Independent Learning Time

I can’t believe that April is half over! It seems like I forgot how quickly the time goes once spring arrives. We are down to under 40 days left in this school year — where did the time go?

Anyway, today I’m going to discuss another initiative that I’ve been piloting this spring with my students: independent learning time.

Immediately following our classroom walks, which have continued to be a pleasant aspect of our afternoons, my students have been engaging each day in “independent learning time.” During this time students can, so long as they’ve met expectations for work throughout the morning, work on any activity of their choice, as long as it is somehow related to learning.

Philosophically, independent learning time makes so much sense to me. How can we expect to develop students who are creative, critical thinkers when we are always telling them what to do during every minute of their school experience? By removing the directives about what students will be doing, I have found that my students are creating surprisingly rich learning experiences that are catered to their interests — all by themselves!

After an initially rough couple of days during the beginning of the implementation of independent learning time — my students were flabbergasted when they were given the authority to direct learning according to their interests — things have settled nicely over the past few weeks. ILT has become such an exciting time in our classroom! I’ve learned so much about what makes my students tick since implementing ILT, which has also helped with keeping our classroom flowing smoothly all day long. The kids look forward to ILT and don’t want to miss a second of it, so they have been increasingly motivated and focused during the other parts of the day.

So, you might be wondering what my students have been up during ILT. Here’s a short selection of some of their self-chosen and self-directed activities.

  • Learning how to write in cursive
  • Learning multiplication
  • Exploring how different types of paper and folding lead to different results in paper airplanes
  • Creating a book about recycling
  • Using pattern blocks to create mandalas and to try to build multi-story structures
  • Using Toontastic (an app) to create their own animated stories
  • Exploring natural objects collected during our afternoon walks
  • Working on reading books of their choice
  • Asking to spend more time working on projects from other parts of our day(!)

As you can see, my kids aren’t just “playing” and pretending that it’s learning; they are stretching their minds in significant ways, all on their own.

My hope is that the sense of wonder surrounding ILT will translate to their time at home. If students learn the skills of managing their own learning at school, they will be much better equipped to create their own learning experiences at home. My vision as a teacher has always been to cultivate students who are curious, self-directed learners; ILT time is one of the most significant (and initially scary!) steps that I’ve taken toward making that vision a reality.

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From Teacher to Facilitator

With my first full week of teaching under my belt, I am still really pleased with how things have been going. We’ve been able to dive into some of the curriculum (which I promise to write about next week…) and the kids have eagerly seized onto the topics of biographies, nouns, and telling time.

Though they are only seven or eight-years old, I am eager to have them become responsible, self-directed learners during the course of the year. This week, I’ve started putting some steps in place to facilitate this process, some of which have been more successful than others.

  • Calendar Time: After modeling calendar time last week, I handed the duties over to the students. Now I stay in my chair and wait for them to direct each other about what to do. I have index cards on the board that say the six current components of our calendar time (the date, days in school on the place value chart, days in my school on money, name that number, math concept of the month, and spelling word of the day.) Under each index card I write a student’s name, and the names rotate one spot to the left each day, so students get a chance to do each task. The students have really loved the opportunity to be in charge of this activity — I have found they are much more engaged on what could be a very repetitive or even boring routine.
  • Center Time: I have been getting the students initiated into how centers will work in our classroom. I have a pocket chart at the front of my room that has the names of five different centers (What?, Why?, How?, Where?, and Who? — which align with the table signs that I have hanging in various places in my classroom). Over the past week, the number of students saying, “Where do I go?” and “What do I do?” has significantly decreased. I am hoping next month to move into centers where students will get to choose from a plethora of activities what they would like to do — it seems like they are almost ready for that, which I am really excited about.
  • Homework Messages: One effort that fell flat on its face was my experiment in having my students deliver messages about homework. My students get a large homework assignment each Monday that they have until the following Monday to complete, which I send home a thorough description about because my expectation is that the parents and students work together. However, in the middle of the week, I also send home their unfinished Mad Minutes with the expectation that they complete them for extra math practice. I have told the students about the Mad Minutes EVERY day after school for seven of our nine days. I sent home missing homework slips in folders yesterday and I got SIX emails and notes from concerned parents (out of 14 students!) who said their student had “no idea” about the Mad Minutes homework. I guess they aren’t quite ready for that yet!
  • Classroom Chat Monitor: My most clever (and most successful) initiative thus far has been the classroom chat monitor. Last Friday and this Monday, my students were exceptionally chatty in class. On Monday night, I was reeling about what I was going to do. Since I try to avoid punishment and good-behavior-linked rewards at all costs (another topic which I should write a post about), I was in need of a solution that wouldn’t simply be a bribe or a “do this and you’ll get that” scenario. So, I did two things. First, without explanation, I put in a chunk of free time (15 minutes) during the afternoon to give them an opportunity where they are allowed to chat as much as they want. (The results have been amazing so far — you wouldn’t believe the academic tasks students work on during this time!) Additionally, I instituted the position of “Classroom Chat Monitor.” This student observes and listens to class throughout the day and then issues a report at the end of the day where the class receives a thumbs-up, thumbs-to-the-side, or thumbs-down for their chattiness for the day. The Chat Monitor also makes recommendations about a way we might improve our chatty tendencies. The students are all clamoring for it to be their turn to be the chat monitor and I’ve noticed a significant improvement since the position was put in place. I think it really helps them to hear the “You’re way too loud”-related comments from a peer and not just from me.

So, things have been going fairly well as I try to slowly take the training wheels off. We still have a long way to go until my students will be able to tackle some of the curriculum that I have planned for them this year, but I like where we are going so far.

What do you do to try to be a facilitator of learning rather than a hegemonic teacher? I’d love to hear anything that has proven successful (or unsuccessful) in your own classroom!