POTSDAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Richard Mills, then-New York State Education Commissioner, walks into a school in Rochester. Students at a vocational school there show him a project they have worked long and hard on, applying everything from mathematics to hands-on skills. He looks around and says, “Well, this is very interesting; but how are you kids getting along on the Regents Exams?”
That story, told by educator Dan Drmacich, is one of any number of examples that brought he, a Syracuse-based educator, together with Don Mesibov, an author and longtime St. Lawrence University teacher. That example and those like it are all wrapped up in the two colleagues’ new book, “Helping students Take Control of Their Own Learning.” The hope is that the book does exactly what its title says.
“My emphasis is on ‘How,'” said Mesibov. “I think that if teachers learn how to run a classroom that actively engages students – gives them ownership – then I think it will be easier to focus on the skills from there. There’s a lot of agreement in this country on what the kids need, but as a group, educators don’t know how to get there.”
The book is a compendium of 279 methods to be used by teachers to turn their classrooms into a space that gives more autonomy to students in how they learn. Both Mesibov, who is the founder of the Institute for Learning Centered Education, and Drmacich, a member of the New York State Performance Standards Consortium, have their own backgrounds in those exact kinds of methods.
The book starts out with a section on why more autonomy for students is a good and necessary thing, with chapters on learner-centered and social-emotional learning, as well as on problems with student motivation and boredom. From there, it gives teachers guidance on how to go about changing the way they teach and engage with their students, to put the act of learning in their hands and make them actually want to do the work.
“We make the analogy to coaching or directing a play,” said Mesibov, who has taught middle school English, worked with emotionally disturbed children, and worked in college settings. “You put people right out on the field, or on the stage, and you’re teaching by intervention; stopping someone on the field and saying, ‘Do you think if you moved this way instead of that, you wouldn’t have gotten hit in the back?’ ‘Do you think, if you had squatted this way, the offensive player couldn’t have gotten by you?'”
Part of the approach looks at what baseline skills students need to learn in order to succeed in school and enter college or a trade profession. That’s one of four questions Mesibov and Drmacich consider at the center of the book.
The other three: How do racism, homophobia and financial poverty factor into education issues? How should skills be assessed, if not through standardized testing? And finally, what does educational research point out as the missing link in getting students to think more and engage more in the classroom?
Both Mesibov and Drmacich have experience with larger and smaller school districts alike, in the Rochester and Potsdam areas, respectively. In the latter case, the town in the northern hemisphere of the Adirondack Park is one of any number of communities with tight-knit schools and smaller class sizes. Certainly, the size and scope of student projects and classroom change might vary on the size of the classroom at hand, but Mesibov hopes that the lessons in his book will be applicable to a school with a student body under 100, and one in the thousands, just the same.
“I don’t distinguish between size, because you’ve got the same problems – in terms of how to teach – all over. I’ve done workshops with people who have come from New York City, from Rochester, from Buffalo, and one of the things that always amazed them and amazed the teachers from the North Country was how similar the problems were,” Mesibov said.
The book is about giving students projects that they want to do, rather than ones that feel like they’re just doing what they have to do in order to get a good enough score on a test. Often, the way to do that involves bringing current events into the classroom. Mesibov gave examples like writing a letter to a legislator asking for some kind of improvement, in order to learn social engagement skills. Another example was for a science class to have students pick a real and local topic to research, like pollution levels in their town.
Mesibov also suggested assigning students to give a well-researched presentation on the effectiveness of face masks in schools. That’s a topical example from an interview on the day when COVID-19 face mask requirements were lifted for New York State schools. School districts NEWS10 has spoken to this week have celebrated the change, but know that the effect of two years of remote learning and quarantines is lasting, on both kids’ learning and their social development.
“We’ve got to begin to empathize with where kids are coming from,” said Drmacich. “Not only in terms of their interests, but also in terms of who they are and what they’re experiencing. If a kid grows up in poverty, for example, there are problems they might experience. There might be trauma that middle-class kids aren’t experiencing with the same intensity or frequency.”
The link between that example and COVID-19 is clear. Students have spent two years not learning in the way they’re used to; or, depending on their age, having only known school as the pandemic has changed it. Learning gaps, social and pandemic-related anxiety all are factors that teachers should consider when communicating with those students on an individual basis.
The pandemic is one of two events in the past 20 years that the two educators agree have universal impact. The other is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I don’t know more than a couple teachers who got to take more than one period to say, ‘Okay, I know you’ve seen the news and some of you have concerns, so we’re going to talk about it today, but tomorrow we have to get back to our global history so I can get you kids through the Regents Exam,” said Drmacich. “What a travesty of justice, in terms of recognizing that from September of 2001 to June of the following year, that could have been my whole curriculum. But that never happened. We’ve got to give teachers and kids more opportunities to be flexible with the curriculum.”
The first step towards doing so, Mesibov says, lies in targeting one of the four questions he and Drmacich honed in on. How should schools measure assessment?
“Instead of assessing teachers on how much they’ve covered, they should be assessed on how much the kids have learned. It’s simply said, but that’s really what it’s all about,” Mesibov said.
“Helping Students Take Control of Their Own Learning” is set to release on June 16. The book is up for pre-order through publisher Routledge.