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Creating a Student-led Learning Environment

Book Reviews by Laurie Block Spigel

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Introduction: Creating a Student-led Learning Environment

An environment is not a room. It is not even a place. This concept includes atmosphere, ambiance, condition, and collaboration. Environment is a state of mind. It is something you can create and you can carry with you. Creating the ideal environment for students and children is not about the things you can buy for their room for school. Rather, it is about fostering the love of learning, aiming at full engagement in life and education. Yet how do you create this learning environment? Better yet, how can students learn to create it in a way so that they will continue to seek and create their own best learning environment throughout their lives?

Putting students at the center of the learning experience guarantees engagement. Using students' questions to form the curriculum builds their confidence and puts them in charge of their thinking. It sounds so simple! But how do you put the students at the center of their individual or group experience? How do you encourage them to lead?

I have recently read three books that can guide you through this process. They are focused on different activities for different ages, but they all have something in common in that they explain, step by step, how to put the child at the center and encourage them to think, resulting in an environment rich with wonder and experience.

A Place for Wonder

A Place for Wonder , by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough, focuses on writing in the primary grades. But it is about much more than that. The very first chapter talks about creating a Wonder Center, a learning environment designed to encourage children to wonder. Part of this Wonder Center included a large pad where kids were encouraged to write down their questions about anything they wondered about. The teachers then took one of these questions each week to focus on with the group. They chose a question that would support their curriculum. At the same time they were rewarding the children for their thinking by focusing on the children's questions. Before any actual research was done, the children experienced a pondering session. During this time they brainstormed creative responses to the question at hand. In response to the question How is money made? One child wrote, "You get a bottle cap and you smushit…."

These brainstorming sessions are very important, and are often skipped in the nonfiction writing and research process. Giving our minds free reign to come up with ideas, and sharing them with a receptive audience -even if we are not right- is an essential step to creating a flow of questions, ideas and information. This process can free you from the fear of making mistakes, or considering wrong directions and ideas, which is so very important today. Such fears will paralyze creative thinking and exploration. While brainstorming processes of guessing solutions, including wrong ones, will lead you to different types of research, different ways of answering the question, and ultimately to new information.

One of the authors, Georgia Heard, is a well-known poetry teacher with some marvelous books of her own (I highly recommend Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School ). In A Place for Wonder, Ms. Heard and Ms. McDonough have successfully created a child-led learning environment at the kindergarten level (that age is why they were able to do this in a public school in NYC), but the ideas can be applied to any age or grade. This book is an inspiration!

Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning

Can very young children learn to speak and write with confidence and direction? Can they learn how to grab and create teaching moments on their own? Paula Rogovin succeeds in doing this in her first grade public school classroom in NYC, all through planned and spontaneous interviews. Even when the students remain in the classroom, this teacher brings the world to their door by guiding them through the interview process. She invites relatives, friends, janitors, other teachers, passers-by, workers met on the street, to come in and share their lives with these young children. Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning , by Paula Rogovin, offers simple and effective techniques for the interview process.

Ms. Rogovin's questions and approach can be applied to any group or individual at any age. I have used the guidelines in her book to teach a middle school interview course with great success. My students put together their own version of People Magazine with interviews from family, friends, and strangers (ranging from doormen and deli clerks to photographers and psychologists). The skills acquired by engaging in the interview process are not limited to communication. An interview conducted with genuine curiosity will result in new knowledge, which in turn will expand the interviewer’s world. Our questions lead us to the next experience, as we learn from other people’s lives. In modern society it sometimes seems that people have lost the ability to talk to each other and ask good questions. In this book, the reader will learn how to develop that skill and use it to open doors, make new friendships, and build respect for differing cultures and occupations.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions , by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, focuses on middle and high school students. If you find yourself rephrasing your student's questions, or putting the words into their mouths, this is the perfect guide for you. I myself have often rephrased a student's question, thinking that I was helping them to ask it more accurately. This book taught the error of my ways, and I learned how much can be gained by asking a badly worded or foolish sounding question. The authors outline a three-step process to help students produce their own questions, improve and prioritize them. There are four basic rules for producing your own questions:

  1. ask as many questions as you can;
  2. do not stop to judge or correct or change any question;
  3. write down each question exactly as it comes out;
  4. change any statements into questions.
Naturally #2 was the hardest part for me. I often change or correct my own questions before they have found their way to the page, which is just as faulty a process as rephrasing a student's question. When I used the method in this book, and refrained from changing any question, it made a huge difference in the quality of questions and in encouraging my students to generate more questions freely. Sometimes the question that we think sounds lame or too general turns out to be an important question!

The other steps in this process are just as valuable, and just as rewarding. Sorting questions into open and closed-ended questions is a huge learning experience for every student. When I read this book I implemented these new techniques in my classes the very next week, with wonderful results. Asking your own questions may be the best way to create your own learning environment in a way that will always lead to something more interesting. Perhaps that is the skill we most want for our children.