At Richard W. Scott School we began to tinker with student directed learning, one of the mandates of Living and Learning. It was an issue that was met with a diversity of opinion by staff but we agreed to take baby steps and carefully examine the consequences as we went. In a recent post on Teaching Out Loud, Stephen asked if anyone had been involved with a field trip that made them feel uneasy or caused “edginess”.
I’m a bit hesitant to relate to you the nature of the one field trip that caused me “edginess”. Actually it was more than edginess. It was stark terror. I am reluctant to tell the story for fear of having the police come to my door.
This field trip involved me, was sanctioned by me, but didn’t include me because I didn’t go on the trip. It was a group of students from my Grade 8 class who went, while their teacher stayed back with the other students.
We were encouraged by our principal, John Flynn, to initiate an experiment in which a “select” group of students would be allowed to set their own learning goals in one subject area. With my group it was Science. Six students were selected and were given the opportunity to set their own course (so to speak) in science. Naturally, these were high flyers who had proven themselves to be engaged learners and who we considered to be responsible, dependable and highly motivated. They were given some parameters and some guidelines within which they could pursue their interest. My group was very interested in “weather”. They were eager to learn more about weather patterns, high and low pressure systems, warm and cold fronts etc. They were given a block of time within the day and were permitted to research on their own. Bear in mind that this was 1967 and the word “internet” was a fishing term. Our school library was, shall we say, limited. It was a little cart with books on it that was wheeled around to the classrooms. The encyclopedia Britannica was sparse. The students asked me if they could go two blocks down the street to the Toronto Public Library Branch. They expected that I would go with them but when I told them to go ahead on their own they were flabbergasted. Needless to say I held my breath until they returned. I took the precaution of calling the library to advise them that six Grade 8 students would be arriving shortly and if they weren’t there within 15 minutes would they call me right back. My kids did not let me down. Not only did they return with a mountain of good material I received a call from the library telling me how well-behaved they were and how diligently they did their research. The librarian told me I could be very proud of my students. I was so relieved and so happy for these kids because they had proven themselves to be capable of self-directed learning. Furthermore, I had trusted them and they responded in kind.
My story does not end there. A few days later, at our debriefing meeting, they told me how great it would be if they could talk to a real, live meteorologist. I did a bit of digging around and the only place close enough to the school where they could sit with a qualified meteorologist was at the Island Airport on Toronto Island. Here comes the scary part. I arranged with the weather office at the airport to receive these 6 students and the agreement was that they arrive with pre-arranged questions, a tape recorder and good manners. Parents actually signed consent forms for their children to travel by streetcar and ferry boat to the Toronto Island, UNSUPERVISED! Off they went and I began to question the whole concept of student-directed learning, mainly because I was scared to death. Well, guess what? They went and they returned (safe and dry) and within the allotted time. They couldn’t wait to share with me all their newfound knowledge. The meteorologist called me to sing the praises of these amazing young people who had conducted themselves with grace and poise. He told me that my students were a credit to their families and to their school. I cried a bit and then hugged them one and all. I was so proud.
Not only had my principal been supportive, but so also were the other kids in the class, in the hopes that they too would someday get to have such an experience. Would I ever do it again? Not on your life. Not because I wouldn’t want to but because it would never be permitted again. I know what a risk it was but I took the risk because I believed in these kids and in their ability to choose wisely, pursue an area of specific interest to them and act responsibly. They learned what they wanted and needed to learn and on their own terms. Wow!
Please don’t tell anybody about this. I could get in trouble.