Trying to break the “homeroom” mould

Last year we tried many things to help get us and the students to break away from the traditional notion of a homeroom.

  • We encouraged free flow and fluidity between spaces.
  • Teachers and students offered workshops open to anyone in the grade level.
  • Students collaborated with whomever they liked, regardless of whether they were in “their class” or not

But despite our best intentions and efforts, more often that not it was still “my room”, “my teacher”, “my class” (for both us and the students)

So this year we have to decided to keep trying to break that stubborn mould – which as we discovered – is a deeply entrenched concept in the collective current understanding of what school is.

Here are a few things we’ve decided to try this year to hopefully move further away from the mindset of the homeroom:

1. We’re not assigning rooms to teachers. Instead of having Miss Taryn’s room, Mr. Pug’s room, Miss Amanda’s room – where a specific set of students and teachers lay claim – we’ve decide to have all spaces shared and co-owned. It’s been a hard habit to change our language of “my room”, “your room”, but in trying to do so it has made us all more mindful of both the language we use and our own deep rooted habits of thinking and being. We’ve taken to referring to the rooms simply by numbers, but were hoping when students arrive they think of some more creative and purposeful room names!

2. We’re meeting as a grade level first. On the first day of school, after we collect our specifically assigned students from the basketball court, we’ve decided to meet altogether, as a grade level, in our town hall meeting space. We’re hoping that meeting together in a shared space first will help them identify with the larger community and space, instead of reinforcing that idea of “my room” if we take them into a specific, smaller, classroom-like space. From there we will breakout into smaller groups, but we’re planning on purposefully and arbitrarily picking a room and using general language, like “let’s go meet in that room”.

3. We’re purposefully rotating where we meet with students. Building on the ideas above, we’ve also decided to rotate the spaces we use whenever we pull the students into smaller groups. Again hoping to help all students see all spaces as available to them for the betterment of their learning.

4. Students can choose where to keep their things. This was a big discussion as a team. We wanted students to have a consistent homebase – somewhere to put their backpacks, lunch bags, swim clothes each day – but we were also aware that that typically means a cubby section in an assigned classroom. So we’ve decided to make all cubbies available to all students, but have students choose one cubby to make their “home base” for the rest of the year.

5. We’re having one Google Classroom. Another structure that kept us in the mindset of homerooms last year was having separate Google Classrooms. This year we’ve decided to have one centralized Google Classroom where all teachers and all students can connect and collaborate with one another.

6. Students will decide how best to use and set up the variety of learning spaces we have. Our biggest risk – and hopefully biggest crack to the mould of homeroom mentality- is having students set up their learning spaces. But instead of having them set up classrooms, we’ve decided to have the whole cohort take ownership over the whole grade-level area – hallways, quiet learning spaces, loud learning spaces, and regular learning spaces. To assist with this process we have “unsetup” all the spaces to create a blank canvas. We’ve emptied every shelf, bin and cupboard, stock piled every table, couch, pillow and collated all the learning supplies and resources. On the first day of school we’re going to ensure students know they are empowered and trusted to envision, create and take ownership over their learning spaces, resources and materials. After giving them a little bit of time to try, struggle, have tension, solve problems and persevere we’re planning on supporting their thinking as well as the process – having 120 students set up 9 learning spaces will be no small task!

I’m sure there are still many ways that our mindset and that of the students will be stuck within the confines of the “homeroom mould”, but hopefully these 6 steps propel us further down the path of true learning and further away from doing school.

As with any worthwhile risk, I’m feeling the perfect combination of excitement and fear. It’s either going to be amazing or a complete disaster!

The adventure begins tomorrow…

Wish us luck!

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Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?