What a Horse With Heartburn Taught Me About Developing Student Passion...

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What a Horse With Heartburn Taught Me About Developing Student Passion and Autonomy

By Darlene Holland     Nov 14, 2017

What a Horse With Heartburn Taught Me About Developing Student Passion and Autonomy

Most educators would agree that for learning to be meaningful, students need to find personal connections that help them make the content they’re learning relevant to their own lives.

In an English Language Arts class, this might mean reading a book and feeling a connection to a character through a shared experience. For a math class, it might mean relating a lesson on measurement to a recipe they’ve cooked with a family member. These connections are critical for deeper understanding, but they also give teachers an opportunity to encourage students to increase autonomy over their learning through heightened engagement.

Making personal connections comes naturally for some of our students—but others need support. For Laura, a shy twelfth grader in my chemistry class, it was an unconventional experience with horse heartburn that led her to unexpectedly step into a leadership role. Honoring these sparse “aha” moments when my students draw a connection between chemistry and a personal experience they have had has helped me increase student autonomy in my classroom.

I teach high school chemistry at Whiddon Rogers Education Center, an alternative high school in Fort Lauderdale. Our school district is the sixth largest in the nation serving more than 271,500 students across 234 schools and colleges. The district serves a diverse population, with students representing 204 different countries and 191 different languages.

Whiddon Rogers serves as a bridge program to decrease the dropout rate through credit recovery and diploma acquisition. Our students come from 8 feeder high schools from the Fort Lauderdale region and range in age from 15 to 22 years old. They are unable to graduate with their class because they are either over age or lack the necessary credits. Our school offers them an opportunity to either catch up and return to their home school or to graduate with us.

Our students demonstrate a wide range of academic abilities, in part because they come to us for very different reasons. Some of our students score high on standardized tests but their grade point average is very low. Others were doing relatively well in school until a personal setback made it tough to keep up—like relocation, an arrest, or a family issue that resulted in inconsistent attendance. We also serve ESOL students from other countries who are not struggling learners in their native language but are not yet proficient in English.

Taking all of that in mind, how can we leverage students’ personal interests and experiences to increase student autonomy? It’s easier said than done.

While the idea of increasing student autonomy is exciting, it’s also anxiety-provoking for a lot of us because it means we need to give up some control. This is especially nerve-wracking at an alternative school where our job is to ensure that our students are able to catch up academically and are prepared for careers or college.

When we shift elements of control over to our students we risk slowing down the pace of learning, digressing to pathways that take us off course and in some cases increasing discipline issues. Not to mention, it’s rare to find a student at our school that is interested and ready to take more ownership over their learning. Many of our students are struggling with content, have low self-confidence, and truancy is rampant—so many of them don’t show up to school regularly.

Yes, there are risks—that is without question. But, Laura taught me that the benefits greatly outweigh them.

Laura has a deep passion for horses and works a part-time job at a horse stable. One of her duties at work is to administer an antacid to horses that have heartburn. She is generally very quiet in chemistry class, but during our unit on acids and bases, we were having a conversation about how antacids work and she decided to share about her experience working with horses. She mentioned that she knew about a certain product that was developed to combat heartburn in horses and told the class about how she administered the drug.

It was the “aha” moment I’d been waiting for. We were all intrigued by her story and at that point everyone in the room was able to make the connection and have a deeper and more relevant conversation about acids, bases and the pH scale.

Laura’s experience sparked some interest about the horse antacid amongst her peers. They wondered how it worked and if it would neutralize other acids, so I asked her to consider designing a lab to test the effect of horse antacids on different acids with different pH levels. Laura was totally caught off guard; she had never been asked to design a lab or lesson, and her peers had never really taken an interest in her passion for horses—but she decided to give it a try.

I provided a lab template for Laura and she used it to design her experiment. She brought in the horse antacids and I supplied the other materials she needed. Laura worked on the lab with a partner during class time and checked in with me as needed. Laura and her partner worked on the experiment for three days, while the other students continued to learn about acids and bases through different activities and simpler pH labs.

Lab template originally found from The Science Spot (http://sciencespot.net/)

After she complete the experiment, Laura led the entire class through her experiment, answering any questions they had along the way. At that point she was the teacher and I was a facilitator. The other students in the class developed their own conclusions and ideas for how to expand the experiment.

Laura was amazed at how her lab came to life and how much she learned and was able to share with her classmates. “They would never have let me do that at my other school,” she said to me after the experience. She realized that she was capable of doing something she never expected—she surprised herself, and inspired her peers.

It was a powerful experience for me too. I learned that sometimes it’s better to let students take the lead even if it means that we go off track for a moment. I’d love to see more of my students be able to make more personal connections and have a hand in designing learning experiences—but it’s hard to get to every student.

My students’ experiences and interests are somewhat limited—and sometimes they’re unconventional. But it is so important to validate every student’s experiences and the connections they’re able to make in order to deepen their own learning.

Darlene Holland is a high school science teacher at the Whiddon Rogers Education Center, an alternative high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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