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Saturday, October 24, 2015

A seminar by, for, and of the students. THAT is student agency!

I have begun to teach a new course this year, called Advanced Seminar in Social Studies. As far as I know, it is a wholly unique class for my school.

However, it isn't a unique idea.  When I was a senior in high school, I took a course called Advanced Seminar run by the English Department.  The course was taught by Liz Whaley, and it had a very simple premise: as a reward for doing well for three years, students would get to run the class.  We chose the books, we led the discussions and we workshopped the papers that we wrote.  The English Department was committed to building student agency, even though they didn't use those words; they created a student-centered learning environment, and then they did a great job of getting out of the students' collective way.  So for this idea, I owe a debt of gratitude to Liz Dodge, Liz Whaley, Emma Rous and the late Dick Tappan; they've had a tremendous impact on how I teach!

My desire was simple: I wanted to have a discussion-based course that would reward students by empowering them to take control of their own education. I have long felt that we don't do discussions well in my department or in my school. By that I mean we don't create an environment where student interest is why students speak up, where they are intrinsically motivated to participate rather than extrinsically motivated. I wanted to change that.

One of my colleagues also recently remarked that, "The second we assign a book, kids will hate reading it. We can't impact how students feel about reading." I mostly agree with him; making a book a requirement is a sure way to kill it.  So, rather than my mandating what they read, I figured students could choose what areas of the social sciences to study and choose what they read about those topics. That way, I am not impacting how they feel about reading, they are doing it themselves.

If they are choosing what they read and are then motivated to talk about it because of their own desires, then it only follows that they should also be in charge of determining the methods by which they are assessed on their performance.

So Advanced Seminar in Social Studies is a semester-long, student-directed seminar. We talk. About books. The students were presented with a list of non-fiction books from all different areas of the social sciences and were told to investigate the books. They were also invited to add in any non-fiction they have read or are interested in reading.  Ultimately, they chose to read four books. Each student is in charge of leading the discussion at least once during the course. Participation is assessed through a regularly held conference with me. They have agreed, after discussion, to compose a written check in halfway through the book, and a written assignment at the end of each book, which they will design to reflect the contents of the book. I am a member of the class and my role is to jump start the discussion if needed, and to serve as the referee/arbiter should that be necessary.  Otherwise, I read along with them, I add my opinions to the discussion, and I stay out of their way.

There are 12 students in the class, and they have a range of strengths. They are not raising their hands to speak, but rather they are working out how to have conversations without a teacher calling on them. They are grappling with issues of economics, politics, psychology and sociology. As a result, my classroom is noisier than it has ever been before; the "noise" is 12 seniors actually talking to each other about books they enjoy, about topics they are interested in and it is all the direct result of their desires and choices.

We need more of this in our schools.