Empowered, Independent, Impressive

The beautiful thing about empowering kids to choose their homework is that they can do exactly the right work to help them achieve their goals.

For a student struggling with subtraction, that might mean practicing subtraction facts, playing mental math games, or doing subtraction story problems every night. After a few weeks (or maybe months), this approach can help students to close the achievement gap and take real pride in their success.

Future posts will describe the different homework options in my plan, but for this post, I want to talk about independent studies. They are the perfect choice for high fliers who really don’t need to practice subtraction facts or words they already know how to spell.

Imagine a third grader at the front of the classroom with a 3D model of the brain that she made out of clay. She’s explaining to the class how the corpus callosum unites the right and left hemispheres.

Now imagine two third grade boys doing a PowerPoint presentation on what conditions are like on the other planets. Their slides are filled with facts and humor, and as they present, they are having so much fun. They know their information inside and out, having worked together after school twice a week for three months.

Kids in my class have presented on igloos, dolphins, snakes, snails, the history of the Polynesian islands, how computers work… even the H1N1 virus.

Doing independent studies lets kids pursue questions that truly intrigue and excite them, encourages them to read with purpose, and teaches them valuable research and presentation skills. So how can a teacher manage independent studies effectively?

First, it has to be clear to students that doing an independent study is serious business. My kids start by writing a proposal, which I have to approve:

PDF: Independent Study Proposal

Word: Independent Study Proposal

The second page of the proposal describes what’s required in an independent study and provides a checklist for all the components. Students have to read at least two books in addition to any websites they might visit. Then, they have to write a bibliography.

PDF: Bibliography Format

Word: Bibliography Format

The kids set their own due dates, and I check in with them periodically to offer my help and to make sure things are on track.

That brings up the question of parent involvement. I think parents can be great partners in learning. I’ve even had two parents co-present with their children. One was a computer expert whose daughter described each component of a computer her dad had disassembled. Another was a cardiac surgeon whose daughter explained how the heart worked. When she finished her presentation, her dad stepped in and demonstrated how to perform an angioplasty.

The important point here is that in both cases, the kids owned the learning. The parents helped facilitate that learning and added their own expertise to the presentations, but the parents had collaborated with their kids, not taken over. The kids’ experiences were richer and more meaningful because of their parents’ involvement.

What I have a problem with is when parents “help” by doing the work for their children. One time, a student brought in a report her parents had clearly written (and typed). The student could barely read it, never mind explain the ideas it contained.

Somewhere in the middle are projects where parents help by bringing kids to the library, checking in on their progress, and discussing complex ideas. That just seems like good parenting to me.

I usually introduce independent studies as a homework choice in the late fall, when it becomes a good option for a few kids. By the end of the year, most of my students have done at least one independent study (some kids do several). Consider it not only for your high fliers and natural presenters, but also for kids who might get really excited by pursuing an off-beat topic and for kids who need some practice and encouragement presenting in front of the class.

— a. fox

4 thoughts on “Empowered, Independent, Impressive

  1. I loved reading this post about independent studies – I’d like to talk further with you about the independent studies your students presented. I am also thinking about possible third grade mentors – that is, if a student who has completed an independent study could share their project and process with our class, that would be a great launch to interest kids in earlier grades and give them a strong benchmark to strive for!

    • I’d love to have some of my third graders present to your class. Last year, one of my kids presented to 3C to help them launch independent studies, and the student did a terrific job — it was great.

      I was also thinking about podcasting, since you guys were at the conference yesterday. Wouldn’t it be cool to have kids create a podcast (audio, or maybe video) of their presentation after they present it to the class? Then we could post it out on the web for parents to see.

  2. Abbie, you’re pumping me up for the school year! I was having a conversation with Beth recently about how we can work independent studies into our work with kids. I’d love to re-establish a stronger indepdendent reading program as a springboard for this kind of study, too.

    • Hooray! You make a good point about the connection to independent reading. Doing an independent study has been good for some of my kids who struggle to find something to read for pleasure. It gives their reading purpose and importance.

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