…one of my great fears is that ultimately my life will be a waste, that I’ll never do anything worthwhile, and it seems that sometimes I can already feel myself slipping…
Active learning environments. Student-centered classrooms. Ownership of education. Project based learning. Authentic outcomes. Innovative educators strive to attain the perfect balance–ideal in theory, but a challenge to actualize. Here is a glimpse of the impact and results of shifting to a personalized learning model during third quarter of the school year with my eleventh grade Visions in World Literature and Composition classes.
Third quarter of the course (structured in stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey) focuses on our transformation after facing trials, adventures, and challenges when separated from our known world. The transformation throughout the inward journey helps us emerge from darkness and isolation with new knowledge to utilize upon returning to our known world. The essential question is valuable for all to contemplate:
Unit: The Inward Journey
- I know the meaning of allegory
- I understand how to analyze and interpret multiple levels of symbolism in an allegory
- I understand the inward journey of the hero as it relates to my transformation
- I create a narrative project reflecting on my quest for fulfillment
Big Question: How do I attain personal fulfillment in my life?
The answer is likely not through completing worksheets and passing quizzes. After studying the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, Plato, and Dante, the project asks students to represent stages of their life (their own heroic journey) in the form of an allegory. The challenge requires personal reflection, critical thinking, and creation of new learning outcomes [see the assessment rubric at the bottom of this post]. For those uncomfortable sharing personal issues, there is privacy and security in burying the true meaning of the journey under layers of symbolism. Students know in advance they will only be asked to share their concept or approach (more of a show-n-tell session at the end of the quarter). The written analysis and explanation of the allegorical meaning may be submitted privately to me.
I was shocked by how many students were willing to share (even present) specific details with full disclosure. Early volunteers set the tone for two days of sharing experiences around the circle. With respect to student privacy, I will not document anything that was not shared publicly. In fact, that personal connection with individual students adds to my treasure chest of moments and memories.
Student projects included: works of art, photography, creative writing, visual displays, journaling, screenplays, videos, music lyrics, live performance, literary quotes, and computer animation. Here are several examples:
This painting required two people to transport and display, by far the largest and most striking product in the room. Everyone convinced the insightful, reserved ELL student to go first–a rare vote of support from her peers. Haunting, deep, inspiring…the artwork gave her voice.
Another introverted learner–new to our district–was the final student to share. She shocked the audience by not merely sharing her visual project, she went on to present a courageous explanation of a crippling anxiety disorder that has followed her to our school. It took her to the end of third quarter to participate in class, but when she did, her classmates were the ones left speechless.
One student, a swimmer, showed some of the most impressive critical thought. He compared the stages of his life’s journey to his twenty-one second race at the state swim meet. As he played the video of his performance, he stopped to explain rich detail, the meaning of every second of the race.
An aspiring rock star provided the audience with an opportunity to leave the classroom. She and her bandmates treated us to a live acoustic set in the auditorium, including two new songs written to express her allegorical journey.
Possibly the most memorable video–one that was admittedly therapeutic and necessary to play for the class–documented a student’s transformation before, during, and after losing her mother to cancer. She interviewed family members (including her father and younger brother), included photos of her childhood with her mother, and had a soundtrack set to Mumford and Sons’ “Believe.” Midway through the video, the music faded in the background as the sound of a heart rate monitor slowed. Flatlined. Silence.
For several breathless seconds, the audience sat teary-eyed, until the music returned louder and more upbeat. Images flew by growing more optimistic with signs of renewal, growth, and new family experiences. Dad remarried and smiles emerged from the darkness. As Mumford and Sons repeated, “I don’t even know if I believe,” the words, “I BELIEVE,” appeared on the screen to end the video. I will never forget the impact of that moment.
As if these examples do not provide ample evidence of the impact of personalized learning, one young man verbalized his gratitude for the enrichment opportunity and validated the entire process. After showing an impressive computer animation of his allegory, the audience prepared to applaud, but he continued presenting. Expressed with soft-spoken voice, carefully crafted words, and tender vulnerability, he shared:
These last few years I’ve sometimes felt as though I’m stagnating. I keep my grades up, but often procrastinate work until the absolute last minute. When I look to people with strong work ethics I compare them with myself, and the result is usually, “Wow, look at that. You could do so much if you only worked as hard as they do.” I’m accomplishing what I see as the minimum of what I’m capable of, but not much else, and that’s not a good feeling. I know I’m still very young, but one of my great fears is that ultimately my life will be a waste, that I’ll never do anything worthwhile, and it seems that sometimes I can already feel myself slipping. This stagnation is depicted in the majority of my video, represented as boredom and unhappiness. I greatly enjoy consuming other people’s work in the form of movies, shows, music, books, games, etc., but doing so doesn’t solve the underlying problem, only distract from it. Therefore my character achieves a brief respite by sitting at his computer, but it is fleeting.
However, I do have a general idea of what I want to accomplish in life– I want to make something, and be able to point to it and say, “That’s it, that’s my contribution to society.” Making something with a computer seems to be the best route open to me, as I am neither artistically nor musically gifted, and physical construction doesn’t interest me. When my little stickman stops lounging about and starts working his project, he is able break out of his stagnation and achieve some real happiness. This assignment wasn’t incredibly large, and my video isn’t particularly good, but through it I was able to motivate myself to learn some new things, do some work I didn’t feel was required of me, and ultimately make something I can truly call my own. Hopefully, it is only the first in a long series of projects, and my story will end as happily as the stickman’s, but I’m not quite there yet.
Major Observations and Takeaways
Student products displayed:
- great variety
- high levels of critical thought
- individual strengths, skills, and gifts (surpassing anything I could think to assign)
- pride in work and sense of accomplishment
- confidence, as students ventured well beyond their comfort zone
- respect, compassion, and empathy
After the powerful sharing, I can feel a new level of trust and respect in our classroom community. Students see each other as more than peers or individuals whom always sit in the same spot in the classroom. Everyone listens. And now that I do not talk to class for extended periods of time, students focus when I speak. As I presented a whole-class lesson (“team meeting”) about diction and syntax, I had the undivided attention of every student. Eye contact. Nodding. Questions. A verbal and nonverbal exchange: communication.
Let’s make the learning experience personal. Believe.