High Standards Are about Freedom and Responsibility

ebnerSpring is always a great opportunity to do a bit of cleaning in my classroom. After teaching for 25 years, I’ve accumulated quite a few books, binders, and resources. I also enjoy how sorting through all these items is always a walk through my history as an educator.

When I began teaching in 1991, my principal handed me the teachers’ manuals to two textbooks, along with a curriculum and pacing guide. I dutifully distributed the literature anthology and grammar textbooks to my seniors, and we began working our way through the curriculum. The expectations of content were clear. When my seniors expressed an interest in a topic or piece of literature that wasn’t in our course guide or textbook, I encouraged them to investigate it on their own and moved on.

Today my classroom instruction looks very different. Rather than having a set textbook or canon of literature that must be taught, I have the Ohio Learning Standards to guide the work my students and I do. This gives me a great deal of freedom (and responsibility) to select texts that are best suited to my students’ needs and interests.

Two years ago, for example, my seventh grade students questioned how an event such as the Holocaust could happen. Why didn’t people stand up to Hitler and the Nazis and make them stop? Their questions, sparked by our study of the conflicts in South Sudan, challenged me to combine their need for more work with informational text with their questions about the background of the Holocaust.

The result was a four-week unit that provided opportunities to further develop reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills while answering their questions. We used the text Smoke and Ashes by Barbara Rogasky as our anchor text. I arranged for a guest speaker to come and work with us, a retired teacher who spent years teaching a Holocaust literature course at our high school. She led the class through an exploration of how a dictator such as Hitler gradually separates citizens from each other, creating scapegoats.

The most challenging part of planning this unit was finding good, quality fiction to pair with our nonfiction work. There really just isn’t a ton of realistic fiction surrounding this era and topic that is also appropriate for seventh grade students. I ultimately assigned a 1930s/World War II historical fiction novel project, where students found books set in the era and compared them to what they were learning, ultimately deciding how effectively the novel captured the time period. Planning and preparing the unit took a good deal of time and energy, but it was effort well-spent. In fact, students’ scores on that spring’s assessments demonstrated strong growth and strength in language arts.

The standards and the assessments my students will take at the end of the year offer a framework or blueprint from which to work. As the teacher, I make the decisions about what we will study and how we will study it. If I have a group of students showing particular strengths or weaknesses in a set of skills, I can choose the materials I will use to work with them, rather than having to work with prescribed content.

While this is certainly freeing, it is also a huge responsibility. With each new unit I teach, I have to ensure that the texts I select appeal to my students and their interests as well as match their strengths and needs as readers. However, when my students and I exercise our freedoms to explore topics we’re interested in, and I responsibly select the texts and activities we’ll use in exploring those topics, my students gain ownership of their learning. It is a sense of freedom and responsibility that I cherish, and I see the results in my students’ work.

I suppose to some it might seem like my first three years of teaching were easier, when I had a set of textbooks and a curriculum guide dictating what should happen when. I’m not sure, however, that my students 25 years ago developed the same kind of skills and understandings that my students are developing today.

My students are realizing that authors of fiction often research nonfiction texts, whether print, digital, or video, to produce realistic fiction. They are learning that the skills we use in language arts apply throughout life. We explore social studies, science, the arts, and more, all while growing as critical thinkers, readers, and writers. Having high-quality standards is making a strong, positive difference in my students’ growth and learning.

Tricia Ebner teaches gifted and talented middle school students in an ELA-based program in northeast Ohio. She is Nationally Board Certified in early adolescent ELA and deeply values opportunity to lead from the classroom. Read more of her writing here.