Flexibility at the Core

If you follow my blog, you know I’ve called my larger work “Like a Thousand Lizards on a Flatbed Truck” but it could just as easily be called, “What Good Teachers Know.”

Whether they articulate it or not, good teachers know that their classroom and their building must function as an optimally integrated system, meaning they must be flexible, adaptable, coherent, energized, and stable.

Flexible means that something has the ability to bend without breaking. An optimally integrated system has flexibility as one of its primary characteristics. While it’s easy to visualize that in terms of a tree branch or a bungee cord — how does that express itself in the classroom? Especially in a school culture that emphasizes a set curriculum which teachers must follow “with fidelity”?

While, obviously, some things at school are non-negotiable (safety, learning, respect) for the program where I teach, flexibility begins with student choice. While we still follow the curriculum, we allow the student to decide what he wants to read, what he wants to study, or what he wants to create. We also employ our electives programs to their fullest extent.

For example, one of the organizations that we utilize in our school is TSA — Technology Student Association. This was a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program before STEM (or STEaM) was a thing. We have a school level competition, a state level competition, and an international competition. Through the club, our students are offered about 120 different “challenges” to complete. Each challenge has a packet of information that outlines the expectations of the project and provides a rubric for the final product. Most of the challenges also require the students to complete and submit a project portfolio, documenting their research and design process along the way.

This means that a student could choose to complete the challenge for video game design and innovations in biomedical and castle ballistics and debating challenging issues in technology, but it also means a core teacher could simply assign ONE of those options, and allow the students to complete it with the choice that is inherent in it. Let’s say the student (or a group) must complete the video game design, but the game must involve something from the 19th century or must involve Manifest Destiny — or whatever fits your particular curriculum. One year in my ELA class, all of the students were required to complete the Communication Challenge — they had to create a flyer, a fund-raising business letter, a newsletter, and a business card for an organization (real or pretend) of their choice.

As they take off on their learning journey, students are reading non-fiction articles about their topic, about the technology platform they want to use — they are utilizing the internet to do research for most of this — they are selecting and reading fiction literature about their topic (one boy who had never been much of a reader read 4 novels about the Civil War while designing a video game) they are in literature circle groups to discuss what they are reading, they are actively seeking out programming algorithms and procedures to solve the problems they encounter, they are tracking their research and, if they are working in a group, they are using technology to collaborate and communicate their ideas and progress. This is meaningful, memorable learning, and we know from brain research that any time we connect learning to a memory, it becomes not only a deeper learning, but also a more easily retrievable piece of information.

This doesn’t mean that we are doing away with specific skill training — in fact, quite the opposite. Through warm ups and daily mini-lessons in English class, students are learning about sentence structures, unpacking rubrics, conducting research, MLA works cited, and publication style rules. There are also mini-social studies lessons, math lessons, science lessons, and technology lessons going on in their other classes. We are still making sure that students have exposure to the critical information and problem solving necessary for literacy and that they will be required to know on standardized tests and college entrance exams.

Flexibility doesn’t limit itself to TSA — or any single program. (We also have strong music and theatre, FCCLA, art, PE, and foreign language programs!) The point is that, as much as possible, we want to allow our students to explore new ideas while holding on to something that they love — because students will show task commitment to something that they love. Allowing students choice means that school becomes a place where they are enriched, rather than a place where they are simply changed — this is very important to a gifted or otherwise strong-willed adolescent. This flexibility allows teachers to create an environment that celebrates students and encourages an independent quest and appreciation for lifelong learning.