One of the greatest ways to change the energy of education for kids is through offering assignments that are flexible in nature. This is the cornerstone to differentiated instruction and reaching students with different learning styles. Learning styles have become a buzz word in the education field. What exactly are learning styles? We all know that people are unique. Individuality is a core concept in Western society. Learning styles are simply this: a recognition that different people learn differently. I happen to understand numbers easily. But when it comes to music, I’m at a loss. Each of us has a different way that information makes the most sense to us. There are many ways for a student to show a skill, but we often limit our students by asking for traditional assessments and evidence that we are more comfortable with. I have been consistently amazed by what happens when you open up an assignment to different learning styles. But learning styles are not just about making information easier to access. They are also about making information fun.
My biggest reason for starting this blog has to do with my passion for learning. I find it to be a travesty that so many kids become disillusioned about education and come to hate learning, but my greatest disappointment with education is finding teachers who have forgotten that learning can and is meant to be fun. I always strive to make my assignments as interesting as I can, to choose readings that I think will be the most engaging for students, but that only goes so far. The question comes, how can I instill or revitalize the desire to learn and to create among my students? How can I get them to be so excited about writing, that they begin their own blog? How do I teach them that their words can be as infectious as the great writers we all admire?
It starts with the ability to create flexible assignments that hit a variety of learning styles and types. A skill is a skill. As an educator, it’s my job to teach and then assess my students’ abilities to perform skills. For me, that means the skills that allow someone to communicate: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Does it matter if a kid shows me he can summarize a novel by writing a boring summary statement or by performing a song about the novel or by acting it out in class? So if singing a song, or acting it out, invigorates a student to learn, what possible reason could I have not to allow it? In fact, I would be remise in my responsibilities if I didn’t. More than just teaching skills, it’s a teacher’s job to inspire, to excite, to make learning a gift, not a curse.
After reading Flowers for Algernon, I have my students write an apology letter from Dr. Strauss to Charlie for what he put him through. The assignment requires students to get into character (analyzing the character of Dr. Strauss and synthesizing that information to infer what an authentic letter from this character would look like). In the process, it also requires them to show they can write an expository essay and requires intimate knowledge of Dr. Strauss’s relationship with Charlie and the events of the book. One of my students was avoiding the assignment. Upon meeting with her and her parents to talk about her progress in her classes (which in this class seems to have been held up somewhat by this assignment), I asked her what she was struggling with on the assignment. Where was she stuck? Her answer to me was beautiful.
“It’s a stupid assignment,” she replied. Her parents, of course, were appalled that they’d say this to the teacher, but I laughed and asked why. And this is where her brilliance shined, “Dr. Strauss would not have apologized to Charlie. It was not in his character.” Brilliant! In a statement that might have thrown a teacher into defensiveness, and off the path of true understanding, this student revealed a deeper understanding than any student prior to. Whether or not this was really true of Dr. Strauss (for truly how we interpret a character has no single answer), this student had already clearly shown she got my primary objective, which was to analyze this character and from that infer how this character would behave beyond the pages of this book. To tell this student she had to do the assignment as it was given at this moment in time, would have been a crime. So, I told her instead, to write about exactly what she had just said: how my assignment was stupid – or more specifically – why Dr. Strauss would never write a letter of apology.
Being flexible in this moment accomplished two things. First, it gave this student a buy-in to her education. And second, it allowed me to assess her skills much more accurately than if I’d forced her into a corner by making her do the assignment as I’d envisioned it. In this instance, being flexible turned a potentially bad experience into a learning experience.
Think for a moment about how changing that assignment changes entire energy of learning for this student. She went on to finish that assignment, and the entire class.
I often receive requests from students to do work for extra credit. I am not a believer in extra credit. I allow kids to redo their work. As often as they want. But, extra credit allows students to escape learning, redoing assignments encourages learning from failure. There is no time limit for me on redoing an assignment. The clock never stops until the class is over, and even that is an arbitrary moment in time that I have on many occasions overlooked.
Most often, when a student is looking for extra credit, what they are really looking for is an excuse to do something they enjoy. And that is an opportunity not to let slip away. Whenever someone asks me about extra credit, I always ask them what they had in mind. Recently, a student said he wanted to do some assignments focused on Judaism and Israel. Being from Israel and part of an orthodox family, these were things very near and dear to his heart. Instantly I saw synchronicity in this request. What better opportunity to engage a student that although a hard worker, was simply trying to “get the A” and cared more about that letter than the learning required to get there. I looked at how far he was in his class and checked out some of the assignments that he had coming up, and quickly shot him back 3 alternate assignments that could take the place of assignments already there.
Of course, where you see synchronicity, synchronicity arrives. Within minutes he had emailed me back thanking me for giving him those suggestions. He had actually been feeling stuck on one of the assignments: a personal declaration mimicked after the Declaration of Independence which I had turned into a declaration of his commitment to the Jewish faith. With that option on the table, he suddenly knew exactly what to write about. And, he had the perfect reference for this expository essay: the Torah with which he was already so familiar. He would now get a first-hand experience with citing evidence from a text he loves and worships. An assignment like this could shift his entire world view of education.
Online learning is the ideal platform for creating limitless flexibility in education. Imagine assignments shared all over your state, your country, our world. Imagine students having lists of potential assignments to pick from to show us their mastery of skills. Let’s make this vision happen together. Commit. Commit your energy, commit your heart, commit your career to sharing, to expanding, and to adding the rich flexibility of education.