My students lived right across the street from our school. We could see the projects and apartments of Liberty City from the classroom.
The history of the place spoke to the relativity of freedom. The housing projects where most of my students lived were built as a designated space for black families to settle in the 1930’s; a 6-foot wall was built around the area, barricading residents from the surrounding white farmers. You can still see the rubble from that barrier lying along 12th Avenue. Here, riots over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police rocked Martin Luther King Boulevard 35 years ago. Scratched out murals memorializing loved ones stare at you hauntingly, still eerily relevant.
Figuring Out What Matters Most
My experience teaching here confirmed this to be a place of resilience, love, and community. These things cannot erase sanctioned poverty and inevitable violence. In Liberty City, my students were caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of flying bullets and closing doors. Negativity was king of the block. Kids, being kids, soaked that up, internalized it, and carried it around with them in their backpacks. As a result, learning at our school was not easy. Holmes Elementary has been one of the lower-performing schools in the district over the last several years.
As I tried to survive my first year as a teacher, I understood that my classroom was a part of my students’ larger struggles. I felt I owed them an education where they could experience freedom, purpose, and happiness, which in turn could help propel them through their lives.
Freedom is relative. Even the basic freedoms that we feel all humans should enjoy are qualified; take freedom of the press, for example. But the purpose of freedom is clear—so that humans can spread their wings in the pursuit of love and happiness. Here are the questions I wanted to consider: Did my students have freedom within their classrooms? If they could not find it there, where would they be free?
I got an iPad through a TFA donation that first year. I had no clue what to do with it, as most days I was just trying to get enough oxygen to make it until the end of the school day. It is a great time in a teacher's career, that first year. You are so overloaded, over-modeled, over-data-ed, that you are forced to figure out what matters most.
I will never forget the first moment that J—a student who had been retained twice already—found some freedom with that iPad. It was a few months into the year, and I felt bad J was in my class; I was useless to him. One day, I let him use the simple addition app I had downloaded on the way to school that morning. I justified it to myself by thinking, that’s what he needed. He got on the device, and his face lit up as he manipulated the screen. He even ran over to me to show me how he had gotten “Bingo” with the app. The difference in J was immediately apparent. He felt valued, successful, and free. The tool was technology, but the philosophy was agency, self-drive, and love. This insight would change my classroom forever.
Agency. Power. Respect.
How does one manufacture freedom in a classroom? It cannot be bottled and sold, but must grow from a deliberate sense of how things “should be”. With this mindset, I began to design a new vision for our roles as teachers and students. I pictured students legitimately in control of their learning through their own decisions and self assessments. I saw them acquire a fierce independence and advocacy that would carry them further than any mathematical skill could. I was not devaluing curriculum, but instead rethinking what that curriculum should include. I wanted to teach in a classroom that could build individual students into the men and women they longed to become.
I knew I would need to win and will students into this struggle for a new classroom. There were bad habits to break, and meaning and purpose to acquire. The first action I took was to think about what motivates humans of all ages. Agency. Power. Respect. I often told my students, “I will never ask you to do anything that I don’t do myself.” The best part about that is that I believe it. The values of Drive, Grit, and Professionalism replaced the class rules, and became my personal values, too. Teaching this way made me into a better man.
I wanted them to love what we were doing. I made the opening routine into a game with “levels,” so students could track themselves over time and develop confidence that they were progressing. I built big visual trackers, and used TenMarks and online quizzes so that students could retake their assessments, learn to value their online content and work towards year-long goals.
Throughout, I wanted to bring joy back to the room. So we made the “Vocab Blitz” into a high-energy, ticket-giving, prize-awarding experience. There was even a trumpet, water balloons, and a basketball hoop. The students were feeling proud of what they could do, and they were eager to demonstrate it.
When investment and energy was up, I leveraged newly donated tablets and colleagues’ old laptops to transform the ways I delivered content. I set up a website where I could relay information to students without having to take class time. They would message me constantly about their progress. Using that vehicle, I created personal playlists and put up sites where students could practice. I built in an accountability system, using reflection as the basis for evaluation of decision-making and focus.
Crazy Awesome Moments
I wanted us to trust each other. We knew the perceptions about the neighborhood; the chip on our collective shoulders melted into expectations for community and trust in our classroom. I still remember when we used Google Docs for the first time; we recorded and confirmed our feelings about racist and insensitive online comments after a recent shooting in the neighborhood. Freedom to feel and to share poured from my students’ fingertips, and we cried together that day.
Still, I was the driving force behind these interactions. I wanted my students to start to take control over their learning, so I set up a board of all the possible activities that they could do. I told them to pick what they needed, not what they wanted. This way, they could control their own learning. What ensued was one of those crazy-awesome moments that can only happen in a classroom, a beautiful chaos of students figuring out how to manage themselves and how to navigate their new freedoms.
Once we began working in this way, I encountered a host of new challenges. These led to pushes for accountability such as online oversight, places for reflections on decision making and content, and systems for regular conferencing and goal setting for students. Each of these new initiatives was a step towards increased freedom designed to make each student’s interactions with learning even more personalized and meaningful. Because we were making ourselves better as people, leaders, and learners, we agreed on a new term for this time during class: Workshop. This was the ultimate incarnation of trust in the classroom.
After incorporating surveys and polls into the learning process, more learning evolved in and around other areas of the room. So that students had choice as to how they were assessed, I replaced multiple-choice quizzes with group videos and PowerPoints; these could illuminate my students’ abilities and cater to their strengths. We began using QR Codes for inquiry activities and Google Docs for feedback and collaboration, in place of worksheets. Projects went from extensions of content to extensions of self, with questions that were relevant to my students’ worlds and realities. By the end of the year, students were crafting all of their playlists using the tools and systems we had set up for learning independently.
Lighting Souls on Fire
My students were on fire. Technology and blending the learning in the class had opened doors, and my students gained confidence with each passing day. They felt as if they were on a path made for them and by them. Despite most of them starting the year below grade level, we ended up handily beating the state and district averages on our high-stakes assessments that year. More importantly, my students’ end-of-year survey results clearly reflected growth in both happiness and respect. Some 98% felt more confident about their success in school than they did at the start of the year, and 100% of students felt that I cared for them.
Blended learning did not arrive in my classroom because of a district initiative or a requirement. It happened because I did what all teachers do: strive for the best for our students and advocate on behalf of what we know they need. I urge every educator to embrace the values behind blended learning—personalization, risk-taking, agency, and freedom. But more importantly, I urge you to create a vision for what your students will get out of your class and ensure that every decision you make feeds into that vision.
Every day that first year, I shared some encouraging words with my class. I’d tell them, “Be the person you want to be today,” or “Professionalism is the action and the goal.” Perhaps most frequently, they’d hear me say, “Freedom isn’t free; it is earned in sweat.”
Teachers’ roles are changing, becoming even more crucial. We are the builders of people. We create the structure that can light souls on fire.