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Who Owns the Learning Process?


Who Owns the Learning Process?


An effective classroom must be designed to respond to the needs of every student.  That means learning must be differentiated to let each student work at the appropriate level of challenge — to meet her where she is.  In a responsive classroom, students have the freedom to work on different things at the same time.  But who decides what that work should be?

If a teacher makes such decisions, it is ineffective because it requires endlessly checking up on where each student is academically.  Even worse, it leaves the teacher in the position of telling students what to do and robs students of the opportunity of making good decisions for themselves.

When a student steers her own learning process, she learns more, both about the curriculum and about herself as a learner.  Before she can make good choices, however, she must be taught how to pay attention to what she doesn’t understand.  She also needs to learn the skill of deciding what she needs to do in order to master the material.  That skill is an essential tool in becoming a more responsible and self-directed individual.

Internalizing the decision-making in the learning process is worthwhile, regardless of the content being learned. It is a life skill that is useful not just in high school and college, but in any job worth having.



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A Graph of Learning

A Graph of Learning


"What it is is up to us."          — Howard Rheingold

"Having teachers run classes doesn’t help students learn the way they’d like to learn.  The teachers already know the material, so doing things their way is ineffective."       — Deanna H., student

“Before we begin the first real skills-based homework, I want to explain something about how I am going to build the problems we are working on from simple to ever more complex structures. 

Once again, my students are sitting in randomized groups at the lab tables.  As always, they have introduced themselves and are ready to work together.

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked several times about the idea that if everyone is going to learn as much as possible, we can’t all do the same thing at the same time, that you need to be able to make choices about how you are learning.  Technically, in teacher talk, this is called “differentiation”.

“Years ago, I read this book,” I hold it up, “called The C-Zone.  It was written by a man named Robert Kriegel.  He created a system for thinking about in corporate management, but it applies directly to any situation where new skills are being learned.  “I want to show you a modified version of his ideas that I hope will show you a way to think about making good learning choices.

“I’m going to draw a graph to show you how you learn.”  There are several groans, and one student actually asks, “Is that really necessary?” to some laughter.

“Well, it’s not necessary, but it’s an example of how physics works:  we use all kinds of symbols to simplify and clarify how we think.  Watch this one, and see if you don’t think it’s useful when we’re done.

I draw a vertical and horizontal axis on the board.  “On the vertical axis, we’ve got the level of challenge you are experiencing in learning something new.  Down at the bottom it’s easy, as you go up things get more challenging." 



“On the horizontal axis, we’ve got your level of expertise, how well you understand the new topic.  Here, on the left, you don’t get it, and off to the right, you could do it in your sleep.

“Now let’s consider several scenarios you might find yourself in.”  I draw a point high up and close to the “level of difficulty” axis.

“Talk to your neighbor - what do you think is happening there?  See if you can come up with some situations where you experienced this state.”

The usual hubbub breaks out.  Everyone seems to know something about this.

“Okay,” I say, “what is happening at this point?”

“Well, you’re in over your head,” Jasmine says.  “It’s too hard and you are unprepared.”

“And what examples didyou come up with?”

“Last year, my biology teacher put this whole complicated chart about photosynthesis on the overhead, talked about it for fifteen minutes, then gave us homework about it.” Jasmine says.  “I had no idea what she was talking about, and after a few minutes on the homework, I just gave up, I was so frustrated.”

“A test I took last week in history had some questions on it that were so hard,” Mark says. “ I swear we had never talked about that topic, and I didn’t even know what they were about.”

“So my question is, how do you feel when you are in this position?,” pointing to the chart.  

“Overwhelmed.”  “Freaked out.”  “Angry.”  “Terrified.”

“So I’m going to call this part of the graph “the Panic Zone.”  Just to be clear, how well do you think you will do at learning new stuff when you are feeling like this?”

Everyone agrees that this is a totally counterproductive experience.  

“Now, let’s look at this part, where you have a lot of experience, but not much difficulty.  What’s going on here?  Can you come up with any examples?”

“Yeah,” Tom calls out, “It’s called boredom, and an example is my algebra class.”  It takes a while for the laughter to die down.  

“But seriously, what is happening here?”

“If you know something that well, everything turns into busywork all the time.”

“I’m going to call this part of the graph the “Drone Zone” - too much experience, not enough challenge - endless busywork.  How does all that feel?”

“It’s tedious.”  “Boredom.”  “I get angry”

“Okay, so here’s where you want to be, somewhere in the middle of the graph, right?  You want the amount of challenge to be right for you - not too much, but also not too little.  What’s important to recognize is that this graph is different for each person.  What’s very challenging for one of you might come easily to someone else.   Your comfort zone (C-Zone, get it?) is specific to you.  This area in the middle is where you are going to do your best learning.  It is the Learning Zone.”  I finish writing on the graph.

“So now let’s look at how we learn a new skill in this class, like the kinematics problems that you are working on right now.

“We always start here, close to where the two axes meet - you don’t have much experience, so the challenge shouldn’t be too great.  I introduce a new type of problem - that’s a vertical arrow, where I’m making the challenge harder.  My job is to make sure that when I introduce new, more challenging material, I don’t hit you with something so challenging that you get bumped into the Panic Zone.

“When I’m done introducing new material, you do a problem set at that level of difficulty.  Practicing at that level is a horizontal arrow, like this.  You practice until you’re ready to try something harder. 

“If you master the skill quickly, to keep practicing would mean you’re doing busywork and you have entered the Drone Zone.  You all know what that feels like, and you don’t want to go there.  I don’t want you to go there.  It’s a waste of your time, and it drains your motivation.

“But someone else may need to have a longer horizontal arrow, more practice, until they feel ready to move on to the next level of complexity.  That is something you are going to learn how to do - make good choices about how much practice you need.

“When everyone is ready, I introduce that next level, another vertical arrow, and you practice it, another horizontal arrow, and so on.  You’ll notice that as this progresses, everyone gets more experience and handles more challenging work.  And how you get there is something that you will steer for yourself by choosing what work you are going to do.”

“By the way, take a look at this graph now and see if you get the meaning of it.  How many words would it take to describe what you see here?  That’s why we use Algebra and graphing and all those other things that you might want to groan over at first.  They simply clarify complicated things so that we can see them clearly.”


The Foreman Model

The Foreman Model


In a factory, one foreman can manage a lot of factory workers because what they are doing is tightly proscribed, repetitious and unimaginative.  Surely this is not something we want to emulate in a classroom. 

Despite the factory-like structure of most schools - for students, having bells dictate when to move from algebra to English is something like moving a car through an assembly line from the chassis to the steering wheel assembly - within each classroom the factory model must be replaced.  The huge number of interactions and decisions that are made in any classroom, the wide variety of activities, the range of abilities and readiness of students makes on foreman dictating the flow of activity impractical.

What we want, instead, is a system that responds to every student’s needs.  We need to do different things at the same time.  To accomplish what is truly needed, a teacher cannot make all the major decisions in a classroom;  decision-making must be distributed.  It’s also good training for citizenship.

The question is;  how can we distribute decision-making and still maintain an academically appropriate environment?  How can we achieve a kind of controlled anarchy?  

The answer largely rests on whether students can become self-directed and how well the structure of the class can support them.  It requires a classroom culture that supports responsible decision-making by students.  It also requires a way to organize those choices.  What is needed is a learning contract.

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Reflective Letter: Ariel E.

Reflective Letter: Ariel E.


I haven’t read the guidelines at all, so I hope that this will be sufficient.

This class has been by far my favorite class this year.  I loved the atmosphere, subject matter, and your teaching.  In comparison to the rigid structure of all the classes that I was in, your class was like a breath of fresh air.  In your class I never felt like I had to focus on my grades,  all I had to focus on was having fun with the labs and learning some fascinating material.

I learned a lot this year.  I learned that I have a passion for physics.  I learned things that I never would have even imagined, like the whole deal with gravity (my god that was weird).  I don’t think I’ve ever had a class that made me ponder and think nearly as much as this class did.  Physics is one of the most fascinating subjects I’ve ever had.

The thing that I loved most about this class was that I could move at my own pace.  I could go really quickly if I understood something easily, or go much slower and do more work to try and understand if I didn’t.  I could go ahead and research things outside of what we were doing in class, and be acknowledged for having done that.  If I couldn’t turn in something because I was up until 6 in the morning frantically attempting to finish a project or because of personal issues, I felt like I could talk to you and that you would be understanding and allow me to turn it in late.  I felt like this class really gave me the space and freedom that I needed to not only succeed, but enjoy what I was doing.

I hope this letter doesn’t seem too much like apple-polishing.  Everything that I have said here is what I really feel.  I really gained a lot out of this class, and I’m glad that I had you as a physics teacher, because I don’t think that I would have become nearly as interested as I am now if it wasn’t for your fun teaching and laid back classroom atmosphere.  Now I know that I have definite interest in physics that I may want to continue with when I become and adult.  Thanks for giving me that and for giving me a chance to shine


Learning Contracts: The Structure of Self-Directedness

Learning Contracts: The Structure of Self-Directedness


“We’ve talked about the fact that we all learn in different ways and at different times.  I think we all agree that it doesn’t make sense for everybody to do the same work at the same time, and that means we need some kind of structure that will keep everything organized.  What I’m handing out right now is that structure.  It’s called a learning contract, and we’ll be using them from now on to organize everything we learn.

“Let’s look at the back of the sheet first.  At the top, you’ll see there is a list of Essential Questions.  I’ve summarized the concepts you will be responsible for understanding by the end of this contract in the form of questions.  If you can answer all these questions in depth, you will have mastered the necessary concepts.  I won’t ask you any questions on a test that aren’t covered by this list.  

“Right under those questions is a section called Essential Skills.  I will always tell you what skills you need to master by the end of the unit, which equations you will need to be able to use proficiently.  Between the essential questions and skills, you have a complete list of what you should know and be able to do at the end of the unit.  In other words, these form the learning goals of this contract.

“Below that is a calendar that shows you all the due dates for required work.  Now turn to the front of the contract.

“There are a number of features built into this sheet - it has been evolving with lots of feedback from generations of students over the past twenty years.  It is a highly evolved tool.  This side has a list of all the activities you can do to master the learning goals we just looked at.  The bold items on this list are required of everybody.  They are, in my opinion, essential for everyone to be able to master this material. 

“All the items that are not bold are optional.  A number of these are review items to back up problem sets you need to continue practicing, or hands-on labs to reinforce your understanding.  Some of these optional items, labeled “A&B” for Above and Beyond, are enrichment items - they allow students who have mastered the learning goals to challenge themselves even further, to dive in deeper into the topic.  No one should ever be bored or find themselves doing busywork.

“You’ll notice there are a few blank lines, ready to be filled in.  That’s because sometimes you may find something you want to pursue on your own, something you want to read or do that’s not on the contract.  Once you talk to me about it, you can do something that I haven’t thought of yet.

“The other reason for the blank lines is that sometimes it becomes clear that there needs to be another problem set to allow for more practice, or another topic to work through that becomes clear while we’re in the middle of the contract.  In other words, the contract can change and grow to respond to your needs.

“At the bottom of the sheet it says that you need to do a minimum of fourteen items.  Since there are nine required items, that means you get to choose five that are the best for you.  You can always do more than fourteen, if you need to practice some more, for instance.

“On the left are spaces for you to evaluate each item you have done, and at the bottom, when we’re all done with this contract, you will evaluate all the work you’ve done.  You’ll turn this sheet in along with your journal at the end of this unit.  I’ll look at your work and how you evaluated yourself, and write down whether I agree or disagree.  I almost always agree, because coming up with a final grade is usually pretty obvious.


"The contract system is a genius idea and other teachers should catch on and go with it.  By giving one options, it makes it seem like less work and the student is doing it because they want to, seeing as how it is not assigned.      —Jonathan H., student


Reflective Letter: Hannah W.

Reflective Letter: Hannah W.


I really like the system of the contracts because it incorporates another new learning style into the classroom and makes learning fun.  The contracts also provide a great feeling of accomplishment because as soon as you finish one you see all the work that you put into that unit.  I also feel like contracts are really helpful in every day life because there are going to be times where you have to complete a certain amount of tasks to get something done, whether it be for your job, family, etc.

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Who Is Steering This Thing?

Who Is Steering This Thing?


I am consulting at a new school, and I’m talking to the head of the math department to find out what he thinks may be the most useful direction for me to work with his teachers.  They have been focussing on the range of readiness they find in their classes, and they want to incorporate more options for students; they understand the need for differentiation in student work.  When I ask what approach they are using now, he tells me it’s the AFL system, which stands for “Assessment For Learning”.  What this means is that the teachers are being trained to check the progress of every student on a regular basis and then tell the student what work they need to do as a result.  Not surprisingly, the teachers are feeling somewhat overwhelmed with the addition of this new regime and the associated bookkeeping that is necessary.  

“Daniel,” I say, “there is one very straightforward solution, but it’s going to take some adjusting for your teachers.  They are doing what their students should be doing;  if students are given the right training, they can do a much better job of deciding for themselves what work they need to do.”

“I know what some teachers are going to say to that,” he says.  “Students can’t be trusted to make those decisions.  What about when students choose to do easier work than they should?  Or they say they already understand something when they don’t?”

“Well, if they make bad decisions, they won’t learn very well, they’ll do badly on tests and will get poor grades.  It’s in their best interest to make good decisions, but the teachers are going to have to teach them how to make those decisions - their students have probably never had the chance to actually decide whether they need to practice problem-solving, for instance.  I can help with defining the structure of letting students choose work appropriately.

“The other issue is that your teachers are going to have to find a way to trust their students a little more.  In my experience, students rise to the challenge when they are given more responsibility.  But there needs to be a shift in the classroom culture, and that’s another are where I might be able to help them.”

What Daniel and his department have been practicing is called differentiated instruction.  The very name shows the focus on teaching - “instruction” is what teachers do, after all.  And this has several down-sides.

First, it leaves the existing top-down decision making structure intact, with all the attendant negative consequences.  Second, it leads to more bookkeeping and intrusive checking up on the progress each student is making - how else will a teacher know how to assign work for each student?  And third, in a fundamental way, it does not give the responsibility and ownership of the process to the student.

In contrast, self-directed learning is predicated on the necessity of a student steering his own learning process and becoming a self-aware and active agent in that process.  It puts decision-making in the hands of the student, where it belongs and gives students the opportunity to practice steering their own learning process.


Reflective Letter: Katherine J.

Reflective Letter: Katherine J.


When I started doing work in this class not for college, or for my parents, or even for the whine within, I liked it.  I liked science, and I understood it, and I was doing something that was wholly, totally, solely mine.  For me, by me, of me.  So I’d to thank you for that, for having the vision and soul to be able to go this route, for fighting to do it, and for knowing what it really means.

This class has been an epiphany for me, truly.  It has done nothing less than restore my faith in humanity, in people in myself, and in learning.  I have learned that learning can be worthwhile, teachers can be real people, and a bunch of misfits -- black and white and otherwise -- could sit together and figure some prickly physics question out.  AND have a cool time doing it.

No more perfection, no more running around in useless AP classes, no more working mindlessly, and now, no more high school ever.     


Open Work Time and the Art of Self-Directedness

Open Work Time and the Art of Self-Directedness

"Your class was set up in a way that most high school students and I had never seen before.  The freedom, trust and flexibility built into the class were what made it different.      —Nicky B., student 


The current contract has been designed so that today is the first of three “open work” periods.  We have spent over a week going through the required work together;  they have done all the assigned reading, discussed it in study groups, and all of the essential skills have been introduced.  Now comes the moment where they take charge of solidifying their mastery of this unit. 

Once everyone has settled into their seats, I do a quick review of all the options on the contract that are available for them.  These are spread out across the large teacher’s table at the front of the room;  stacks of problem sets and worksheets, trays containing materials for labs.

There are four review problem sets covering a range of skills, there are three lab activities, a computer simulation they can play with, several worksheets that are heavy on the graphical representation, and more reading.  There are also several enrichment problem sets which are more difficult than anything they will be tested on at the end of the unit for the students who are ready to take on something more challenging.

It takes two minutes to talk them through the options, and then I say, “Let’s go.”

There is a burst of activity as everyone stands up and they sort out what they want to do and who they want to do it with.  Several study groups move back to their usual tables, knowing that they are going to work on problem solving together.  After some brief conversations, two groups form to do two of the labs.  A few people are milling around looking through the options at the front of the room, choosing a problem set or worksheet and asking if anyone else wants to do it with them.  Within another two minutes, the room settles into a quiet hum of activity.  Individuals and small groups are scattered around the room, sitting around the lab tables, at individual student desks in front, or in ad hoc groups of desks moved into small circles.  Several people are sitting on the rug.

This is the moment that I like best;  seeing the purposefulness of a group of people, talking, arguing, laughing, socializing, reading intently.  I hang back just to savor the scene.  Then I start wandering, landing lightly in this group to check in on their progress, sitting next to someone working on a problem set, asking the occasional question to help them focus on a subtlety.  When a colleague stops by to ask me if he can borrow some equipment, it takes him a moment to find me.  That feels just right.

As I wander around, I notice that a number of students are struggling with one aspect of the problem solving.  Half way through the period, I interrupt the activity to ask who would like to do a workshop on that particular skill.  Five students raise their hand, so we all retreat to a table in the back of the room.

“Okay, everyone get out this problem set” - I hold it up - “and look at problem three.  See if you can tell me exactly where you are having problems.”

Sarah immediately says, “I can’t seem to set up the givens.  I know I need three of them, but I’m only coming up with two.”  

I look around.  “Anyone else having that particular problem?”  

“Yeah, I’m only getting two.” Tom says.

“And you three?  Where do you get stuck?”

“I’m having trouble knowing which equation to use.”

“Me, too.”

“Okay, so how about you, David, work with Tom and watch him set up the last three problems - don’t finish them, just get started, and you two work with Sarah and do the same.  I’ll be back infive minutes and we’ll go through the middle of the problem together.”

I leave them, checking in with two other groups.  When I get back, I ask if Sarah and Tom are more comfortable with the set-up.  They say yes, and I tell them to practice setting up all the problems on yet another review sheet to make sure they’ve got it.  They can check their work with the Helpful Hints on the back.  If they want to take credit for doing that sheet, they can do all the problems to the end.  If they feel comfortable with everything except the set-up, they can just do that part, check their work, and move on to do something that might be more useful.  It’s their call.  

Now we settle in and work on the center of the problem with the whole group.



"Another positive of this class is the flexible deadlines.  This allowed me to always do my best work.  I was never pressured to stay up all night and cram."          —Melissa M., student


"This year also taught me a lot about myself and how I learn best.  The math in physics I always picked up on just by listening.  However, the concepts were another story.  I found out that I learn best with diagrams and pictures.  When I can see it, I can do it.  Also, when we write down what we are learning in notes, then discuss it,then do a lab and try it, I get it!  I could never say that before this class."         —Jonathan H., student


A Teacher's Story: Danielle S.

A Teacher's Story: Danielle S.


Danielle hands me a thick packet of worksheets and says, “This is what I have to work with.  The department came up with these packets for every unit.  We’re supposed to assign this stuff, but it’s a big mess and there’s way too much for anyone to actually be able to do all of it.  It’s overwhelming.”

I ask her a set of questions to see whether the packet might become useful.  “Are there items in this packet that you think are really important for students to do?”  

“Yes, definitely.  I probably assign a third of the worksheets.”

“Would you consider those to be work that is required of everyone in the class?”  

She says that makes sense.

“Okay, then are there other sheets that are redundant because they cover the same ideas as some of the required works?”

“Yes, that’s one of the big problems.  For a lot of students, many of these worksheets are busywork, because they get it right away.”

“Okay, so let’s say the redundant ones optional.  We’ll call them review sheets.  Now are there some sheets here that are so hard you don’t expect everyone to ever get them?”

“Yes, there are.  If I wanted everyone to master all of the stuff in these packets, it would take a month.”

“Good, then we’ll define some of them as Above and Beyond or Enriched, something that makes it sound like they are something special.  And we’ll make it clear that no one will be tested on them.”

“But why would anyone ever do them?”, she asks. “I can’t imagine my students volunteering to do something harder than what they have to.”

“Yeah,” I reply, “this is going to take a little effort, but they are going to have a choice to make:  do some busywork, or do something that will keep challenging you at the level you are ready to learn.  For that to really work, there needs to be a shift in the classroom culture with the goal of everyone pushing themselves to learn as much as possible.  But we’ll get back to that later.  

“What I’m hearing, then, is that this packet needs a cover sheet that defines what is essential, required work, what is good optional review work, and what is optional enrichment for those students who are ready to push themselves further.

“Find a consistent nomenclature to use, giving each item a distinct name.  Then list those items on a cover sheet with room for their name and a place for a grade next to each item.  Indicate the required work - I made those items bold - and set a minimum number of items that they have to complete.  They’ll do the required ones, and then they’ll have to choose among the optional ones.

“In my experience, giving them a choice, any choice at all, will be a completely unprecedented experience for them, one that they’ll appreciate.

“In the meantime, with a minimum amount of work on your part, you’ve made this packet much more useful, and much less onerous for everyone involved.  And you’ve started the process to have meaningful, student-directed differentiation in your classes.” 

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The Scourge of Busywork

The Scourge of Busywork


"The contracts were effective for me because I like choosing which activities I want to do rather than doing something that could be deemed 'busy work'."       —Sam H., student

"Busy work gets us nowhere."            —Maya Z., student


It’s an open work day, the last day before the test, and I’m walking around the room checking in with various students.  I notice that Janet is working on some basic practice problems, that I suspect are too easy for her. 

“Hey,” I say, “have you been having difficulties with that kind of problem?  I thought you were doing pretty well with them.”

“I am,”  she says.  “It’s just that our contracts are due tomorrow, and I don’t have time to finish everything.”

“Well, how many items have you done so far on the contract?”

She pulls her contract out, marks off a few new items along with some that are already checked.  

“I’ve only done eleven.”

“And the contract calls for fourteen, right?  Would you say that the work you’re doing at this point is still helping you learn the material, or are you just trying to get to fourteen?”

“Definitely getting to fourteen.”

“So how did you get into this position?  Did you check on how you were progressing during thetwo weeks of this contract, or did you just discover you were shy?”

“Honestly, I haven’t even looked at the contract for a week.”

“Aha.  And has this happened with other contracts?”

“Almost every one.  I suddenly have to do a bunch of work in the last day or two.”

“Well, learning how to manage your time better is a worthwhile skill.  Are you interested in working on that with me?”


“Would it help to have some interim deadlines during the contract cycle?”

“That would work.”

“Okay, so at the start of the next contract, let’s sit down and work out a plan together about how many items you should have done by what date.  We’ll do that together for a few contracts, then you do a few and run them by me, and then you’ll just do them on your own.  Sound like a plan?”

“That’s a deal.”

“So for right now, is there anything that would be more useful for you than this busywork problem set?  Do you feel like there is anything else you need to work on to master the essential questions or skills?”

She looks at the contract. 

“No, I’m pretty solid onI guess I could try one of the Above and Beyond sets.”

“I’ll tell you what.  Finish this one A&B tonight in preparation for the test, and write a comment on the contract so we can talk about it later.  If you can think of some work you can do that would be meaningful for you - some outside research say, or some reading that would be of interest to you but wouldn’t be cramming stuff in by the deadline, that would be better than this.  Do you have anything like that in mind?”

“Yes, I do.  I’ve found a couple of articles in Scientific American that intrigued me - I could summarize what I learn from them.”

“Great.  And when would a reasonable deadline be for getting that done?”

“I would definitely be able to do that by Friday.”

“Okay, so Friday is your new deadline for the contract.  And let’s set up a time once you get the new contract to talk through your time management of it.”

It is certainly possible to have students see homework as an effective learning tool, and to do it out of the desire to learn.  Yet, in my experience, that is generally not how students view homework.  In fact, the prevalence of students perceiving homework as busywork is one of the hallmarks of doing school.  It is certainly one of the reasons why so little long-term learning actually takes place in school, despite the sheer volume of effort thatboth students and teachersdevote to homework.

This is not what teachers want to happen, but somehow it happens all the time, anyway. 





The contract on magnetism was due three days ago, and Charlie still hasn’t turned it in.  I have also noticed that his behavior has changed over the past few weeks;  he’s become quieter, somewhat disengaged, not his usual energetic self.  When there’s an opportunity, I pull him aside.

“So Charlie”, I say, “I notice you haven’t turned in the last contract yet.  Is there a problem?”

“Yeah, I’ve been trying to get the last few items done so I can turn it in.”

“Why weren’t you able to finish it on time, when that work would probably have been more meaningful?”

“I’m just swamped.  It’s not just in this class.  I can’t keep up with the workload.”

“So why are you feeling so pressed right now.  What’s going on?”

“For one thing, I joined the swim team.”

“Aha.  That would account for it.  I know how much you guys practice.  Most swimmers I know are exhausted a lot of the time.”

“Yeah, and I’m still working 20 hours a week at the bakery.”

“Well, is it absolutely necessary for you to make money right now?”

“I’m trying to save up for prom.  I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I cut back some.”

“If you can, it would probably make a pretty big difference in catching up, don’t you think?”

He nods.

“Well, let me ask you this;  since we already took the test and you did pretty well on it, are any of the things you’re working on right now helping you learn in any way? Or is it just busywork?”

“It’s definitely busywork.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s worth doing. How about you turn in what you’ve got, give yourself a grade for the contract that’s reasonable for what you have, and on the side of the contract put down exactly what you’ve been doing over the past few weeks.  That way, when we get to the end of the quarter, we’ll be able to look at the big picture — how you did before it got crazy, how you did after, and how much the grade you got on this unit should weigh in coming up with a final grade for the quarter.

“What would be a reasonable deadline for organizing what you’ve done so far and turning it in?”

“I can do that by the end of the day, for sure.”

“That sounds good.  And if you cut back on your working hours, do you think you’ll be able to keep up with the work on the unit we’re in right now?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then do that, and let’s see what happens.”


The class is set up so the ball is in our court, which I love.  It works great for motivated students that want to do good but want to do it their way.               — Jonathan H., student


Reflective Letter: Ariel L

Reflective Letter: Ariel L


Physics was probably the most fun I have ever had in any academic class in this school.  I think since I was always happy to come to class and there was such a positive atmosphere I was able to learn better.  I never felt bad asking about concepts I didn’t understand, or math problems I couldn’t do.  

I find it weird that I find myself thinking about physics, because I never really find myself thinking about any other class outside of school.

This last week we had an option of whether or not we wanted to do the final contract and the work that was on it.  Instead of just blowing it off and not doing it because I didn’t have to, I actually sat down and read the chapters took notes and answered the questions.  I did this because I wanted to, not because I could get a good grade.  The structure of this class played a big part in having me do things not just for the sake of a good grade.  The fact that we were able to negotiate contract items and give our input on how the class should be run only added to a better learning experience and environment.  

Continue to get the students’ opinions on the structure of the class.  If the kids are not involved, its more like a dictatorship rather than a democracy.