a class of kids to learn, and there was no problem. It should not be so amazing that the kids are happily learning through experience. It should not blow my mind that the majority of the time in class today (after 10 minutes of in-front-of-the-class “teaching”), I just sat and watched the kids create. That they called my name to share what they had made – not to ask for help or call out other students.

Because our schools in this country don’t work like that. Our school system does not provide for this kind of learning to happen. There is too much B.S. “content” to teach in the “core” classes (math, science, reading) to slow down enough to really dive in and enjoy a particular topic. Budgets are too small to allow for anything even remotely “artsy” to get funding – even when hard academic skills are being learned. Teachers don’t get paid enough nor have the time to put in to create truly engaging lesson plans. Training is a joke. Most teachers are doing it for the wrong reasons or are completely disconnected from the kids they teach. Those that do it right do so at the cost of sacrificing most of their outside life. So many things are wrong with the system – and they all combine to keep this from happening: kids so engaged in learning that they don’t even really need the teacher, or feel like they’re “learning.”

But it’s possible. So when our kids hate school and can’t help but go a little crazy when they are there – it might just be the fault of the school, and not necessarily the kids. Or, more accurately, it might just be the fault of the school system, and not so much the kids. Because these students I’m talking about are the kids that society wants to forget. These are the ones that are “bad” and “disrespectful” and “lack discipline” and everything else folks like to throw at them. And yet – these are the same kids that created the “perfect learning environment” that teachers speak of in hushed whispers of impossibility.

What if somebody had enough and finally rebuilt – ground to ceiling – this depressing school system so that that was the norm? It could happen. My math classes could look like this, no matter the kids. If only the “system” would allow it to happen.

And I can’t help but think that it’s likely impossible. At least very improbable. But I won’t let go of the surprisingly-wonderful gift this country gave me two months ago, and so I allow that it’s worth it to hope. Hell – maybe I can even be an active part of that change.

And so I turn to you, dear readers – how best can I begin the Education Revolution?

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6 comments

  1. Gifted classes are often structured in this way.
    Kids are free to discover knowledge.


  2. Have you ever read any of John Holts journals. They are very thought provoking on this very issue. – Jenn


  3. wow, wish I had gotten to take that class when I was in public school. my mom is a kindergarten teacher and a union rep for her school. I think that if teachers were given more of a say in what kind of curriculum was being taught in their districts and were able to work together with their school boards and state officials, it might improve things. 9 times out of ten, my mom is telling me about some stupid thing her district is making her do to improve test scores or to help kids learn better. It seems like you’ve got the teacher’s unions pitted against the administration, against the school board, and against the state all the time. the whole thing is ridiculous.


  4. I smiled when I saw the mac computer!! I have one and they do make and effort to get the younger generation, I think that is there “life-blood” now.


  5. CVT,
    I’m very late to this post, but I first wanted to say that I think you are being a bit modest, which is why I can tell you are a good teacher. Because you care and because you give your students the credit for learning and being engaged. Which is also about you. So I just wanted to start by giving you some props, because you clearly care about your students, and while that can’t be the end of the story, it goes a long way, I’m sure, in how you interact with them, the respect you show them, and the boundaries you also put in place (because in my very limited experience working with high school students, there is this balancing act of giving them freedom but also giving them boundaries to push against and fall back on).

    Since you asked for suggestions, I’m wondering, given the scene you set for us, if what was perhaps going on in your class was the students being full participants in their education. That yes, this could be perceived as something *fun* and therefore that it didn’t *feel* like learning, but it also seems like it was something that they could relate to. You didn’t say to them, “We’re going to study the rudiments of computer technology from a hands-on perspective and we’re going to work on the fundamentals of poetry composition” — they got both these things by working on music–in a very inter-disciplinary class.

    So are there other things that they could feel full participants in that also gets them to learn? Like making a rocket–there is the design element, the physics, the marketing even (if, for example, there was a competition to see whose rocket would be launched and only 5 of 10 could be).

    I also wonder if you could ask. I don’t know your age group very well since I teach college myself, but I do ask my students half way through the semester how the class is going and what they wish they got more of (lecture, discussion, other activities). I also embed an assignment where they are divided into groups of 4 and each group is responsible for teaching the entire class for an entire class period. They chose the reading the topic and how they want to teach. It gives them a real sense of empowerment.

    It may involve more work on your end, but I’m wondering if that could work for your students–maybe a whole class period is too daunting…but telling them that they can choose, perhaps among a list of topics, to teach to the class could be a great way for them to feel really invested in their own education.


  6. Jennifer –
    I love your idea of kids picking a “pet” topic to later teach to the class. I really do. I have actually kicked around the idea of an entirely student-run elective class where they take turns being experts on various topics and teaching each other. How cool would that be?

    The only problem being, of course, whether or not I was actually allowed to do that. Which is why I have to be sneaky . . .



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