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How a Blog Helped a Teacher Reinvent Her Classroom
It was a great year with a wonderful class and supportive parents. But Pernille Ripp was fed up.
“I wanted to either change the way I was teaching or quit,” Ripp said. She just wasn’t getting what she was looking for from her classroom experience.
When she told her husband, he looked at her and asked her how she was going to fix her classroom.
“Quitting was not an option,” Ripp said. “He knew so well that teaching is what I always wanted to do.”
A Blog is Born
This was a few summers ago. The fifth-grade teacher in Wisconsin spent those summer months soul searching. She launched her blog (http://pernillesripp.com) to work her ideas out.
She narrowed her thoughts to a simple idea: She wanted to teach a class that she would want to be in — as a student, not a teacher. Exploring that idea helped her find a teaching method that put the students in charge of their learning.
“I was,” she said laughing, “a willful child.” And that willful child, she knew, would like the idea of being in charge — and learning from it.
Ripp decided to drop grades, dump homework and ditch the punishment. No more writing students’ name on the boards for bad behavior or rewarding them for good.
“I felt like I was simply rewarding the students who were already doing well,” Ripp said. “It didn’t feel like anyone was learning.”
Under the new system, Ripp has students give her self-evaluations — “I like to read,” “I don’t like to read,” “I have trouble with X because of Y”— and she works with them from that point, rather than some arbitrary point in their learning or development where they are supposed to be.
The students show learning and progress through projects. An early one each year is to pick a region of the United States best suited for relaunching civilization after a zombie attack.
It’s awesome fun for the students. But it is also teaches research, geography, teamwork, writing, persuasion and the skills needed present the material in whatever form works best for the group.
Work not finished in class becomes homework. But there is, ideally, time to finish everything. This gives the students a kick, and an insight into their learning.
“They come into school actually excited about being here,” Ripp said. “I see a sense of time-management skills in the classroom. They see it is your own fault if it turns into homework.”
Students aren’t give class books to read, per se. They are, instead, given a reading goal. But it’s up to them, with Ripp’s help, to find the right books.
“There are so many times in our lives when we are told what to read,” Ripp said. “I just want them to read.”
And she’s got piles and piles of books to recommend (check out her thoughts on reading). Through blogging or presentations, students can share what they’ve read. And Ripp can guide their writing with real-time feedback.
“We talk about ‘How are you doing? Do you need to change your goals?’ We make reading a focal point,” Ripp said. “A success to me is any child sitting and reading,”
More Work for the Teacher
The learning is more engaging and less work for students, but the system is harder for Ripp.
“It was a lot easier when I could grade worksheets,” Ripp said. Now she keeps spreadsheets of each student’s progress. They are wordy documents. And assessments are conversations that take longer then grading.
By the end, the students and Ripp find they agree on her assessment of their work and effort. (While she doesn’t grade projects or assignments, Ripp’s school requires her to provide final grades. She also reviews those with students, who she said often agree with the outcome, even if it isn’t an A.)
“It does take a lot more work, intellectual work, on my part,” Ripp said. But it’s worth it because she’s enjoying being in the classroom again. “It is hard because you have to step back and you have to say ‘I’m going to trust you.’ It’s not more work in that sense. It’s hard work on your end as a teacher.”
Advice for Those Seeking Reinvention
For others looking to hand over learning to the students, Ripp has lots of experience and some advice.
“It’s OK. You don’t have to be crazy like me and change everything at one time,” Ripp said.
She suggests starting out with science. Ask students “what do you want to know about?” and take it from there.
“It can give you the courage to go farther,” Ripp said.
With each new bunch of students, Ripp must start over again. Explaining that there will be no punishments and no rewards, and no grade either. Each year, she must re-teach students how to take charge of their own learning.
“Every year I think I’m absolutely crazy,” she said. “But every year the kids prove me wrong.”
Pernille Ripp's blog [DOWNLOAD]