Sunday, 21 April 2013

If Students Designed Their Own Unit

Co-authored with Rebecca Clark

Throughout conversations we’ve had with colleagues, friends, and family, the one thing that everyone says they wish they had more of is time.  Whether in the classroom or at home, the time we have just never seems enough.  We do our best to structure it to reach the goals we set, but sometimes we get caught up in the frenzy of it all, and we lose focus on what really matters.  Here's a good reminder of how important time is:

When we’re so busy leading structured lives and moving on from activity to activity, we forget that freedom, playfulness and fun is not a waste of time.  In fact, it’s exactly what we need to be more creative and innovative.  Google knows this; they’ve got their 20% rule.  Michael Thompson agrees with it and advocates for more unstructured time for kids, as he shared with parents and teachers a few weeks ago on campus.  

Some teachers are now getting into the mix.  Schools in the UK are trying out the 20% rule in their classes.   Students at the Korean International School design their own clubs around passions or interests they have instead of joining teacher-directed ones.  

Some schools have even "broken down the bells" and implemented a more structure-free approach to enhance learning.  The Istanbul International Community School allows seniors to spend two periods a day pursuing student-directed projects.  And there’s even a high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts that offers students to “design their own school” for a semester (see video).

While we may not be quite there with implementing ideas such as these,  it’s certainly worth thinking about how this relates to our RLA classrooms. I’m sure you’ll agree, when it comes to the workshop model, it’s challenging to find time for freedom to play, explore and have fun.  We need to ask ourselves:

  • Do we allow enough time for generating creative ideas within our units?
  • What is an effective pace for fostering creativity as we move from unit to unit?
  • How many units are feasible over the course of a year?
  • When do our students get to "play" or "breathe" as readers and writers? How do they do it?
  • Should we consider a 20% rule in RLA? If so, how? If not, why not?

It just so happens, our Grade 8 teachers have thought a lot about this, and they’ve come up with something exciting.  Building on the success of last year's pilot, all Grade 8 students will follow their passions, interests and wonders within a genre of their choice during an independent writing unit this month.

Applying everything they have learned in the workshop model, they will choose genres that enable them to capture their ideas in purposeful ways. Some will choose genres that have never been part of an RLA unit of study while others will go back to a genre they loved but were never able to explore further. Even still, some writers may "tell their story" in a multimedia genre. While the choosing of the topic and genre are important, the emphasis of this unit is on the process as the skills that writers use to generate, draft, revise, edit, and publish are the same.

Along the way, they will work within a team of writers who will support, challenge and hold them accountable. Like the team of students in the "If Students Designed Their Own Schools" video, these teams will also serve as a first authentic audience, and the feeling of "not wanting to let them down" will motivate each writer further. 

This is but one example of what we can do in our classrooms to foster creativity through extended time. And with that creativity comes ownership and authentic learning. The irony is we don't take enough time to sit down as a group and think about questions, ideas, and possibilities like these. So why not consider this the beginning of our conversation. Leave a comment on what you're thinking, add an idea that has worked in your classroom, or consider what the future of RLA might look like if students designed their own units.


  1. So, here's the thing. When I open the door to creative ideas and the genre of production, I have no idea what the students are going to select. Oh, I can predict, but I'm usually wrong, . . . fantastically and wonderfully wrong. When I set the agenda, I teach what I already know. When I let the students set the agenda, I discover what I have never known before.

  2. When I ask questions that I don't already know the answer is when my students show their potential for divergent thinking. The teaching is more rewarding, the learning is more authentic, and the engagement is more dynamic. Imagine the look on our students' faces if we entered the class one morning and asked, "what do you want to learn today?" As educators, like parents, we have to be courageous enough to give our students quality curriculum time to experiment, to investigate, to fail, but most importantly to follow their passions. A few years ago I was part of an activity called, " The Ubuntu Project." The task for the students was simple, produce a presentation naming, ' The Greatest Leader in History.' We had assumed the students would present the typical list of historically recognized individuals;however, their choices amazed us: Penguins - they had researched that there is always one penguin that jumps into the water first to test for seals - 'the first step'. Another group named 'mothers' - because behind every great leader was a mother who probably inspired him or her...and what that really ruffled some feathers was a group that selected, Adolf Hitler. The argument was simple, all leaders don't always use their power to do good. The amount of teaching and learning that sprung out of these choices far surpassed anything we as teachers could have developed in a 'unit plan!'

  3. I agree Scott. I think the kids should not only choose their own topic, but also choose whether they want to do the project on their own, with a partner, or in a small group. My class have found huge success in writing poetry, science fiction and fantasy stories with a partner. They have told me their learning from a partner has helped them when they write the 'on demand' independently.