It probably won’t surprise anyone that my reading and writing has always gotten me into trouble.

In seventh grade, I had a two-hour class comprising history and language arts. I found the class boring, so I brought a little Nancy Drew book to class with me every day. I still remember sitting in the back of that classroom, right behind the boy that I liked, reading my book and only stopping to complete written assignments (sometimes).

After having to reprimand me daily for reading Nancy Drew during class time, my teacher had a chat with me.

“Why won’t you pay attention during class?” my teacher asked me.

“Because I already understand the material,” I said, trying not to sound rude.

“But I need to know that you understand the things we’re discussing in class. Until I see that, you shouldn’t bring your own independent reading to class.”

So I went home that weekend with my history book and my language arts book, and I completed every single activity in each of the books. A few days later, I submitted the completed work to my teacher.

And then I sat in the back of the class reading a book for the remainder of the year.

Each book was roughly 200 pages, and since Nancy Drew isn’t exactly difficult reading material, I could read an entire book in one two-hour class period.

My teacher never got onto me again about reading my book, and I continued to read a book a day for the rest of the year. During the May 2000 school awards ceremony, this social studies/language arts teacher gave me an award for her class. I had no idea what to expect, since I wasn’t exactly a high-achiever in her class. (I had done whatever I needed to do to earn an A, but I certainly hadn’t gone above and beyond.)

I remember hearing her describing the award: “This girl would sit in the back of my classroom and read one entire book every day during my class. I know it’s unconventional, but I’m presenting Rebekah Cohen with a ‘Book-a-Day Award.’”

I’m sure I walked up to her with a stupid, shocked look on my face, framed by a messy mop of hair, big glasses, and homemade clothes. She hugged me and said she was proud of me. Later, I apologized to her for being a pain in the butt.

That moment has stuck with me for the past (almost) 20 years. As a teacher, I have found myself thinking about the efficacy of such a practice. While I appreciated this teacher’s flexibility with me, I have wondered if there is, perhaps, an even better way to reach smart-aleck, headstrong students or (conversely) unmotivated, struggling students?

In high school, it seems we do our best to remove all the “fun” out of learning. After all, it’s high school. We’re serious teachers, right?

For the most part, students sit in straight rows of desks in classrooms that have sparsely decorated bulletin boards, few colors on the walls, an American flag, and maybe a couple of cheesy inspirational posters.

Many teachers lecture for half the class, and students complete assignments during the other half of the class – often without talking or interacting with students (in a constructive way). We give multiple choice quizzes and tests, five-paragraph essays, an occasional group project.

If a student doesn’t like the particular teacher or class or subject, that student has an incredibly difficult time enduring an entire semester or year. Oftentimes, students don’t get to choose their teacher or their classes, and they end up feeling like school is something they just have to “get through” to get to the “real world.”

But what if students didn’t experience school this way?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about learning and, more specifically, the love of learning. The first time I personally recognized a love for learning was in university, when I was able to choose my major and select the classes that I wanted to take. I found myself reading for my classes and actually enjoying it. I looked forward to the lectures, the discussions, the readings, and I was tremendously sad when college ended (for that and a few other reasons…).

When I started teaching high school a little less than a year after graduating from college, I was reminded of how disinterested students were in “school.” After a couple years of teaching, I began to wonder, “What if students had more choices in my classroom?”

More Than Simple Differentiation: Mastery Learning & Individualized Learning

Obviously teachers are supposed to be “differentiating” for students based on their achievement levels and capabilities, but I wanted to go further than this. I wanted to move past “choice boards” (boards where students choose one of a few teacher-assigned topics). I wanted students to have real control over the material they were experiencing in my class.

I began to rethink my entire way of teaching. Now, if you walk into my classroom, you won’t see the traditional English Language Arts classroom; you’ll see a much more individualized, amorphous curriculum that changes from year to year, depending on my students’ needs and aptitudes.

Sometimes that looks like students working on community development and engagement; sometimes that looks like students choosing their own novel to read and analyze; sometimes it looks like students creating their own entirely different assignment (as long as they personally align their assignment with the Georgia standards for ELA).

individualized learning definition
Definition by Baker & Goldberg

When students are just completely disinterested in my class, I sit with them and discuss different options. Sometimes I even offer to let students take the unit test and essay early to see if they have mastered all the necessary skills (an adaptation of Mastery Learning).

Then, while I’m teaching the rest of the students, I can allow these students to create their own independent projects, allowing them to do work that interests them. They can then insert the grades earned from these independent projects in place of other assignments that measure similar skills.

On the other hand, if they don’t earn A’s on both the essay and test, I can explain to them (using data) why they need to pay attention and complete the assignments leading up to the test.

(To be honest, I have only ever had one or two students each year that can take advantage of this early-testing opportunity, earn an A on the test, and create their own assignments. However, giving this option to students, and explaining this philosophy to them, helps to create rapport in the classroom. By explaining this, my students recognize my desire to be reasonable and to be flexible when it comes to their learning experience.)

Students learn at different paces, and some students need every single additional day of practice and instruction before “mastering” the material. On the other hand, some students are going to mentally (or literally) check out of school if I make them sit through an instructional lesson on something they already know.

I’d much rather cultivate a love of learning in a way that is fair and reasonable, but also in a way that is exciting and challenging. Students shouldn’t have to wait until university before they can feel some sense of control over their course of study. It might seem like additional work, but once you get the hang of relinquishing control over every single essay or activity, it becomes an opportunity for you to let students direct their own learning (read more about individualized learning here).

Traditional Public Schools are Rethinking Their Methods

Another way to give students more “control” over their learning is by creating “College and Career Academies,” something that many traditional public schools are implementing. At these schools, they have created miniature versions of college majors. For example, students choose which course of study they prefer, like “Architecture & Construction” or “Entrepreneurship & Leadership.”

College Academies.png
College & Career Academies offered at Berkmar High School (Gwinnett County Public Schools)

In schools that have these academies, all students choose a particular “major” during their freshman or sophomore years. Students are then placed in their traditional core classes (English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Sciences), with each subject integrating aspects of their selected major (i.e. language arts for STEM students or mathematics for Architecture & Construction).

Not only does this offer students more control over their education, but it also allows students to see the inter-connectivity of their academic subjects. In traditional schools, science seems disconnected from ELA which seems disconnected from math. College and Career Academies help to connect subjects in a meaningful way, restoring the perceived value of each component of a student’s education.

If we can figure out how to do that, maybe we’ll have fewer students sleeping in class, skipping school. Or, as in my case, reading in the back of the room.

I cannot thank my seventh grade social studies/language arts teacher enough. Not only did she leave room for me to grow as a reader, but she also introduced me to the (very) raw, early concepts of differentiation, self-directed learning, and student reward systems.

The most important facet of what this teacher did was two-fold:

1. She didn’t punish me for understanding the material and being bored.
2. She didn’t she interpret my honesty as a threat to her legitimacy as a teacher.

Instead, she took the opportunity to allow a twelve-year-old girl to cultivate her love of reading.

I’m not sure if Nancy Drew meets any social studies standards, and I definitely don’t think that Nancy Drew counts as rigorous literature – but I still think I learned a valuable lesson that I’ve been able to tailor for my own 21st century classroom. And for that, I’m grateful.