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Lessons From Learners

By: Lois Brown Easton

Student voices can be powerful forces for school reform, but we seldom ask for or listen to them.

When the National Staff Development Council held its annual conference in Denver recently, I asked one of our students, Hector "J.R." Garcia, to write and perform a rap for one of the meetings. "Write about teachers learning," I said, "not teaching. Teachers learning." Here is a refrain from the rap he wrote: "This is a message from a younger generation/Sayin' learn from us, come on and learn from us." Earlier in the conference, another of our students, Sandy Rivera, had talked about what young people need from schools. Among her suggestions were these:

"Believe in us. Do not doubt that we can learn. Do not classify us as no good or lazy. Help us. Build trust. Respect us. Do your job as an educator. Hold us to high expectations. Be real. Be honest."

How many task forces and committees on school reform have each of us been part of recently? How many have had a student voice? How often have we, collectively or individually, formally or informally, turned to a student to ask, "How did you learn this?" or "What do you need to learn this?"

Student voices can be powerful forces for school reform, but we seldom ask for or listen to them. Adults usually make the decisions about what will happen to students in schools without involving them in the conversations. Adults do the hard work of trying to make schools better for students without involving those who have the most at stake. They "do" school to students, instead of having students do school.

We could learn much if we just listened to students. What follows are a few comments from students at my school, an alternative school in Colorado that enrolls high-school-age students from across the United States. Universally, the students at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center did not expect to graduate from high school. Often they had made poor decisions about their lives: joined gangs, used alcohol or drugs, and exhibited other rebellious behaviors. Universally, however, they decided they wanted to change their lives, and so they came here.

Every 14 weeks—three times a year in our year-round school—students do what we call Presentations of Learning. Through these presentations, they exhibit their learning for the trimester: They "make a case" that they have learned, both academically and personally; they analyze and reflect on their learning, connecting it to previous learning and projecting future learning goals.

As part of the process of preparing for these presentations, students create packets for an outside panel that will review them. The packets help students introduce themselves to the panelists before they arrive for the presentations. They include a cover letter, an autobiography, a résumé, and lists of learning experiences, books read, service projects, and "ambassador" activities. They also include a personal-growth reflection called "I Used to Be ... But Now I Am" and a draft of the student's personal moral and ethical code. Through these means, students reflect on themselves as learners.

The social element of learning affected many students. For some students to learn, they implied, the culture of the school must promote seriousness of purpose around learning.

The reflections culled from a single trimester's packets provide a number of lessons for us as educators. Reading them, one is forced to remember that these passages were written by students who were the least engaged in their former schools, those who were labeled "at risk" and either dropped out or were kicked out of school. The comments are those of students who sat at the back of classrooms, disengaged from learning, or acted out their disaffiliation in less passive ways. They are the words of students for whom school did not work—the very ones from whom we must learn.

These students speak of barriers they have encountered in their learning, sometimes attributing them to their own behavior, at other times to the education system. Kelly, for example, said, "One thing I learned this trimester is that falling behind is not an excuse to stay behind." Jessica suggested that her "biggest struggle is dealing with struggling." "I don't like to ask for help," Jessica wrote, "and a lot of times I may seem to understand what's being taught when I'm really confused." Anthony expanded on this. "Once I understood what was going on," he said, "I started to get more involved in the class and was not scared to speak up."

Tasha, meanwhile, revealed that she had trouble learning when those around her were "not putting their all into a class." The social element of learning affected many students. Luke, for example, said, "My personal success relies on the class as a whole, rather than on the instructor." For some students to learn, they implied, the culture of the school must promote seriousness of purpose around learning.

Diana suggested the role that expectations play in learning. "I used to think I was in the lower level mentally," she said, "but now I realize I am a capable student." Ashlyn added this: "In elementary and middle school, I was a good student. When I reached high school, I enjoyed socializing more than being in school. I began to skip school with my friends. Teachers then marked me as a bad student. I began to disrespect them because they did not give me the respect I thought I deserved. This went on for three years until I dropped out of school to pursue other ways of getting my high school diploma." Though Ashlyn clearly had caused many of her own problems, she also suffered from a label she considered undeserved and insurmountable.

What came through clearly in some students' comments is that they want to be engaged in learning. And they have ideas about how they can be engaged.

Angelique had a similar experience. "I learned that you can scar a child for life," she wrote. The revelation came in relating her experience of teaching younger students at Eagle Rock, a practice the school encourages. Angelique's instructor had tried to inspire his young mentor teachers by telling them that when you teach a child, the child will remember you for the rest of his or her life. "I didn't believe him," said Angelique, until she vividly recalled the teacher who "scarred me for life."

Patrick recalled something else—a vicious circle of disengagement. "Most of my previous school years," he wrote, "I didn't attend classes because I was bored, not learning, and teaching myself more than the system was. My lack of attendance was a problem for the system, which I grew to despise with great passion. I would pass all their tests to qualify for more-challenging classes, but they would not let me into the classes because my grades were bad."

What came through clearly in the students' comments is that they want to be engaged in learning. And they have ideas about how they can be engaged.

Several mentioned, for instance, an intriguingly named class called "Civil(?)izations." "The question mark," Jessica explained, "is because our class definition of 'civilization' is still a work in progress." Said Racai, "There is no right or wrong answer on what it is to be 'civilized'." And Seth added: "Second period of the day, in 'Civil(?)izations,' I was asked the question, 'What is civil?' Easy! Being civil means ... uh?"

The instructor in that class, said Adam, "constantly generates the question 'Why?'" Though this may seem a very simple teaching strategy, he added, "it always sparks the most treasurable conversations."

This is what the Coalition of Essential Schools might describe as an essential question—one that has no simple, right-or-wrong answer. Even the teacher does not know its answer. Students become engaged in trying to answer such an authentic question—rather than simply guessing what is in the teacher's mind or between the covers of a textbook, which they find a waste of time.

Some might expect that students like ours, those who have failed before, would want perhaps to avoid high expectations and accountability. But in fact, the opposite is true.

For other students, engagement comes from hands-on learning. Wrote Tasha: "I tend to do better in class when we have hands-on work, such as testing water from rivers and plucking seeds from plants that are native to wetland areas to replant in a new location." Leif agreed, saying of a class called Music and Movement, "We don't just study the dances, we perform them. This helps me stay focused, because I'm not sitting in a chair all period." And Philip added this: "When we go out into the field or to the Rocky Mountains and actually see what we are studying, I have the most fun and learn the most."

Engagement also occurs when students have more say over what they are learning and how they express their learning. They want learning to be personalized. Hayla, a budding creative writer, said, "I wish I could write in lower case all the time, randomly capitalize, confuse my reader, stray away from unconscious conformity." Then she proceeded to do just that in the autobiography section of her presentation. Ashley said that she liked classes without too many guidelines, calling them "a chance to use our imaginations" and put together something unique. She did this, she said, in a class on the Holocaust, where she set out to discover more about her grandparents, who grew up in Hungary and whose family members had been killed in the Holocaust. "History is fascinating to me," Ashley said, "especially when it's my own."

Engagement also comes, the students said, when a class is "fun." That not particularly helpful adjective was given specificity in their reflections. Fun, for example, helped Gabe learn about geologic time. Here is his brief explanation: "If you use your arm from left hand to right hand as a time line, from your left hand to your right mid-biceps would be the Precambrian era. From there to the base of your wrist is the Paleozoic; from there to the tip of your hand, using the middle finger as the tip, is the Mesozoic era. Now imagine that your middle fingernail has grown just a little. If you took a nail file and rubbed it once, that represents the Cenozoic era." The activity—all students standing in a circle and measuring time with their arm spans—was fun and memorable.

Ally shared a fun aspect of learning about grammar and usage. At first, she confessed, she'd had reservations about signing up for the class, mostly because of her "unpleasant and frustrating experiences with grammar in grade school." But that changed as the class began and students assumed active roles in their learning. "We were given little plastic animals, so that we could ask our questions through them. This enabled us to ask a question without fear of being laughed at." The animals were a little bit silly, but they worked for these students who had had bad experiences trying to learn grammar in other schools.

Sometimes, students are engaged when they become the teachers. Tasha, for example, thanked one of her teachers for "giving me assignments in which it was my job to teach the class." This helped her, she said, "have patience for others who do not understand as well as I do." And an added benefit was that she could "retain information better when I'm teaching."

Other paths to engagement were cited. Philip, for example, wrote about "an awesome teacher" that would "listen to feedback and act on it." That teacher's class, he said, taught him that it is OK to give the teacher suggestions about "what can be done to make the class better." Said Kelsey about the strong link between interest and engagement: "It was great to realize how much I enjoyed learning. It had been so long since I'd been interested in the subjects I was taught, it was almost like a miracle."

Some might expect that students like ours, those who have failed before and are seeking a different pathway to school success, would want perhaps to avoid high expectations and accountability. But in fact, the opposite is true. Imagyn gave expression to this need to be held to a standard: "I am 17 years young and in need of much accountability. I came from a world of sex, drugs, heavy metal, and lies. I was comfortable there. I wasn't happy. I fed off other people and their insecurities to run away from mine. I was so good at lying I sometimes even believed myself, which became very dangerous."

If what we learn is put to work in the service of our students' greater self-awareness and improved capacity for learning, then all of them will be able to say that growth has happened.

Changing lives and outlooks, the students said, took a mixture of challenge and trust. Wrote Whitney: "Math has made me want to rip all my hair out and throw my work away. I had such a hard time grasping the concepts, and yet I loved it. I was academically challenged and forced to think." Similarly, Husani said he was delighted that his French teacher "knows how smart I am and demands a lot from me. She knows I can speak the language. I appreciate her rigor because I need somebody on my case."

As Sandy told the conference-goers: "C'mon, do not doubt that we can learn. Believe in us no matter what. Don't assume I do not need help. ... See us in those robes walking across the stage, not wasting time hanging out, doing drugs, hypnotized by trash TV. ... Do not let us slack, slide, or skip through class."

Our school's presentations of learning—and the packets that are part of them—help our staff members learn important lessons from and about our students. The week we spend in our schedule on these presentations is not, as a visitor to our professional- development center once suggested, a waste of learning time. It is, in fact, the most powerful learning time in each trimester—for all of us.

If what we learn is put to work in the service of our students' greater self-awareness and improved capacity for learning and for taking responsibility, then all of them will be able to say, as Sarah did, that growth has happened. "Learning is a constant, a continuation," she wrote. "Growth is a constant cause for struggle and celebration."

Lois Brown Easton is the director of professional development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. Her book The Other Side of Curriculum: Lessons From Learners was recently published by Heinemann.

Vol. 21, number 30, page 33,35 - © 2003 Editorial Projects in Education