Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

This week marked the beginning of “forward instruction” in my district, which meant that last week I had to to figure out what forward writing instruction means during a time like this. Does it mean the same papers I was already planning translated into digital versions? Does it mean tossing out the bigger papers in favor of small, skill-building assignments? Does it mean nudging content aside completely in favor of processing the moment we are in? Or does it mean something else altogether?

As I thought on this, I also pitched this question to Twitter…

…and I quickly got a multitude of answers that ranged from photo-essays and multi-genre projects to podcasts and poetry on the topics that ranged from an examination of ethical dilemmas to COVID-19 journaling to discussing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. The number of responses was somewhat surprising, but what surprised me far more was that out of dozens of teachers who responded, not one had a plan that was even remotely similar to any other.

The variety of plans was striking in the moment, but on further reflection it fits with my experience during this crisis so far. In the other two major world crises I have lived through as an adult (9/11 and the Great Recession), I found that the responses and experiences of the people around me shared a lot commonalities. The same has not been true with this crisis though; nearly every person I talk to and every article I read speaks to a reality that is remarkably different than my own and from the other perspectives I’ve heard.

The same is also true when it comes to my students, who are experiencing this pandemic in dramatically different ways as well. Thanks to a series of letters I have exchanged with them, I know that some students are finally getting lots of sleep after years of not sleeping enough due to the stresses of life and school, while others can’t sleep at all because of the stress of this moment; some have used this time to get in the best shape of their lives, while others have complained about how far they’ve fallen out of shape without the structure of a normal day; some are working more because their families need the money (at least half a dozen of my seniors say they are working full-time currently to support their families), while others lost their jobs; and some have begged me to give a lot of school work to distract them, while others have begged me to not give any, as they are struggling to concentrate on even basic things.

It is not unusual for students to differ in their response to something, but I’ve never seen variation at this level from my students. Like the Tweets I got from teachers, each and every student response was wildly different.

This remarkable variation is why, when now confronted with doing true forward movement of classes again, I have decided to scrap every emergency unit that I have designed in my head over the last month (there are a lot) and instead put the forward instruction into the hands of each student. Upon reflection, with so many students in so many different mental and physical places, this feels like the most humane, equitable, and potentially valuable approach. This is not to say that there will be no guidance, guardrails, or instruction from me–there will be those things–but the ultimate design and much of the subject matter will be up to the students in a way that I’ve never done before.

Of course, I’ve ironically found choice works best when it is penned in by some structures and systems, so here is how I have facilitated this approach thus far this week:

The Set Up

I gave students the sheet below to introduce my approach and outline potential options that might fit the moment, as some need a bit more structure and struggle with a truly blank page.

Here is a pdf of this.

I also showed them mentor texts like this or this or this and other non-Coronavirus related favorites to help them choose the path that is right for them, and when they felt ready to make a choice, I asked them to fill out the Google Form below.

The Planning

The next step was to have them do something that I saw in Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn’s upcoming book Creating Confident Writers: having students write a proper proposal for me outlining what they will do and what they hoped to accomplish. I wanted to do this first because as teachers we often can’t help but to jump in with our perspective–Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle call this “Helicopter Teaching”–and I want this piece to truly be what the students want, not what I think they might want. The proposal is meant to act as a firewall against that, as they will create a clear and coherent vision before I get involved. Here is the proposal sheet I gave them:

Here is a link to it.

The Next Steps

The next steps going forward will be a work in progress, but I know they will include a few key things:

  • Students will set goals for themselves in the way that I normally do, but I hope to give their goals even more weight right now.
  • Students will tell me what targeted lessons they feel would help the most right now. My hope is to combine these with targeted lessons on topics that I notice a need for too.
  • I will find a way to conference and provide thoughtful feedback to students, with the goal of both being the creation of something that meets their needs right now, both as humans and as students.

One potential criticism to this approach might be that it isn’t academic enough, as there are no standards or rubrics to be covered, though in recent days I’ve read articles from incredibly academic people like John Hattie, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey arguing that giving the students the reins to their own learning at some level right now is likely the right approach.

This makes sense too because student engagement is an essential prerequisite to learning, and even in regular times, writing is a fickle beast when it comes to engagement. It is rather amazing how the same student can pour hours and their very soul into one piece and then only skim the surface while cutting every corner along the way possible on another.

During such an extreme time, where everyone is experiencing such drastically different realities, I’m not sure one assignment exists that will speak to all or even most students. And thanks to my Google form above, I even have some data to back this up (see right). Out of all the options–Bearing witness (aka writing about now), narrative, research, and other–no single category got more than 35% of students who wanted to do it.

My hope is that by allowing students to choose the path that feels right for them, they will all end up in the same place in the end: growing as writers, but also more importantly using the power of writing to process and make it through this time.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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3 thoughts on “Choosing Their Own Path: Why My Students Will Create Their Own Writing Curriculum Over the Next Nine Weeks

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