5 ways to create a community of learners

5 strategies for independent learning

When students take ownership of their education, online learning is more likely to succeed

Fifth-grade teacher Kim Voge has had students literally beg her to give them more writing assignments. As Jon Corippo, chief learning officer for the nonprofit group Computer-Using Educators (CUE), put it: “When do you see that ever?”

Voge has also watched students who began her class too shy to ask questions blossom into confident, capable, autonomous learners who can ask for help or advocate for themselves.

What’s her “secret sauce?” This 26-year veteran educator has created a culture of student-centered, independent learning in her classroom. As it turns out, this approach has served both Voge and her students exceptionally well in transitioning to remote learning during the pandemic, as neither have skipped a beat in moving the process fully online.

Focus on student ownership

A big concern for teachers in shifting to remote instruction has been how to manage students and make sure they complete assignments without watching over them all day.

Teaching students how to learn independently — and giving them the practice they need to develop this skill — can alleviate this concern. When students take ownership of their learning, they’re well positioned to succeed in a remote learning environment, as Voge’s experience demonstrates.

Voge, who teaches at Van Buren Elementary School in California’s Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, returned to the classroom last fall after serving as a digital learning instructional coach for seven-plus years.

When schools shut down in March amid the coronavirus outbreak, her students already knew how to work in Google Classroom and create collaborative slide decks with their classmates. They were proficient in accessing information and completing assignments right from their Chromebooks. They even knew how not to intrude on each others’ slides and other essential digital citizenship skills.

“We didn’t have a huge learning curve for how to learn remotely,” she observed.

Just as importantly, Voge had been teaching her students how to be self-directed learners all year. “On that Friday when we left, I told my kids, ‘You’re ready for this,’” she recalled. “We had been doing this all year long, and we’d been preparing for remote learning — we just didn’t know it at the time.”

Five strategies for success

What were the things Voge had been doing in her classroom all year that prepared students for independent learning from home? Here are five strategies that mattered.

Building relationships

Like Lainie Rowell noted in last week’s column, building strong relationships with students is critical. When students feel like they’re part of a learning community — when they know their teacher and their peers are counting on them to come through — they don’t want to disappoint others.

“The No. 1 thing is absolutely building relationships with your kids,” Voge said. “That trust factor is huge. When they know that you are there for them and they are there for each other, there is a magical interdependence that happens because of that. I could pretty much put kids in any grouping and they would work well together.”

Establishing routines

Creating routines that students become familiar with helps them learn to work independently. Voge has seen a lot of success with the EduProtocols model developed by Corippo and his colleague Marlena Hebern.

EduProtocols are simple lesson design frames that engage students in learning using the four “Cs” — communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. They can be used with any content, in any subject or grade level.

For instance, an EduProtocol called “Cyber Sandwich” is like a structured template for a “think-pair-share” exercise. Pairs of students spend 10 minutes independently reading the same passage, then come together to discuss their observations. They create a slide with a Venn diagram showing what was the same and different about what they observed. Finally, they each write their own summary paragraph of the selection, and together as a pair they present their findings to the class.

The beauty of the EduProtocols model is that the workflow is the same every time, just applied to new content. Once students learn the process, the teacher no longer has to explain what to do — and students can work independently without needing a whole lot of guidance.

When Voge introduced a new EduProtocol to her students, she would start them off with a fun, whimsical activity. “The first Cyber Sandwich we did was a silly reading about hamburgers,” she said. “We started with something that had a low cognitive load, because I wanted to teach the skill. Once they understood the skill, we would apply it with the content.”

Through repetition with the same structured activities, her students gained confidence — “and that’s when their autonomy took hold,” she said.

Giving students an authentic audience

When students are writing for each other, they’re far more motivated to create high-quality work than if they’re just writing for their teacher. Voge used this principle to get students genuinely excited about writing with an EduProtocol called the “Random Emoji Generator Power Paragraph.”

The activity uses the Random Emoji Generator created by educator Ian Byrd and the app Socrative to have students practice writing paragraphs, one sentence at a time.

“My students ask to do the Random Emoji Generator Power Paragraph all the time,” Voge said. “They think it’s so much fun.”

Here’s how it works: Voge clicks on the Random Emoji Generator to have an educationally appropriate emoji come up on the screen. Within Socrative, students type a sentence that relates to that emoji. If it’s a smiling face emoji, they might write something like: “The boy left his house very happy.” Then Voge clicks the generator again, and students write a second sentence that relates to the next emoji but builds on the paragraph they already started. If the next emoji is a monkey, they might write: “As he was walking down the street, a monkey jumped out of a tree.” This process continues until students have written a five-sentence paragraph.

“Students have to pursue an idea while relating the emojis together,” Voge said. “They’re writing on demand, and it’s very creative.”

What happens next is that students read everyone’s work and vote for which paragraphs they like best. This instant feedback on their work from critics whose opinions they value highly — their peers — is very motivating.

The activity wraps up with students revising a paragraph that Voge has chosen to highlight, using a checklist of skills she wants students to learn. For instance, they might have to make sure there’s an appositive. They might have to include a sentence that begins with a prepositional phrase. They might have to add five adjectives.

“They’re using authentic pieces of writing written by their friends, which makes it fun,” she said. “They also know they’re writing for an audience bigger than me, and so they tend to write better and become more invested in the assignment. This is our No. 1 most requested activity. We do it at least once a week, and students’ writing skills have really grown. They are becoming more confident and creative writers.”

Providing them with a voice and choice

When Voge did this activity with students in class, she would choose the paragraph for them to revise. When the learning shifted to students’ homes, she gave her students even more ownership of the process.

“I gave them a spreadsheet with everyone’s paragraphs, but with the students’ names removed,” she said. “They got to choose any paragraph from the spreadsheet that wasn’t their own, and they copied it into a document and revised it. They really liked the choice of picking someone else’s paragraph to revise.”

Giving students a voice and a choice in their learning has been something Voge has done throughout the year, and it’s another key factor that has fostered independent learning among her students.

Voge also creates HyperDocs that ask students to explore a topic, explain what they’ve learned, and apply their new knowledge by creating a project or performing a task. For each of these three components — explore, explain, apply — she’ll give students multiple options for how to complete the lesson.

For instance, if her students are learning about the Boston Massacre, she might create links to three different ways they can explore the topic. One might be a reading passage, another might be a video, and the third might be a link to the Boston Massacre Engraving by Paul Revere. To explain what they’ve learned, they could choose to write a 3-2-1 reflection: three things they learned, two “ahas,” and one question they still have. Or, they could write a 12-word summary of what they learned. To apply their new knowledge, they could write a newspaper article or an opinion piece.

“I had many parents tell me their child doesn’t usually want to sit and work, but they were doing it,” Voge said. “They were super engaged in a project, because they got to choose how they would approach it.”

Unleashing their creativity

Empowering students to take charge of their own learning has inspired students to take risks and be creative in ways “that I don’t think they would have come up with otherwise,” Voge said.

A few weeks ago, after Voge’s students had been completing HyperDoc assignments all year long, she challenged them to create their own HyperDoc lesson. They could choose any topic, as long as it was school-appropriate — and they could choose how they were going to teach it.

“Students went and found the links for the ‘explore’ tasks, and they put in the directions,” she said. “They came up with activities they wanted their classmates to do to explain and apply what they’ve learned.” In essence, “they became the teacher, and that’s the highest form of learning — when you teach someone else the content.” The following week’s assignment was to choose a classmate’s HyperDoc and complete that lesson.

“It was really fun to see how they learned from each other,” she said. Topics included why wolves travel in packs, how to get better at playing Fortnite, and why we should recycle.

Voge summed up her experience with remote learning as follows: “I had quite a few kids who liked the independent nature of the learning. They liked doing assignments when and where they wanted to. They felt a sense of responsibility, because they were in the driver’s seat of their learning. I wanted the work to be something the kids could accomplish on their own, and the feedback I got from parents was, ‘My child can do the work. They’re challenged, but they’re doing the work independently—so thank you.’ It was all very positive.”

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Dennis Pierce

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