My One Great Lesson This Year

The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.


Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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38 Responses to My One Great Lesson This Year

  1. Karyn (2ndgradetchr) says:

    Excellent post Deven! These were the types of assignments that always made me excited to learn and do.

  2. Lauren says:

    I am SO glad I got to be there and record parts of that lesson.

  3. Deven Black says:

    Me too, I wish I had recorded the whole process.

  4. Susanna says:

    First, that was a great way to go about differentiating the assignment and yeah, that is a great lesson. What a great one to learn earlier in the year… do you think that you’ll offer more assignments in this manner? I’m definitely going to try this approach more often..even though my students are a bit younger!

    • Deven Black says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to do a lesson quite like this as right after this unit ended I was appointed the school library. I still teach this group of students two periods a week in the library — as opposed to six a week in the classroom — but I will try to work with their new classroom teacher to coordinate project-based work with what he is teaching.

  5. Pam Moran says:

    Learning has never been just about what young people do in the presence of teachers – its always been a transactional experience of and for learning between the teacher and the learner. Unfortunately, learning by the teacher may remain forever more a form of potential energy rather than becoming kinetic. I believe the teacher also becomes a learner of practice through dialogue, observation, listening, and reflection as he or she interacts with young people in the space of learning. It’s where understanding of the flow of learning begins and continues as the teacher shifts from a defining role as didactic giver of teaching to co-facilitator of learning. In fact, Devon, the young people in your care did need you. They needed you to set up a situation that supported them to become learners. They needed your responsiveness to their needs as those became known to you. They needed you to ask questions that created dissonance and honor their own questions – often a beginning point for curiosity about both intended and unintended learning. They needed you to give them a chance to select choices, options, partners, resources, and pathways through which they would both teach and learn. In doing so, you co-labored with them to figure out what was worthy to learn and why. I suspect the take aways for them and you went much deeper than the academic content and inquiry learning skills they experienced. While this may not feel as if its been a successful year, what you wrote describes the process of a personal learning journey to which we all should aspire- if our goal in our work is learning, not just teaching. Thank you for sharing.

    • Deven Black says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Pam. I have always told my students that in the course of the year I would learn more than they would not because I am smarter but because I have more prior knowledge to connect to new knowledge.

      You make a good point about my students needing me to set up the situation, choices and freedom that allowed them to do such independent work. I know that not many teachers in my building trust their students as much as I do these kids and few are as comfortable with what appears to be chaotic as I am. Now that I am not their classroom teacher anymore these students are facing a very traditional old-school history teacher who does not see the differences between this class and any other class he’s faced in his 20 years of teaching no matter how often I try to tell and show him the difference.

  6. Mrrobbo says:

    Great lesson indeed. Fantastic teaching. Well done.

  7. Kate says:

    This is amazing – and I am totally curious though. What were the three completely “unpopulated” tasks? I am probably guilty of assigning those as well!

    • Deven Black says:

      I did not save the list of tasks and I don’t remember what the others were. I should have kept the list just so I don’t propose assignments like those again, although a different group of students might find those more attractive. The key seems to be having enough choices so everyone can choose something they think they would enjoy doing and are likely to succeed with.

  8. This is a great reminder to all of us in a classroom to give choice and then get out of the way. I love when students feel challenged. Contrary to popular belief, students what to be challenged and do challenging work.

    I love when I introduce a Web 2.0 tool like Glogster to my students and them get out of their way so they can learn how best to use it to create a product they are very proud of.

    On a different note – Are you now a librarian? I’m sorry you are not in the classroom, but I know you will do great work.

    • Molly Clark says:

      Paula, why are you sorry Deven is a librarian? Now ALL of the kids can benefit from his innovative teaching! I think it’s wonderful. (Full disclosure – I am a librarian.)

      • Deven Black says:

        I’m with you, Molly. I think I’ll have more impact on more kids as a librarian for a couple of reasons. First, I’ll be dealing with every student in the school. Second, I don’t give tests, assignments or grades so I am not threatening; the kids know I’m there to help them. I’m looking forward to developing in my new role.

      • Paula Naugle says:

        Hi Molly,
        I love librarians. If Deven is like my librarian the time he gets with each group in the library is so short that it will be hard to do innovative lessons. Our kids go into the library, check out a book, and then they’re gone. Our librarian does great things for our school, but she doesn’t get much time with the students. Hopefully both you and Deven get to do more with your students. Just saying….

  9. Lisa Scott says:

    I have been inspired! I will be trying this with an upcoming unit. Thanks.

  10. […] was happy this morning to see a post on The Innovative Educator that linked to a post from Education On The Plate on the subject.   I could really relate to what that author Deven Black said: This has not been […]

  11. […] Ik kwam via The Innovative Educator, een mooi voorbeeld tegen over maatwerk bieden aan je leerlingen. […]

  12. Mary Johnson says:

    I was most interested in your comments about some students having “over-reached” with their projects. Nevertheless, they were content with their effort and their learning. Obviously you have a classroom culture in which failure is accepted as a natural part of the learning process, and I suspect that this culture has been built up through repeated messages from you. These kids knew that the process was just as important as the outcome and that they were learning the content along the way. We have all sat through painful final presentations such as the “Oh, let’s make a video!” solution. When both students and teachers recognize the importance of process, we put the focus in the right place.

    Just an afterthought…librarians are quite in tune with process. It is our interest and our passion, for we see it in action every day.

    Thanks so much for sharing this experience!

    • Deven Black says:

      This is my second year teaching these particular students and from the very beginning I have told them that developing skills is more important than learning any particular content knowledge, that failure is only a problem if you don’t learn from it and try again and that perfection just means you weren’t challenged enough. They’ve also heard me talk about my various prior careers, the successes and failures I’ve had, and what I’ve learned in the process. Failure is almost a goal in this class. These kids are amazing. They’re the only students I’ve taught who ask for a faster pace and more work.

  13. Renee says:

    How were you able to take time away from the standards/benchmarks for this project? In my district, I must cover a benchmark every 3 days in order to get through everything by the end of the semester.

    • Deven Black says:

      I take risks to teach the way my students learn, not he way someone who doesn’t know my students tells me to. It works with this group of students, not so much with some others.

      The problem with benchmarks is that they are created by people who don’t teach. Historians create the history benchmarks and they have little idea how students learn and what they actually need to know to function as productive citizens instead of as dedicated historians.

  14. […] My One Great Lesson This Year is a post by Deven Black over at Education on the Plate presents a nice example of a forward-thinking, learner-centred approach to differentiation. An approach I will be using into 2011! But, how frequently can you do this? Would this form of differentiation be appropriate every lesson? Or in 50% of them? Something I need to think about before editing this post… This entry was posted in Education and tagged inspiration, teaching. Bookmark the permalink. « Changing Education Paradigms | | Educational Transformation » […]

  15. dkzody says:

    Sounds like just the kind of teaching that should be going on in every classroom in this nation. Congratulations and I hope you have many more such lessons.

  16. seburnt says:

    This was a very inspiring read and I appreciate your candor.

  17. Jo Hawke says:

    I just ran across this post and love it!

    I assigned what I called “pyramid” projects last year for my 9th-graders on Romeo and Juliet. Students had to earn a certain number of points from each level of difficulty, and the projects available were all different kinds, like the ones you mentioned. Some were group work; others were individual work. Some were creative; others were analytical. Some were written; others were performed. I had a similar experience as you: It was awesome watching them work and seeing what they came up with!

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to make this happen much more in my classes!

  18. cwolf5 says:

    You are a very creative teacher. Thanks for sharing.

  19. samantha says:

    I loved your idea, and tried to take it and run a little on my own. I have reservations, but think the benefit is certianly worth my discomfort as to the results. Here is a link to the lesson I created..

  20. […] Ik kwam via The Innovative Educator, een mooi voorbeeld tegen over maatwerk bieden aan je leerlingen. […]

  21. […] My One Great Lesson This Year « Education On The Plate […]

  22. […] My One Great Lesson This Year « Education On The Plate […]

  23. […] other plans. Thus, the Kirboland Zoo was born. It was an eye opening experience to say the least. Check out this teacher’s story of his one great lesson this year. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted […]

  24. […] –My One Great Lesson This Year from The Education on the Plate […]

  25. […] is a great article on how a teacher allowed students to choose what task they wanted to do to learn. He allowed […]

  26. BRILLIANT! Yes, they did need you – they needed to have a teacher who was creative and brave enough to try that approach – and you were there for them!

    As a former classroom teacher (many years ago) and a current instructional designer and businesswoman, I can tell you that this type of educational experience can be invaluable for their futures. In essence, it models what is often required of people in the business world–or at least what SHOULD more often be required of people.

    The ability to think creatively, work with others, be self-directed, etc., is what creates useful productivity in the workplace. There is a wonderful business book, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, that advocates, essentially, putting the right people in the right seats on the bus, telling them where to go, and getting out of their way. That is essentially what you did with your students.

  27. Corina Beam says:

    What an inspirational blog post! I copied it – saved it as a PDF and sent it to every good teacher I know – as well as my principal and superintendent. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Very meaningful, well-written, thought-provoking. I wish my children could be in your class.

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