I had dinner with my friend Alec on Wednesday, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about curriculum, transforming schools, and going to scale. One thing that Alec discussed was the task as teacher.
In my second year of teaching, I designed a unit on resume writing. On a resume, you are listing your experiences and achievements, but you are also trying to highlight specific strengths that make you attractive to potential employers. While you can't just come out and say that you are hard-working, you can say it between the lines if you choose your words and supporting details carefully.
To encourage students to write their resumes purposefully, I built feedback into the task. The student would list the strengths being highlighted in the resume, a panel of readers would list the strengths being highlighted in the resume, and if the two lists matched up, then the resume had achieved its purpose. Even though I drew my panel of readers from the community, the panel wasn't judging the resumes. Students weren't trying to create the best resume; they were trying to craft a resume out of their experiences and achievements so that their own self-identified strengths shone through.
At first, students struggled. Under work experience, they'd write, "Babysitter, 1993-1996," and nothing else. So, I had to model the process for them. What would they infer about a babysitter who had half a dozen long-term and non-family clients? What would they infer about a babysitter who did the dishes and cleaned up around the house after the baby was asleep? What would they infer about a babysitter who made a fun game out of cooking and eating vegetables? Then we would wordsmith these supporting details as a class, trying to highlight a specific strength through them. Did that last babysitter want to be seen as good with kids, passionate about healthy living, creative, or a problem-solver?
Once students understood what they were doing, they were off to the races. They would revise a single entry a dozen times in one class, asking peers to review and evaluate each attempt. They didn't really need me for much of anything. They would ask me for feedback if I was around, but they weren't trying to please me. They were trying to get a point across to a general reader, and there were plenty of those around. One thing that was fun to see was a student helping another student recognize a hidden strength running through a resume. A student might say, "I know that you weren't trying to highlight this, but I see you collaborating well with others in these three entries. Do you think that's a strength of yours?" The task had taken over as teacher.
In hindsight, I should have done more to build off of the resume writing unit. I used it as a launchpad for the purposeful writing we would do throughout the year, but it was also a fun way for students to get to know one another. We had a number of Cambodian immigrants in the class, and it was eye-opening to learn that some of them had jobs and were significant breadwinners for their families. Students also got into heavy debates amongst themselves over self-perception and action. Can you be a hard worker if your actions don't reflect that? If you aren't a hard worker but you start working hard, do you become a hard worker? Some students also got upset when they couldn't find any recent experiences or achievements from school. Not only did they recognize that it looked bad on their resumes, but they felt that it was bad. At a minimum, I should have used this as an opportunity for goal-setting, giving students an opportunity to update their resumes at the end of the year. What would they do throughout the year to be the person they wanted to be?
A well-designed learning task should be more than a vehicle for teaching, it should teach on its own. In fact, it should take over as the primary teacher once things get going. This sets up a positive dynamic and makes the relationship among teacher, student, and content more balanced. I'm still processing this idea, so expect more examples soon.