• Berwick

Upper School Director

As we move closer to a full integration of Curriculum 2020, and in particular, “student-directed learning,” you might think there is a scramble amongst the faculty to create new approaches that mesh with the ideals of this curricular overhaul. However, this has been an organic transition for us, one which we have been innately working towards for several years as both the research and student feedback has increasingly pointed us down this path. When I sent an email seeking examples for this article, or as I wander our buildings to observe classes, I realize that this will not be an overhaul at all for most of my colleagues, but rather a tweaking of current practices already found in the classrooms of Whipple, Jeppesen, and Fogg.

Even all the way down in the Commons, Ben Baldwin reports that his African Drum and Jazz Band students are constantly teaching each other, with his interactive classes nearly always having students right in the middle of the jam, calling out cues to their classmates and helping each other keep the rhythm. I have watched Ben work countless classes, gigs, and concerts, and his teaching style epitomizes the definition of  “student-directed learning.” First of all, African music students get to pick which instrument they want to play, and student choice is a key factor in student-centered learning. Mr. Baldwin then gives way to his veteran students who have a handle on the tune they’re working on, and has those kids count out the tempo, nod to the soloists, and direct the class themselves. Mr. Baldwin notes: “The knowledge in African music moves back and forth, around the room. More experienced players are always helping those with less experience. Gradually, the whole group moves itself up to a new level.”

At performance time, Mr. Baldwin will do the same thing with his band or a cappella groups: get the kids lined up on stage while he remains in the pit, hum the key or clap a tempo, and then stand back as the students take center stage for their culminating assessment (the show), and direct themselves to a concert-worthy performance. It is a sight to behold and a sound to hear, and Ben just gets out of the way as the kids make it happen. Student-directed learning at its best!

With Mr. Baldwin’s classes, I realize I am taking a bit of a tongue-in-cheek, if not literal, view of “student-directed.” Our Curriculum Coordinator Bill Clapp references “student-centered” learning along with “student-directed,” and my research showed those phrases to be synonymous. Both terms essentially mean this for teachers: taking into consideration the diverse strengths and challenges of each student while planning a lesson, teaching the material, and assessing the students. Choice is also paramount in a student-centered classroom; whether it is a choice of books to read, areas to study, instruments to play, or assessment to take, students have some ownership of the curriculum and assessments. In contrast to methods that we all experienced as students, gone are the days of standing in front of a class and delivering material, while expecting the students to take notes, retain the information, and give that material back to us on a concrete test that must be completed in a set amount of time at the end of a unit.  

While I cannot say that those methods, in isolation, are entirely extinct at Berwick, student-directed learning is happening all over Berwick’s campus and Curriculum 2020 is really just putting words to practices that are already evolving. In English with Polly Davie, freshmen are working in groups on This American Life. They are writing and producing their own individual stories, ultimately distilling all that work into a podcast. And how cool is this: Ms. Davie empowered the students to make up their own grading rubrics, for which she notes, “interestingly, they all came up with the same basic requirements.” As my colleagues note in several areas of our school community, leaving the choice to students does not mean they will opt for the easy way out. In fact, we often find the students’ standards to be as high, if not higher, than our own.
 
Polly co-teaches a senior Neurolit class with Charlene Hoyt. Their students have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test and are reading a book based on their own personality profile, which means the curriculum is catered to an individual student. Student-centered indeed! For example, if a student’s profile revealed a personality of “ENFJ,” one of the book choices would be The Giver. The 12 people in the class fall into five profiles, meaning each student will work with one or two partners.
 
After the small group work, the entire class will discuss the material based on certain traits. For example, nine of the 12 participants are introverts, so that group will talk about the differences between their characters and themselves. Ms. Davie reports: “This class is based around student-directed learning because the ideas are developed by the students and we  incorporate all of that into the course. Today we did the Myers-Briggs test (as we had done earlier for ourselves) for the three characters in Ethan Frome. At the end of the class, everyone was excited because it was so much fun, and we realized how much more we learned about the characters. It was a blast!”
 
Right next door, Ted Sherbahn’s classes epitomize student-directed learning. For their entire unit covering Snow Falling on Cedars, students in both of his junior classes “are leading the discussion every day in pairs. They plan and run the entire class each day, with just occasional assistance from the teacher. They design discussion questions, quiz games, and other interesting activities for us all to do.” Like his colleague Mr. Baldwin, in this unit Mr. Sherbahn sets the table and steps out of the way for the students to do the majority of the teaching for their classmates.
 
Down the hallway in Fogg, AP US History (APUSH) teacher Peter Lassey has been working on projects associated with the Gilded Age. Mr. Lassey writes: “Rather than covering the era with traditional reading assignments, lectures, quizzes, and essays, students are working in groups to develop their own Document Based Questions (DBQs), which has been a staple of the AP exam for decades. To do this, each group chose a topic associated with the Gilded Age and did the following:
  • Analyzed the context to determine essential knowledge
  • Compared competing interpretations from different historians
  • Developed an essay question that addresses a critical thinking skill (comparison, causation, continuity, and change)
  • Selected supporting primary source documents, images, and historical data that mirror the style of an APUSH DBQ
  • Presented their work to the class in order to:
  • Teach the topic
  • Convince the College Board that their DBQ is valid and should be used on the AP exam
Mr. Lassey continues: “I like this project because it provides a break from the normal routine, forces them to own the information because they have to teach it, and reinforces critical thinking skills (inquiry, research, document analysis, etc.); all the while, we are covering an important era and providing insight into the workings of the College Board.”
 
Our language classes have traditionally been at least partially project-based in their assessments, but we are even expanding those horizons. Mandarin students create Chinese art, Latin students paint murals, French students are heading to a French cafe in Portsmouth for an immersion meal. Our Spanish classes, too, are increasingly student-centered. With Luis Mendoza, the Spanish III Honors course just had their debate on Evo Morales' defense of the coca leaf as a cultural necessity and symbol, not a narcotic. This debate took the teacher out of the mix and put the students in front of the lectern to deliver their side of the argument to their classmates. That same class is now in the early stages of creating their own textbook chapter for the verb “to be,” collaborating via Google docs.  
 
Señor Mendoza writes that his Spanish IV classes “are preparing their current event presentations where they were charged with finding two articles and a journalistic video/report on one topic from Spanish language newspapers. Simple: the students choose a topic that interests them with the natural result being a little bit harder work, a little bit more research, and a little extra effort because they have chosen a topic that interests them.”
 
Over in Jeppesen, our math and science classes are at the forefront of the Curriculum 2020 movement in many regards. Veteran physics teacher Chris Mansfield shares that “many of the lab activities that the students engage in are examples of student-directed learning, particularly at the higher level. Students are given a goal (e.g. determine the coefficient of friction between a wood block and a metal track) and it is up to them to determine the type of experiment they will conduct, including the apparatus they will use, the data they will record, and the method they will use to analyze their data.” In the class I observed earlier this fall, Mr. Mansfield had the students pick their own lab partners, then offered them multiple different measurable activities from which to pick that all gave different examples of the same concept – the effect of force on motion. It was powerful to watch our youngest Upper School students quickly move into groups that each had a different “machine” in front of them (some of which were hanging from the ceiling!) and then tackle the unique puzzle but same skill that each offered. Again, sometimes we just need to step slightly out of the way. Mr. Mansfield moved from group to group to ensure each was on the right track, but he had set the table so well that the students were able to work with each other to accomplish the goals of the assignment.
 
Our math teachers are constantly putting their students right in the middle of their classroom experiences. With furniture that is easily moved from one area to the next, it is becoming common to see groups of kids huddled around three desks determining the next steps in an equation on a portable whiteboard. More and more, our math students are asked to grapple with problems themselves while the teacher gently guides from a distance. Back to Mr. Clapp, who states, “This instructional strategy puts the students in center of their own learning, while the structure of the room encourages collaboration and problem solving.”
 
I saw the most incredible example of “putting the students in the center of their own learning” when I popped into Jen Onken’s English classroom just yesterday. What I experienced for the next half hour with 15 juniors was so impressive. The entire unit was based on student choice, beginning with the books they were reading. Under the broad headline of immigration, Ms. Onken briefly introduced her students to about 15 books from our library, centered on this topic. The class then voted on the four books that seemed the most interesting to them as a whole, and then, each student was able to pick the one book that they wanted to read, which created groups of three or four students who picked the same book. The exercise for this particular day was for students to take excerpts from their novel of choice, combine those passages with current event articles on immigration (students did their own individual online research for those articles), and create a visual project that meshed the words from both into one cohesive paragraph or statement that represented the book.  
 
Far more important than the resulting work of art, however, was what I witnessed for those 30 minutes: the classroom I entered had 15 students laser-focused on their assignment. They were reading passages, cutting out words, phrases, and sentences, placing those on paper, and gluing them all together. Some visuals were fancy, while others were stark, depending on the message, which depended on the book the student had chosen. Not for one second did Ms. Onken need to stand in front of the room or command the classroom. Although she was making the rounds, answering questions, or offering gentle suggestions the entire time, the students were directing their own learning. And here is the topper: at the end of a long block, an 80-minute period of time that might otherwise seem like a slog to teenagers, these students were disappointed when Ms. Onken told them the bell was about to ring and class was almost over. In our age of instant gratification and struggles to keep the attention of kids for longer than an Instagram post takes to melt into their phones, 80 minutes of student-directed learning was not long enough for them.
 
“We believe jazz is a metaphor for democracy,” reads the mission statement for Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York City. The Director of JALC is famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize. Our resident jazz director, saxophonist Ben Baldwin, paraphrased Marsalis during our conversation, saying that, “Playing jazz is a reflection of democracy. We are all negotiating the space, the dialogue, together.” What better way to characterize Curriculum 2020 and student-directed learning: taking the teacher out of the center of the classroom, and, along with the students, creating, negotiating, and navigating the curriculum together, democratically.  

-Ted Smith
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Berwick Academy, situated on an 80-acre campus just over one hour north of Boston, serves 600 students, Pre-Kindergarten through grade 12, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Deeply committed to its mission of promoting virtue and useful knowledge, Berwick Academy empowers students to be creative and bold. Berwick strives to graduate alumni who shape their own learning, take risks, ask thoughtful questions, and come to understand and celebrate their authentic selves.  Founded in 1791 and rooted in a tradition of college preparation, our culture of innovation prepares students for a complex and dynamic world.