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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Thinking Beyond My Classroom in the New Year

Throughout the break, I’ve been seizing the opportunity to think about things other than my classroom and my students. This winter break is the longest amount of time that I’ve had away from school since the year began, and I’ve been surprised by how much I don’t miss it.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy working with my students, but, overall, I don’t think that I’ve felt as fulfilled by teaching as I thought that I would. I feel as though I’m doing a good thing, that I’m pushing back against the things imposed upon me to which I simply cannot blindly subscribe, and that my students are having a very different educational experience than they have in the past and than they may have in the future (though I hope I am wrong about that prediction.) I am by no means an outstanding teacher, yet, but I do feel as though what my students are getting in my classroom is meaningful for them as people, not just as students.

So, I am left with the nagging feeling that I’ve felt for some time now — that teaching alone does not seem to be enough for me. This is very difficult for me to come to terms with, as throughout my education, I have fought against those who told me that I ought to do something “more” than be a teacher. I believed that teaching would be enough. But, now I am thinking, that maybe in its current form, the structure of the role of a teacher is at best frustrating, and at worst, debilitating, to aspirations that teachers have beyond their classrooms. I watch the other teachers at my school pour their hearts into their classrooms, spending many, many hours creating lessons and activities. But, I do think that the need or desire to devote so much time to one classroom comes at the cost of shrinking the opportunities and time that teachers have to think about the broader picture of education and what they might be able to contribute to it. Thus, the relative absence of current teacher voices in educational academia.

So, as I prepare to dive back into teaching in the New Year, it is with the resolve to not only continue to provide my students with interesting and meaningful educational experiences, but to cling tightly and even increase, my grip on the wider world of education.

These are my ideas for doing that, so far.

  1. Write about my teaching and practice not only here, but in places where teachers’ voices ought to be heard.
  2. Read, read, read. I plan to do a better job keeping up with the latest research in scholarly education publications and to read the many, many education books I’ve collected and lacked the time to read this year.
  3. I’ll also be taking on a second blogging project, with one of my professors from graduate school. I’ll be blogging about using children’s trade books in the classroom. (I’ll post a link when the website gets up and running).
  4. Look for ideas and solutions to my classroom challenges not only from my colleagues, but from the wider world of education.
  5. Continue to listen to the persistent, nagging feeling to determine where I ought to go from here.

Fellow teachers, what do you do to maintain your connection to the world of education beyond your classroom?