Written by Molly Christina Maldonado, Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School

I was done with teaching. Five years in, I could manage a class of emotional middle school students, backwards plan unit and lessons, create and use data trackers, use technology, and set up a welcoming classroom. I could analyze data and respond with a PowerPoint, practice an exit-ticket that would get the job done well. My students were great. I enjoyed and worked well with colleagues. Results were strong and consistent. I believed in education. Still, I was done.

When I unexpectedly returned to teaching a year later, I was given a second chance not only with the profession but with transforming the lives of my students. For the next 3 – 4 years I experimented with a totally different mix of instructional methods and pedagogical approaches. Call it teacher as a facilitator, blended learning, student centered, flipped, or self-guided learning. What I was attempting to do had roots in many approaches, but I wasn’t tied to any particular method. What mattered most was this: my students needed to learn and grow in transformational ways and so did I.

If you’ve ever tried to dramatically change the way things are done, you know it can be scary. Like taking off training wheels there will be falls, wobbly stops and starts, maybe even some tears. But, eventually, you and your students will start to get the hang of it. And the skills that you both acquire through the process can change everything. Here are 6 strategies I’ve discovered about trying something transformational with our students.

1. Include Students in the Learning Process

Students are our best resources for knowing what works. They also have the power to make the work we are doing wildly successful or dead in the water. I include my students in every step of the process. When I think I have a new idea, I run it by them for feedback. After we’ve tried something new, we openly discuss what worked and what didn’t. I share class and individual data with them and we reflect and hypothesize together about next steps.

I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year investing students in the learning process, explaining how important it is that we work together to make class successful for every individual. Some of the best ideas I’ve had were inspired by student feedback!

2. Create Classroom Community

I’ve found an interesting trend in the students who succeed with these methods versus those who do not. The students who make the least progress work primarily alone. They don’t run ideas by their peers, they resist study groups and review games, and don’t ask me or anyone else questions. They come to class without their homework done and try to catch up while the rest of us are engaged in collaborative discovery.

Helping our students to create flexible study groups and to feel responsible to their peers for learning and sharing makes them more engaged with the content and helps them to hold themselves and others accountable.

3. Customize for Context

I have read countless articles, books, and blogs about flipped classrooms, self-guided learning, blended learning, constructivism, etc. I have bookmarked some great Biology websites, and I am a huge fan of Sugata Mitra’s S.O.L.E.s and Khan Academy. I sort-of stalked this innovative new “independent learning” school when they opened in my district. But I have yet to find a plug and play method.

Our students are particular to our school, our community, and their specific blend of learning experiences throughout the years. Try not to forget this. If you’re reading about something and you know, for example, that some of your students don’t have consistent internet access, customize. There is nothing wrong with taking someone else’s great idea and making it fit your class. That’s good teaching!

4. Use your Teacher Brain

Many of us have been implicitly and explicitly told that the activity of “teaching” is primarily about effective direct instruction, whole class guided practice, with a little independent practice and grading thrown in. But our expertise and value as teachers is about much more than the content we present and our management of work load. We have valuable knowledge about the process of learning, how students’ brains receive, work through, and retain new information.

Use your knowledge of Bloom’s – and vocabulary acquisition, of inquiry, of scaffolding, of basic level skills versus advanced skills. Instead of using it for traditional planning of your content presentation, use it for designing learning experiences. How can you use blooms to guide students through a variety of experiences that lead to deeper knowledge? How can you ask questions and make suggestions that lead students to discover their own learning style? How can you take off the training wheels for students without taking them out of their zone of development?

5. Isolate the Variables

There is no way to know what works if you don’t do this. By slowly implementing changes, observing the outcomes, and changing variables along the way, you will be able to see what has the greatest impact on student learning. This will help you figure out where to put the majority of your energy.

For example, I used to spend a lot of time on grading and printing progress reports which were tracked weekly. One semester I tried different variations of grading and observed the differences in student results. To my surprise, students performed just as well with meaningful and regular feedback and few to no grade updates as they did with me spending hours on grading and tracking. In fact, some students exceeded expectations when I let up on the grade focus. I wouldn’t have known this if I had focused on too many changes at once. Isolating the variables allows you to see what exactly is working or not working.

6. Pull the Curtain Back

Don’t assume students understand how learning or their brain works, or what methods of studying and practicing truly get them results. Many students have been blindly following a teacher authority without question for so long that they barely acknowledge their own role in the process at all.

My students and I talk about learning A LOT. We talk about how the brain works differently for different people. We test out methods of note-taking, processing information, researching, practicing, working together, and test taking. I encourage them to reflect regularly on what is working and practice metacognition almost daily. If a student tells me something about their learning that isn’t working, we discuss possible why’s and brainstorm solutions together. Later, as students begin to define their process, I trust them to make a plan and reflect on its effectiveness.

 As you experiment with new and innovative ways to help students learn and make meaning, these strategies can help you find success. Embrace and enjoy the inevitable excitement, wonder, worry, curiosity, dead ends, and discoveries that are embedded in the learning process for us all – students and teachers alike. On your journey to an innovative classroom, remember that students are valuable partners in our collective learning experience and their collaboration is integral to building the future of education.

Molly Christina Maldonado

Molly Christina Maldonado

Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School

After teaching for 5 years in Philadelphia as a middle school English teacher, Molly stepped away to research learning and innovative education. When she returned to teaching as a high school science teacher, she immediately began experimenting with teaching and leading students differently. Gone were the days of PowerPoint presentations and guided notes. Through the next 4 years of research and experimentation with blended learning, flipped classroom, project-based learning, and other student centered methods, Molly has developed a classroom where students are doing most of the teaching and learning. The results speak for themselves – students can and should do the heavy lifting!

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