On Monday, I had these two conversations within an hour of each other.
The first one was after I watched a student-made video capturing an episode in Homer’s Odyssey. I talked to the lead video maker, an eighth grader, about wanting to share his group’s work with a wider audience in order to showcase what learners can make when they chart their own course. After all, given intentionally vague directions to read and understand an assigned passage and then present it to classmates, most students had played it safe (lecture with slides, verbatim reading of handwritten paraphrase). A few groups did take risks like producing a video or acting out a skit, and showing such initiative was what I wanted to encourage. Therein, I see seeds for intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning.
The second conversation took a very different tack one hour later. It started with an eighth grader belatedly following up an invitation to meet after school and me describing how his recent tone in class often sounded: disrespectful, disengaged. I asked if that was his intended message.
He said it wasn’t, but he couldn’t say what he really felt.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it’s disrespectful.”
“And you can’t say it any other way?”
“Better say it then, so we can figure out how to word it more nicely.”
He accepted, eyes wavering on the verge of tears: “I feel like you’re not teaching me, and I’m worried and scared I’m not prepared for ninth grade.”
Oof. Gut punch.
Turns out that student felt like he needed more direct instruction: he wanted to be told what questions to answer and what tasks to do -- what to learn, all narrowly defined. Messy discovery was not yet working for him.
So, here I am that night, dizzy with trying to figure out how to preserve the choice and inquiry in which the first student flourished while providing more structure and direction for the second student to shore up what feels to him like a shaky foundation. This isn’t a new spot for me (or most teachers, I imagine), yet it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here before. It’s exhilarating and disconcerting at the same time.