High School Students Empowered to Take Control of Their Own Learning with Innovative Approach

As a high school English teacher, I am constantly searching for ways to encourage my students to connect with a text. Lately, I taught my sophomores the play Twelve Angry Men. Although the play offers valuable themes and concepts to explore, it is set entirely in a courtroom and lacks exciting plot twists. I noticed that my students seemed bored as they read and watched the play. Recognizing their disinterest, I realized I needed to change my lesson plans.

To address this issue, I decided to stop controlling every aspect of my students’ learning during this unit. Instead, I asked them to outline their own requirements for demonstrating mastery of the standards. I explained to my students that they would be responsible for creating their own rubric and project.

The Approach

I provided my students with a Google Doc containing ten California State English Language Arts standards for 10th grade. I informed them that these standards represented the ideas and concepts they needed to fully understand and demonstrate in their projects.

Naturally, they looked at me with confusion. I divided them into groups of three to four and instructed them to discuss each standard and try to determine its meaning. Once they felt confident in their understanding, I asked the students to rephrase the standards in their own words on a Google Doc. To ensure comprehension, I also had each group verbally explain the standards to me.

Once I was satisfied that each group had a solid grasp of the standards, I informed them that they needed to create a rubric with six categories. Each category included criteria that could be classified into four levels of proficiency: advanced, proficient, basic, and not yet. I provided examples and resources to assist them in this task. I explained that once I approved their rubric, it would be used to evaluate their projects.

Each group obtained their rubric and were instructed to design a project that demonstrated mastery of each standard listed. I taught the students how to brainstorm project ideas using ChatGPT and Google. Once they had numerous ideas, they refined and developed them into solid project proposals.

The Advantages

The students understood exactly what they needed to achieve and why: At the end of the project, they were able to identify which part of their project corresponded to each criterion on the rubric. This familiarity with the standards indicated a deeper level of understanding.

The students were engaged and enjoyed the learning process: When asked to reflect on the project, one student stated, “English is usually my worst subject, and I find it really boring. It was nice to have the teacher step back and let us do what we wanted. It was really difficult to come up with an idea, but once we overcame that, my group had a lot of fun.”

The students’ scores exceeded expectations: In fact, all groups performed so well that there was no need for them to revise their projects to demonstrate mastery.

The project relieved a significant amount of pressure from me: I no longer had to worry about creating an engaging project for the students. This freed up a considerable amount of my time since I no longer needed to constantly give instructions or remind my students of the project’s purpose. I found myself able to collaborate and exchange ideas with them, resulting in more meaningful interactions.

Key Points

Since this is a group project, it is expected that there may be issues with group dynamics. To prepare for any problems, I had each group complete a contract.

Due to the project’s complexity, I divided it into smaller parts to scaffold the learning process for the students. It was divided into five parts, each focusing on a specific aspect of the project.

The most challenging aspect of this project was getting the students to generate innovative and creative project ideas. My students wanted me to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. To overcome this hurdle, I dedicated time for brainstorming sessions where students could bounce ideas off me, their peers, and ChatGPT. It was challenging for me, as the teacher, to allocate this time since I wanted to progress through the curriculum. However, I quickly realized that if I wanted high-quality projects, I needed to provide the students with sufficient time.

I also had to consistently emphasize the idea that “there are no dumb ideas.” This was crucial in empowering my students to freely express their thoughts. As a result, they began taking ownership of their projects, which reflected their passions and interests. For this project, I received a teen magazine, a themed-birthday party, a fashion show, a scripted play, and a master class taught by characters in a play.

Despite requiring extra time, I plan to use this approach for every major project. Through this process, I have learned to eliminate assignments that are considered busywork and instead focus on helping students master the standards in ways that fully engage them.