Student-Led Exploratory Digs Deeply into Issues

A MiddleWeb Blog

history_logo-bBy Jody Passanisi

At my school we have an exploratory program that helps our students “explore” ideas and activities they may be interested in. The exploratories meet twice per week, are usually teacher-run, and rotate and change based on student interest coupled with teachers’ passion for and knowledge of extra-curricular subjects.

This past year, before I could come up with my own topic, I had a group of students approach me because I am “a history teacher and so it seemed like [you’d] be a good fit for our idea.”

Students create issues exploratory

These students–about five at the outset of this project–wanted to create what they first termed a “controversial topics” class (we later changed it to the less controversially monikered “current events”) where they could explore the things they really cared about.

While I knew that these particular students were socially minded, I didn’t realize the extent of their interest until they started the class. Not only did they show great compassion and understanding– as well as anger — for what is going on in the world, but they really stepped up to create a student-led class where they themselves drove the inquiry.

For each lesson, the core group of students would create a research and discussion-driven presentation for the class. Some of the topics they chose to discuss were indeed controversial, but all, like one presentation on the wealth gap in America, were driven by a real desire to make good in the world.

A particular student came to me and said that he had been up all night writing a presentation on income inequality and had prepared a presentation that would take at least two days to give. He did indeed take over the class (for a week) and the students really got involved, not only in the discussion, but in brainstorming ways to ameliorate current problems.

Students conduct research and welcome diverse opinions

cultural-appropriationThe students didn’t all agree with each other, either. There were some topics, like feminism and cultural appropriation, where the students couldn’t always come to consensus on whether something was indeed a problem, to what extent it was a problem, and/or how to fix it.

For each topic, I insisted on assertions that were not based on personal experience but were grounded in research that could be cited. They stuck to this for the presentations–though not always for the discussions themselves. But this rule helped to ground them and, I think, set a civil tone.

The amount of time it took for the students to prepare their issues was not insignificant, especially because their leadership role had made this non-academic class quite academic. Most of the presentations, though not all, were created collaboratively – and all of them were developed outside of class time.

The interesting trend I noticed was that each presentation would give credence to both sides of an argument, undergirded by research data. No matter the stance of the presenter, each topic was seen through multiple perspectives.

Students choose to work hard

updated rosie 220It was gratifying, truly, to see my students so driven to work hard – not because I was asking them to, but because there was a space to create something that they could shape, develop, and own themselves. I was an occasional moderator and would sometimes ask about sources, but they saw themselves as the facilitators, as the educators.

It was also fulfilling to see the way that they internalized the idea of at least trying to see a topic through multiple perspectives. Of course I have my own biases, but when teaching bias and teaching history, I do give the students multiple sources so that they can make their own judgments.

Similarly, the students leading this exploratory also wove multiple sides of an issue into their presentations, despite also feeling strongly about a particular perspective.

Giving students a voice to guide their own learning

Like Project Based Learning, giving the students a voice to guide their own learning and discovery motivated them more than I could in the same situation. They didn’t see their class, the one they created, as homework or an academic chore (like they might view my usual current events assignments for history class), but rather as a responsibility they eagerly accepted.

This responsibility was evidenced as well in their facilitation of the class and in the topics that they chose and the social programs that they brought into their conversations and into their lives.

How do you give your students increased responsibility for their own learning?

Image: New Orleans street vendor in war bonnet

Jody & Shara

Jody Passanisi is an eighth grade U.S. History teacher in Los Angeles and the author of History Class Revisited. She earned her teaching credential and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary’s College and an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union. Shara Peters teaches eighth grade U.S. History in a Los Angeles independent school. She earned her teaching credential from Hebrew Union College and her M.A. in teaching from American Jewish University. Follow them on Twitter @21centuryteachr

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