English teacher Christina Grande sites examples from her teaching experience to explore the evolution of education.
In the late 90s when I was in graduate school for education, the buzz phrase was “cooperative learning.” Education moved away from individual assignments and papers towards group projects and group interactions. When designing the lesson plans, I had to start with an “anticipatory set” or an opening activity, often a series of questions or a demonstration.
As the 90s turned into the millenium, the phrase, “21st century skills” buzzed around the academic building. Content was a thing of the past; students could Google whatever information they wanted to know. Instead, we wanted students to develop skills that would prepare them for the real world. No longer did we question what we wanted them to know or why, but instead how. How, we asked ourselves, should we teach students who already have the world, or at least the internet, at their fingertips?
As I’ve watched education evolve, I’ve noticed that one thing has remained constant –– we, as teachers, must find a way to reach students where they are. Students must be engaged to learn. Listening to a lecture may have worked for us old folks in the 80s, but it isn’t going to cut it with kids today. They need to move. They need to be active. They need to generate their own discussions. We can’t tell them how to think. We need to show them what it means to think critically. We need to guide them. Enter the new catch-phrase “active learning.”
My biggest challenge as a teacher was probably my move from high school to eighth grade. My first attempt at active learning was to implement flexible seating in the eighth-grade classroom. I read that flexible seating gave students more freedom and choice and allowed them to collaborate more authentically than they could at traditional desks. I learned quickly that active learning, while important, must be purposeful and planned. While I had fun running to second-hand stores and Craigslist to buy bean bags, floor pillows, and papasan chairs, those items alone made my classroom more chaotic than productive. My classroom became a “free for all” with kids rushing to my room to snag the pink fluffy chair and others jumping on top of the new owner of the fluffy chair until the chair looked like a pile-up on a football field rather than a fun place to learn. As you can imagine, the fluffy chair quickly broke, and I decided to regroup and redefine active learning for my eighth-grade classroom.
Now active learning looks like scissors and glue –– messy but manageable. My students use interactive notebooks. Inside their spirals all of their activities live –– they cut events from myths we are reading and rearrange and paste them chronologically; they draw pictures of their ideas of what monsters look like before we read Walter Dean Myers’ book Monster; they cut out and color foldables to learn about the differences between paraphrasing and summarizing. Sometimes the desks seem too clunky and restrictive, so we move them. In circles they hurl fake Shakespearean insults at each other while we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and at Christmas time they spread out for a White Elephant gift exchange in which they learn how to write thank-you notes.
During my seventeen years of teaching, I’ve learned a lot about teaching styles. There is not a one-size fits all method. What may work for my neighbor next door may not work for me. My classroom will never be silent. I will never take a “sit down and wait your turn” approach to teaching. Life is messy and loud and imperfect. So am I. Kids need guidance and rules, but they also need a voice. They need to move around. They need to do. I may have thrown out the bean bags and fluffy chairs, but I have learned to create my own flexible classroom, and it seems to work for all of us.This article, "Ditching the Pink Fluffy Chair," was written by English teacher Christina Grande, and was originally published in the VAIS Vision e-Magazine.