Teachers are generally known for two things: organisation and control. The fact is that, the more organised we are in the classroom the less things tend to go wrong. Likewise the more we control the classroom environment the more calm and less chaotic it will be. Knowing how much we thrive on these two things makes me almost afraid to say what I am about to suggest, let your students surprise you. Give the majority of the control to the students and just be present as a guide.
I have recently been doing a fair bit of reading on differentiation and one of the things that comes across very strongly, especially in the work of Caroline Tomlinson (author of Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design) is that allowing students to express their creativity is one sure way of differentiating instruction. Students thrive on being able to show what they are capable of doing, but they must be given opportunities to do so in the classroom in order for that creativity to come to the fore.
As the school year draws to a close, I have been searching for ways to keep my students engaged. The heat, assessments and the impending summer break are enough to unnerve any teacher and distract even the most ardent student. I decided to give my grade 5 students projects. I gave them the criteria but I did not tell them exactly what they needed to produce. They were asked to design ‘something’ that showed the most effective use of used water bottles. My instruction was that the product has to save money and help the environment. The guidelines included that the product should be usable by a large section of society, it should not be very expensive to produce and when it is used it should also be recyclable.
At first many students had questions about what they should make. Many were not sure if what they decided to make would be suitable to me. I kept on telling them that as long as it fits the criteria set out it would be fine. I discovered that not having had many opportunities to express their creativity in previous lessons throughout the year had left them feeling a bit unsure of themselves. I assured them that they have freedom of choice in what they produced and this made them feel in command and confident.
Product unveiling has not yet taken place but the enthusiasm with which the students are working is encouraging. Students have taken the project so seriously that they are not willing to reveal too many details and want to keep the majority of their work a secret until the day of unveiling. So far, I have seen designs of lampshades, children’s toys, purses and flower vases. I am eagerly looking forward to Project Reveal Day and so are the students.
I am aware that as teachers we face the somewhat difficult task of balancing students’ interest, the pressures of the curriculum requirements and the expectations of the various stakeholders. Seeing the students work so enthusiastically has convinced me that I need to find more ways of incorporating their interest in my lessons not only for major projects but also on a more regular basis. The classroom is a place of great creativity. Sometimes when we allow our students to take control of their learning, it results in positive ways. Let your students surprise you. You will be glad you did.