Friday, January 13, 2017

Student Leadership and Authentic Work

I sit here in the midst of a student-led practice session for the Model UN to be held at University of Pennsylvania in two weeks. These kids are staying after school from 3-7pm at the start of a weekend. Right now, their energy is sky high. They are well prepared, articulate and intelligent. I wondered last year why schooling couldn't look more like clubs such as this. At the time, I emphasized the importance of student agency. Watching this this evening reaffirms this belief. These kids choose to be here because the are interested by the topic. I'm struck by the power of an authentic task (even if it is only a simulated authentic task). I think mostly anything that asks students to play the role of expert becomes an authentic task.

I have a super trio of seniors who are running this session as I write this from the third row.
I chime in now and then from my third row perch with some advice, but it is clear to them and to me that their roles are essential. I'm here to keep order; I edit some of their papers; I give some speaking tips; I control the money; I supervise the sleeping arrangements; and I'll make sure they behave themselves in center city Philadelphia. I set up the Google Classroom page, I give advice to a student now and then and give my super trio some advice once in awhile.  I communicate with the Model UN company. Why can't at least of this be replicated in the classroom setting?  I have important essential roles, but I don't have to run things. I leave that to the trio.

Real learning is going on for everyone involved in this process. Authenticity has something to do with this. Students are presenting their work to a real audience. This borrows from the best of problem based learning because students are scouring the internet through this whole process to find information they can use in real and meaningful ways.

There is something too about the almost frenetic pace and overall "busyness" of this session. Ideas quickly fly about the room  even though the format is formal and highly structured. I have to think more about this as I've never been in a rush in the classroom. Maybe I sometimes should provoke kids to be in a hurry.

The answer to interesting and engaging humanities teaching isn't Model UN for everyone, but surely much this can be replicated in the classroom.

A few final thoughts.
-Students are writing good papers without the motivation/ threat of grades. I've long said we need to divorce grades from learning. They have very little to do with each other. I know I'm tilting at windmills. But gosh, the evidence is right in front of me right now.
-I have 9th through 12th graders in the room. I like the mentoring that the older students give to the younger students. I like the leadership opportunities clubs like this offer. Can we do more to blend learning experiences in school? I understand why math and foreign language class have to group students by ability. But why can't we mix 9th through 12th graders more in other classes. "To teach is to know," right? If that's true, let the kids teach each other.

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