Friday, August 11, 2017

When Student-Led Learning.....Isn't

I debated for quite a while about how to write this, or even WHETHER to write it, but since The Written Word (as opposed to face-to-face spoken word) is one of my Things, and because when I'm talking to people they're likely to interrupt me and derail my Train Of Thought, here goes. Of course, it goes without saying that when I ask you to imagine this situation, it's not remotely imaginary - hence the source of my aggravation and discomfort and frustration and trying-to-find-the-words thing. It's not meant so much as What The Hell Were You THINKING (those thoughts I have about lots of things LOL) or a passive-aggressive swipe at a project that I'll confess has left me frustrated on more than one occasion than as Can We Please Be Honest About What We Mean, written down so I can just get my words assembled into a semblance of order. This post was begun after one particularly frustrating-to-me-as-adult-facilitator class session as a brain dump, so this is a stream-of-consciousness approach going on here more than a calculated endeavor.


Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if you will a multi-age educational setting in which over the summers the older students (normally in their own classes, Junior High and Senior High, so even separate from each other!) have in the past been lumped in with younger, to the displeasure of the older students, who have their own Way Of Learning, their own Way Of Being, separate from the elementary-aged students, but that many of those older students are not just content but actively HAPPY about their normal separate setting. (This would be the Senior High group, grades 9-12)

In a no doubt well-intentioned move to keep the older kids from being stuck expected to learn with and work with the younger ones (a situation which resulted in abysmal attendance in the upper grades last summer), the administration conceives a plan: Let's find the kids a Project to do over the summer! Proposal: Build A Little Free Library From Scratch! Woohoo! And even better: this project will be entirely student-led! (Kudos to you, Dear Reader, if you can already see the flaw in this design.)

A Little Free Library (from
Most of the year and especially in Summer when families are traveling, the makeup of the class - and the leadership of said class - changes week-to-week. Sometimes there are folks with some experience in Building Things From Scratch and Using Power Tools, while other weeks, not so much. 

 Summer begins. Wood is obtained, and a couple sheets of plexiglass. Other adults in this place, connected to the institution but otherwise not to the youth, do the cutting of the pieces (for which I thank them :-)) because kids can't be trusted with power saws (I don't entirely disagree, for the record, and there is of course the potential liability component, but....this is a Thing That The Kids Can't Do, that *only* adults can do, which Matters!). In class there are sort-of-blueprints as a guide: pictures of the finished LFL's, and drawings of the component pieces, complete with measurements. 

(Missing: a set of assembly instructions, even a list of needed hardware, because it seems that the person who created the blueprints hadn't originally intended them for a youth project...) Online, there is talk among the admin and the adults who volunteer to help of a timeline for completion, as Summer is finite, but as of August, no such timeline has materialized, for whatever reason. [Update: there's a timeline of sorts since I originally wrote this.]

What could POSSIBLY go wrong here?

I spend a couple of Sundays with the youth since I enjoy woodworking and haven't done much of it since 7th-grade wood shop class *mumble mumble* years ago (my parents had to write the school a letter granting me permission to NOT take home ec, so that dates me, I suppose!). The first Sunday I'm there it's Week Two of sanding the pieces of wood (with fine-grade sandpaper, as it doesn't seem anyone knows that coarse-grade is the way to begin). I notice that many of the pieces are actually WET - not slightly humid-damp, like I'd expect in the DC area, where summers are humid, but soaked-through WET - and that many are also VERY visibly bent ("warped" is really too kind a term), possibly from having been leaned (while wet?) against a wall for a week between class meetings. Not the most auspicious beginning, but sanding is a task that all the kids can help with, even if sanding the wet pieces does nothing but rough up the surface, thus limiting what can really be completed.

On one of the Sundays I'm there, the "plan" is for the students, NONE of whom have ANY idea what their construction options even ARE (and frankly, the adults aren't that far ahead of the kids!), to figure out, on their own, how to assemble the pieces without any guidelines. Kids and adults who don't know when to use nails and when to use screws, let along whether to use one hinge or two per door, are expected to fabricate assembly instructions; it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

As of the end of July, what this group of sporadically-attending kids and their sporadically-assisting adults have is.... a bunch of pieces of wood, cut (more or less) to the indicated measurements, which have been sanded over the course of a couple of weeks by the students, and some ideas for graphics for bookmarks and pamphlets for the inside of the LFL itself - that's it, after 7 weeks of Summer. As of the start of August, there are some half-primed pieces and some unprimed pieces which had to have parts cut out of them by adults helping kids learn how to use drills & hand saws. [Update: As of August 20th, one side of each piece has been painted, and while the students selected white as their chosen color, the color paint we got "at a discount" is not unlike infant diapers I've changed over the 
                                                      course of motherhood. LOL]

What went wrong here? Any guesses?

(Hint: refer to the title of this post.)

What part of this student-led process has been, in fact, "student-led?"

Did students select the Little Free Library project? Did they even suggest it?

No. It was given to them, and they accepted, but what were their other choices? Were there any other choices? Did they have any input into how their summer would be spent here? (Answers: also No and No.)

Do the students have the experience or knowledge, let alone the expertise, to do more than the most rudimentary parts of the construction?

Nuh-uh. Heck, even the regular adult leaders don't have that!

Just what part of this project are the students LEADING?

Now imagine, if you will, an alternate reality in which the students are asked if they'd prefer to be with the elementary kids again for the summer or would prefer a project of their own, and if the latter, what kinds of things might they come up with. In the past, students here have come up with food drives, garden planting, collecting towels and other linens and pet supplies for the local animal shelter, things like that, and it would have been interesting to see what THEY would have suggested, based on their experiences, their areas of interest, their thoughts.

In the event that they had come up with the Little Free Library idea on their own, I'm pretty sure that the kids themselves would have recognized pretty quickly that it would take skills they don't have to get one put together unless it came in a kit where pre-cut parts of non-warped wood could be quickly assembled into functional and weatherproof houses for books, and that a day or two of bake sales or car washes or even just asking the congregation to contribute could raise the necessary funds. The kids could also have come up with a timeline on their own, for that matter, but that was also not left to them.

Instead, I'm not seeing kids who are really invested in this project. It's not theirs; it never was. In classes, it's been hard to get students engaged. They're *willing* to help, but it's not intrinsic true authentic engagement because there was nothing truly authentically student-led about it. The idea of a LFL isn't a bad one; it's not even wrong for adults to have proposed the project or for them to be leading it - it's just not "student-led" when that happens. Words matter. 

What this project has ended up being is an adult-proposed barely-directed project led by a hodgepodge of adults, most of whom don't have the knowledge or experience to make this work (and at least one of whom, as an Adult Supposedly In Charge, would not have selected this project in the first place), cobbling together pieces which other adults, after having done the obtaining of the wood and plexiglass and primer and paint AND doing all the cutting of the pieces, will also have to do the majority of the work assembling. The students' jobs basically have boiled down to sanding, priming, and painting, and since we're almost out of Summer, the youth get to help the adults do the assembly. So project, really, with kids doing whatever bits & bobs of work can be accomplished in one-hour increments without power tools other than a drill one day (no nail guns or electric saws, and nobody brought a sander either.).

So, a word of advice to teachers and administrators about student-led learning: if you're really honestly truly wanting to do authentic student-led, you HAVE to 

Facilitate minimally and then get the hell out of the way. Let THEM lead YOU as much as possible. Once these kids hit middle school and especially more in high school, it's time to give them wings, to give them more responsibility, chances to take on leadership roles in their classes and in their institutions - schools, churches, scout groups, whatever, so this is a prime time to institute true student-led learning. But it has to be done authentically, or you run the risk of student dis-engagement. 

Words matter.

Want a student-based project? Let the students LEAD.