Top Young Adult Books for Women's Studies
About ten years ago I picked up a book called "Half the Sky". Within the first chapter I read this quote: "More than 100 million women are missing..." at any given time. This is because of trafficking, gendercide, domestic violence, etc. This quote, and this book, really struck me. I mentioned it, and the PBS documentary that goes along with it, to a few of my high school advisory students. They were interested, largely because many of the issues resonated with them personally. These students led project-based learning experiences on some of the issues and shared their final products with the school community.
One of my coworkers was particularly inspired by their projects and suggested that we start a school-wide book club on women's issues. The interest, participation, and engagement was astounding, from students of all genders and backgrounds. Over the past ten years, since this book club got its start, we have read dozens of books centering around women - women's history, women's oppression, stories of achievement, books with powerful and inspiring female characters, and more.
Girls around the world are faced with extraordinary challenges on a daily basis simply because of their gender. Have your students read these books because they are relevant, real, relatable, teach empathy, and they're interesting. We also all suddenly have a lot of time on our hands with school closures. I connect these books with self-directed project-based and problem-based learning experiences, which is perfect for distance learning when we need our teens to be able to work independently.
Head to TPT to get your hands on these TpT resources - Women's Issues Community Action Project and Women's Studies PBL Project. You can also check out my free Start a PBL Project Cheat to help students design and lead projects on women's studies.
There so many great young adult books, and many books that celebrate and study women. I chose these specific books to add to this list because they are student favorites. Read all books yourself before reading them with kids. Consider your student population, their age and maturity level, backgrounds, etc. Not all books are appropriate for all students. Use discretion.
1. Sold, by Patricia McCormick
I love to read this book with my students because one of the themes it explores is the power of "education". This book is about a young Nepali girl who is sold to a brothel in India. It is an amazing story of perseverance. This book is not a true story but is based on the very real issue of human trafficking.
2. I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erik L. Sanchez
Many adolescents can relate to this book. Although the storyline - a young teenage girl tracking down secrets about the life of her sister who abruptly passes away - is a little out there, but the themes throughout the book are relatable, the focus being on the unreachable expectations of and pressures on girls.
3. Renting Lacy, by Cindy Coloma and Linda Tuhiwai Smith
This was a breakthrough book for my students. This book is based on a true story (true stories), and takes place in the United States. Sex trafficking is a global issue.
4. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden
This is another student favorite. Many of students understand the writer's situation and feelings precisely because they have experienced them first hand. They are part of the "tribe". The book is so well written, however, that even those that do not belong to the "fatherless tribe" take something profound away from this reading experience.
5. Girls Like Us, by Rachel Lloyd
This book is a memoir, a true account of the author's escape from the commercial sex industry as a child. She later founded GEMS - Girls Education and Mentoring Service - to help other young survivors in New York City. More student-directed PBL projects have come out of this book than any of the other books we have read as a group.
6. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
This is such a powerful book about race, police brutality, self-concept, voice confidence, loyalty to family and friendship, and justice, all challenges teens face everyday. All teens should read this book, but I have it on a women's studies reading list because the main character is female. Her gender identity plays an important role in the story.
7. Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
Uglies is a book series that takes place in a dystopian future. The book chronicles Shay's required surgical transformation from "ugly" child to "stunning" adult. This book evokes dialogue about self-confidence and body image, among other things.
8. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
Go Ask Alice was written in 1971 and is still relevant today. I first learned of this book from a student and it continues to be a favorite book club read. That is why I included it on this list. The story centers around a girl who develops a drug addiction at age 15 and runs away from home. Although it is classified as a young adult book, there is strong language as well as graphic details of abuse. Read it before reading with students.
9. Refugee, by Alan Gratz
Refugee is not even remotely centered around women's studies. The book focuses on three separate refugee stories that ultimately interconnect in some way. The three main characters are teenagers, one of which is female. Her story, although fictional, blew me away. So, this book is included on this list simply because of this character and her strength, determination, and grit.
10. A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison
Another book about trafficking! I realize there are many of these on this list, but of all of the women's topics that we read about, my students are the most interested in trafficking.
11. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a powerful book about an unfortunately relatable issue; sexual abuse and rape. The main character, Melinda, is raped at a party. Throughout the course of the book she gradually comes to grips with what happened to her. She speaks out and finds her voice. This is an especially important book for young people to read, of all gender identities, in the thick of the "me to" movement.
12. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,
by Delphine Minoui and Nujood Ali
Nujood is married off by her father at age ten to a man in his 30's. This book is her TRUE story of child marriage, abuse, and her escape to freedom.
The following books are not young adult books and may be too much for your student population. Each of these books was added to this list because they highlight the bravery, determination, and resiliency of female characters. And my students love them.
"Half the Sky" is what started this journey for me and my students. This book is not really one that students want to read through from front to back. It's not a story; it's journalism. While I read the other books with my students I pull quotes, statistics, and personal stories from Half the Sky.
1. I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
This memoir is the inspiring story of a young girl from Pakistan who strongly and vocally advocates for girls' education. In doing so she and her family become targets of the Taliban.
2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
This book is not specifically about women's issues, but the book focuses on several female characters, all faced with a variety of female-centric conundrums from friendship loyalties to motherhood to female reproductive health. READ this book before reading it with students. You may not find it appropriate for your audience.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
This is the story of a girl who is abandoned by her family and is left to fend for and educate herself. It's interesting for students to follow along through the various stages of her life.
4. Educated, by Tara Westover
This is an incredible true story of a girl's struggle in a violent home and the choices and sacrifices she makes to escape the abuse.
5. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
This novel takes place in a dystopian future. In this patriarchal society, women are forced into a variety of roles. The book focuses on the perspectives of these different women and the choices they make to either accept their fate or gain their independence, and at what stakes.
6. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
I LOVE this book. I read this book with a few of my students, and the sentiment is shared. The story about a small family that move to Alaska to start over. The father, who suffers from PTSD, is violent toward his teen daughter and wife. This is a powerful story about love, parenthood, loyalty, friendship, survival and so much more.
7. Everything Here is Beautiful, by Mira T. Lee
This is one of my favorite books right now. Everything Here is Beautiful is interesting book about mental health, several stories written from different perspectives. The main characters are sisters, one with bipolar. This topic highly resonates with my student population, but I believe it resonates with most. We have all been impacted by mental illness either directly or indirectly. Mental health is an important topic in and of itself, but I added this book to a list of books on women's studies because of its focus on sisterhood, motherhood, and women's health.
8. 1000 White Women,
I was floored when I learned that this book was based on actual historical events. 1000 white women is a really interesting book about volunteers for the "Brides for Indians" program started by the U.S. government in the 1870's. Aside from that mind-blowing foundation of the story, the side stories and pictures painted of a woman's worth and their role in 1800's America is fascinating.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
I'm several posts into my student-directed learning series now, and I'm finding that I may never reach an end. There is so much to say about it. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed as are students. Student-directed learning, in short, gives students choice, voice, and autonomy. This approach to learning provides students with opportunities to develop important 21st-century skills, grow in knowledge, and develop the tools for lifelong learning. These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere: trapped at home on a rainy day, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, or traveling around the world. The options are limitless because the experiences are designed and led by the students themselves.
The three learning tools of focus on this post do not necessarily have to be student-directed. They can all fall under teacher-directed if the teacher is making most of the decisions and directing the experiences. Guiding is much different than directing (check out my post to see what teachers do in a student-directed learning environment.) I chose the three learning activities that I did, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to implement. The following activities are great ways to start if you are looking to transform your classroom (and students) by way of student-directed learning.
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, maker projects, and community action projects (PBL + service learning). I have compiled several of these into a bundle, or they can be found independently at my TPT store. Each tool kit provides all of the materials to help guide students through student-led learning experiences, and helps parents and educators facilitate them. Click on the photo below to get to the resource.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years. Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience. Self and peer-assessment is also important. For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
So then how do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives if you have the flexibility to allow that. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in other aspects of the project process. Students can choose how they will gather information, which community experts they will use and how they will utilize their expertise. Students can choose how they will demonstrate learning such as creating a comic or building a website. Students can and should choose their authentic audience. Students can even choose their own grading criteria by writing their own rubric or designing their own formative assessment.
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
Most of my TpT store is filled with various project-based learning resources. Many of my PBL resources start with a specific topic but give students choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit that provides all of the guiding materials necessary for student-directed PBL that can be personalized to any topic.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs done by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
I love problem-based learning for so many reasons, but one is the creative solutions that students come up with. Kids come into this activity with a fresh lens! Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. They investigate the problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc. They can also choose how they propose their plan.
True student-directed problem-based learning would be allowing students to choose the real-world problem they want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires certain skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I just started a problem-based learning product line on my TpT site. I have a problem-based learning toolkit that provides the framework and guiding materials to do student-directed problem-based learning from start to finish.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give them a water pollution problem about fertilizers (available in my store), and organized a field trip to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation. Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment, for any subject, and any unit (if that's what you're looking for.) Inquiry is simply asking a question and investigating it through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Feel free to go back one week to see my post on student-directed inquiry-based learning for details on how to guide inquiry activities. If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry.
Of course there are other activities that can be student-directed, but these specific approaches to learning have worked well for me. Project-based learning, in my opinion, is the best place to start.
I would love to hear about any student-directed learning activities that you do with your students, or how your PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning activities are working out for your students.
There is a lot of talk about home learning right now (coronavirus school closures), and not the fun homeschooling where you get to hit up all of the museums when the rest of the kids are in school. We currently find ourselves in the situation where schools are closing around the country - around the world - because of COVID-19. Parents aren't sure how to keep busy or support their kids during this time. Classroom teachers are being asked to switch their curriculum to an online format overnight. It's not ideal, but as far as learning goes, you still have options.
If you're going stir-crazy, cooped up in your home with one or more wiley kids staring at their computers all day, this is a great post to reference. Below I've listed all of the blog posts I've written that are relevant or offer ideas for hands-on learning activities that can be done indoors, at home, on a cold/rainy day or when a pandemic hits, without fancy equipment or tech programs or the need to sit at a computer ALL DAY. You can also scroll to the bottom of the page for links experiential learning resources that can be done from home.
If you're unsure of how to facilitate experiential learning, check out some of my posts on student-directed learning for tips and tricks. Once you get comfortable letting go and giving your child voice and choice in their learning, it's a cinch for you. Good luck! Please reach out if you have any questions.
Learning from Podcasts:
This post is all about great podcasts for teens that are educational in themselves or could lead to some really cool learning experiences These DO NOT need to be done in a classroom. They do not depend on the cooperation of a group. Simply have your teens listen any number of the podcasts recommended here and have them turn it into a PBL project. You can find a lot of posts on project-based learning here, and check out my PBL resources at Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
Student-Planned Hypothetical Trip:
My students plan travel experiences for personal PBL projects all of the time. Although my school has a travel program, few of the planned trips rarely came to fruition. But my students love to plan them anyway, even if they are hypothetical. Almost all of trip planning happens online. On top of that, there is so much to be learned from planning a trip such as geography, budgeting, inquiry skills, collaboration, global awareness, and more. I have many free travel resources in my TpT store, all of which require no more than a computer and internet.
Ways to Use Google Maps in Project-Based Learning:
Google Maps has so much to offer as far as it's capacity for learning experiences. At first sight it seems that it can only be used to direct someone from point A to point B. But it can also be used to tell a story, to tell history, to map out a hypothetical travel experience, to put together a hometown tour, and more. And all of this can be done from a computer from home. Head to this blog post for more ideas on how to use Google Maps as an online learning tool.
100 Final Product Ideas to Demonstrate Learning:
This large list of ways to demonstrate learning comes in handy for project-based learning. If a student is researching COVID-19, for example, a final product is what they would create to demonstrate what they have learned about that topic, such as creating an animation on virus transmission. Poster boards can get a bit tired. Most of the final products ideas listed on this post require little but the internet or basic office/school supplies. Print out this list and prop it up in a place where your child can see it. As they design projects, they can refer to this list, and add some new final product ideas to it as it as they come up!
So much learning happens in the kitchen! Math, science, social/emotional learning, inquiry skills, and more! Cooking is a great way for kids to use their hands, connect with you and/or their siblings, learn a lot, build skills, and have a good time. It's also integrative and is a great way to differentiate learning based on skill level, age, interests and more. Check out these awesome kitchen inquiry ideas.
Snow Day/ Rainy Day STEM Activities:
All of the STEM ideas in this post can be done inside with very few resources. It's amazing what you can do with some cardboard. Start collecting all of those Amazon boxes and toilet paper rolls that you've been stocking up on!
Experiential Learning on the Cheap:
One concern about taking learning home is the lack of resources. You may think your home is not set up for "schooling". It doesn't need to be. This post provides a few ways to implement experiential learning activities without spending a dime. Some of the suggestions will not apply here, but many of them will. Pick through what will work for you and your current situation. At the end of the day, all you need is the internet. You don't need a smart board, cutsie posters with educational quotes, a 3D printer, or even a regular printer! Experiential learning involves using the community as a resource. Students can do this through email, facetime, conference calling, and phone calls. Experiential learning calls for innovation, authenticity, self-direction, and reflection. All of that can be accomplished without leaving home.
Take Learning Outdoors:
These are trying times for everyone, especially when it comes to mental health. We are social people, so to "social distance" is tough for many. It is for my son, anyway. Hopefully we can get through it soon rather than later! In the meantime, it's important to help our children get through the emotional and mental challenge of social isolation. I would love nothing more than to take learning out into the community. And although you don't want to be taking your kids to the community pool or the zoo where they could lick the hand rails right now, do take them outside! Go for walks in the woods, take in the sunshine and fresh air, get lost, be wild. Check out this post to learn how your kids can not only get outdoors, but learn in the process.
Good luck to you all, and stay safe!
High School Experiential Learning Resources for Distance Learning:
Free Resources - Most of these resources can be used at home.
Inquiry Bingo - This is a game that helps learners develop inquiry skills using only a computer.
Current Events - Check out my worksheets to go along with the Vice News series. Each episode can be found on Youtube and the resource includes worksheets to go with those episodes and extension activity ideas.
Project-Based Learning - You'll find a variety of PBL projects, tool kits, and free guiding resources at Experiential Learning Depot. Students may have to get creative with their authentic presentations by sharing online.
How Does Climate Work? *Bundle* - This climate science resource includes maker projects, inquiry stations, an inquiry lab and project-based learning that only requires a few basic household items.
Problem-Based Learning - PrBL is my absolute favorite learning experience to assign to students. It involves so many great skills such as problem-solving, inquiry and critical thinking. Students identify local or global issues and put together a comprehensive solution plan that tackles the issue from all angles.
Student-Directed Tool Kits - This bundle includes all of the guiding materials that you would need to implement student-led maker projects, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and problem-based learning experiences. Students identify driving questions, research topics, or problems that need to be solved and design and lead a learning activity.
Project-Based Distance Learning for High School Students
I have been an experiential educator for almost twelve years. My philosophy of education revolves around authentic learning experiences that are personalized, interest-based, student-designed, and self-directed. I am an advocate for travel and collaborative community learning experiences. This means that learning often takes place beyond the walls of the classroom.
Turns out that student-led project-based learning is an awesome way to hit all of these points within the walls of a traditional learning environment, AND beyond them. When my students travel with school or personally, I assign self-directed PBL projects to them while they're away. When I pull my own children from school to travel, they also do some project-based learning. Students may have personal obstacles that keep them home for an extended period. My son, for example, recently broke his leg and was unable to go to school for almost a week. My students and children even do PBL projects over summer break to catch up on credits or simply because the process itselves inspires them to learn.
Now we find ourselves neck deep in a pandemic. Amidst concerns about COVID-19, there is talk of schools closing down. Yours may have already closed, and now you are unexpectedly scrambling to prepare distance learning options for your high school students. Self-directed project-based learning is a great way to go because you can literally cover any subject. It integrates subjects by nature. PBL is what we assign to students to do at home if our school is forced to close in response to coronavirus. PBL promotes independent, productive learning, especially when students have access to the right guiding materials. If you've ever questioned or wondered about PBL, or considered implementing it, now is a good time. Give students the tools to successfully work through content in a fun, exciting, interesting, interest-led and independent way, while they are with you and when they cannot be.
What Students Will Need:
Distance PBL Implementation:
I understand that this is a little doomsday-ish of a post. More often than not we do not find ourselves in this pandemic situation, thankfully. In my 37 years on this earth, this is the first time schools have closed, conferences have cancelled, professional sports leagues have ended seasons early, because of a virus. I would venture to guess that it won't be the last time, but that it will be just as rare in the second half of my life as it was in the first. Hopefully we all learn something from this experience.
There are many reasons aside from home-quarantining that you would use project-based distance learning, and the biggest is traveling. Project-based learning is such an amazing tool to enhance learning on any travel experience, educational in purpose and personal. However, distance learning as it relates to travel is a little different than home/remote PBL. Travelers should absolutely organize authentic learning experiences, work face-to-face with community experts, and share their final product with a relevant, authentic audience either while traveling or upon their return.
Good luck to everyone, and stay safe out there!
Several years ago I showed a Vice News episode to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity to express her interest in this topic. The conflict in Syria was something she knew little about, and she wanted to know more. She decided to do a project on Syria. The driving question for her project, which she chose, would be how the conflict in Syria began. She would demonstrate learning by organizing the series of events that led to the conflict into a digital timeline. Again, her choice. With my guidance the student wrote project goals and created her own project rubric.
My student dove deep into research and quickly came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something to help or contribute in addition to her original timeline project. She organized a holiday pie fundraiser in the community. She turned the fundraiser into a group effort by recruiting students from our advisory. They made and distributed marketing materials, made order forms, and made their own "take-and-bake" apple pies to sell. The student still completed her original project and used her timeline as a marketing strategy to sell pies. She shared her timeline to various social media pages along with an ad for her pie fundraiser. The visual helped connect potential pie buyers with the cause.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
This project is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance but the learning experience as a whole was entirely directed by the student. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice at every step.
Without student choice you do not have student-directed learning.
1. Students choose what they want to learn.
2. Students write their learning goals and determine their own learning objectives.
3. Students choose how they will gather information.
4. Students partner up with community members of their choosing for expertise and collaboration.
5. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning.
6. Students determine an authentic audience and choose a method of reaching that audience.
7. Students establish a method of assessment and criteria for evaluation.
Ways to implement student-directed learning:
Student-directed activities: some teachers may throw in a student-directed activity once in a while into an otherwise teacher-centered curriculum.
Student-directed curriculum with teacher-directed objectives: other teachers will design a learning environment that is dominantly student-directed but will themselves lay down a framework around specific objectives. I see this as the most common form of student-directed learning as teachers have the unfortunate task of meeting standards. Imagine how wonderful teaching would be if students didn't have standards. Students could learn about whatever they want to learn whenever they want to learn it. Genius hour for more than an hour! Anyway, this is the type of student-directed teaching you'd likely see going on in my class at any given time.
Authentic student-directed learning: the final way of operating a student-directed learning environment is to give students full control of their learning from start to finish. Teachers do not place any parameters on the learning experience. The project conducted by my student on Syria is an example of authentic student-directed learning. Some would say it is not student-directed learning at all if every step above isn't directed by the student. I would tend to agree, but understand that it is much easier to implement in theory than in reality. There are obstacles to consider such as state standards, district philosophy and mission, class sizes, class structure, and district/staff/parent/community support.
I worked in a very progressive school for most of my teaching career. I didn't face many of the obstacles just mentioned, yet I still found myself choosing learning objectives for my students here and there. I did this for a couple of reasons. One was because progressive or not, we still needed to follow the same state standards as everyone else. I also learned that students need input. They need "sparks" as Wayne Jennings would say. The Vice News episode in the project example above was such a "spark" for this student. It was the introduction of a topic that sparked interest and questions. It is okay to plant the seed even in a student-directed learning environment. I showed a Vice episode to my advisory every single Monday morning to start off the week. I did this because they loved it. Every time I showed an episode of Vice at least one student turned the episode topic into a student-directed PBL project. I have Vice News episode guides and student-centered extension activities in my TpT store. This is a bundle I used with my students, the episode about Syria included in the "War and Peace" bundle - Vice News Series Bundle.
Benefits of student-directed learning:
The student mentioned in the Syria example not only learned the details of an important and current global issue, but gained numerous critical 21st-century competencies as well by learning how to learn. When students direct their own learning they take ownership. They are invested in the process and the outcome. An intrinsic motivation to learn emerges. The motivation for some, a passion for learning, has been buried deeply in students that have spent much of their academic careers in a teacher-centered learning environment. Allowing students choice, autonomy, room to fail, and opportunities to construct knowledge through experience sets the stage for lifelong learning. The alternative is a teacher-directed environment where information is given, answers are right or wrong, learning is passive, 21st-century skills are glossed over, facts are memorized and forgotten weeks later. There is little meaning or relevance, therefore, learning is shallow.
I'm elated to say that I don't see a lot of teachers running classrooms anymore that are completely teacher-centered. There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, maker education, inquiry, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning. There are so many cool ideas out there. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-directed learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well do more until your entire curriculum is student-directed! You won't regret it.
Student-directed learning resources:
A great student-directed learning activity to start with is project-based learning. There are so many amazing PBL resources out there. My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot is dominated by PBL projects right now. Feel free to check those out. I have a project-based learning bundle that includes a manual on how to get started with project-based learning in your classroom. This product is designed to move your classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. If you are a beginner to project-based teaching or student-directed learning this may be a good resource for you. You can also go back to any number of my previous blog posts on project-based learning. Start here with "What is Project-Based Learning, Anyway?" I also like the Buck Institute. They work hard at spreading PBL love and have great tips and resources for using project-based learning in a more traditional learning environment.
Coming up in the student-directed learning series:
Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series. Expect to see some future blog posts on the following, among others.
1. What does a student-directed learning environment look like?
2. What does the teacher do in a student-directed learning environment?
3. Student-directed assessments. I'm really excited about this one. I submitted an article to be to the Reformer, an education magazine through ASCD. I was accepted from a pool of over 500 submissions! My article on student-generated rubrics will be published in February. I will add a condensed version of it here.
4. Student-directed parent/teacher conferences.
5. List of student-directed learning activities.
6. What teachers are doing in their student-directed classrooms.
If you have questions about student-directed learning or would like me to write a blog post on a specific aspect of student-directed learning that I haven't mentioned, please reach out.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
I recently posted part 1 of my student-directed learning series, which broke down the meaning of student-directed learning: What is Student Directed Learning Anyway? Now that you know what student-directed learning means, what do you do with that? What does a student-directed learning environment even look like? Where should you start?
Whatever learning space you are working with, it must nurture student choice. That's the bottom line. If at this point you know nothing about student-directed learning, just know that student choice is mandatory. Students direct their learning through a series of choices from learning objectives to designing their own assessments. The role of the teacher changes to facilitator.
It may be tricky to even imagine what that might look like. What does the "facilitator" do? Sounds like the kids are teaching themselves. In some respects they are, and I'd argue that that's essential in raising lifelong learners. My next post will be on the role of the teacher in a student-directed learning environment. For now, I'm going to share with you the first and most important steps to take to shift from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom.
4 Steps to a Student-Directed Learning Environment
1. Modify Your Learning Space to Allow for Student-Choice:
Shifting the layout of your room can make a dramatic impact on the success of student-directed learning in your classroom. The foundation of student-directed learning is choice, so a variety of micro-spaces should be available for students to utilize. The room should accommodate for creating, group cooperation and collaboration, technology, movement, a quiet and peaceful area for reading or independent work. Student-directed learning means that students use their unique learning styles, skills, and interests to guide their educational journey. At any given time students may be working on something different than their peers. It would make little sense to have a room with 30 forward facing desks in that case. That layout screams lecture. Student-directed learning is the opposite of lecture-based instruction.
My Learning Space:
- A large round table in the center of my room for whole-group collaboration. This is a great space to gather for class discussion, meetings, group projects, and presentations.
- Workstations line the perimeter of my classroom. My workstations are desks, each with a desktop computer. We recently started transitioning away from desktop computers and are moving toward Chromebooks for each student. These workstations are great for independent projects and cooperative learning.
- Next door is a workshop or makerspace. That room is free for students to use during independent work time. There is usually a teacher in that room to assist and I can also see into the workshop from my classroom. A creative workspace is essential.
- I have a quiet corner set aside for those that want to work quietly and independently. It has a large shelf filled with books, art materials, a large cozy chair, and pillows. It's a good space for reading and relaxing. Yes. I let my high-schoolers rest when they
Student-Directed Learning Design Projects:
Many of the design aspects of my classroom were achieved through student-directed projects. A small group of students painted each panel of my ceiling. Another student designed and painted my large group table. Students built their own desks. Our reading corner was designed by a student using Google Sketchup. The small square table was an old piece of literal garbage that a student stripped and refinished. If this is something that interests you, check out my PBL Maker Challenge project - Upcycled Lounge Area.
2. Move Beyond the Walls of the Classroom:
Utilize the Community to Your Advantage:
Some of the most profound learning experiences happen outside of the classroom. A large chunk of our student learning activities take place outside of the room whether that be on a school trip across the globe, in the park near our school, or even right outside my classroom door in the commons area. For students to be successful at directing their own learning experiences they need input that is relevant to the real-world. Sparks incite interest and provide exposure to new ideas. Community collaboration, locally or globally, is essential. Using the world as the classroom brings student-directed learning to another level. If you can't leave your classroom, bring the community to you.
Using the World as the Classroom:
In the Community:
- Field trips (history centers, science labs, local businesses, community events, etc.
- School travel
- Mentorship program
- Service learning projects
- Community experts (independent PBL projects, maker projects, assessment panel, speakers)
On School Grounds:
- Live webinars with global experts
- Video conference with community experts
- School yard activities
- Bring experts to you - students can and should arrange for many these meetings in a student-directed learning environment, especially when the expert is unique to one student's project. . You guide and offer suggestions when needed. You could also invite guests from the community that offer exposure to a new topic or are relevant to an overarching theme or standard.
- Get creative with your space - ex: using the commons area for physics experiments.
- Attempt to implement an open-door policy - I know this sounds radical, but what I mean by this is allowing students access to makerspaces, tech rooms, the library, a music room, a quiet conference room. The logistics of this will depend on your situation. Do some brainstorming and find a system that works.
3. Organize Student-Directed Learning Activities:
Implementing student-directed learning activities seems pretty obvious, but what is a student-directed learning activity? Again, student-directed learning involves choice, so the activity needs to provide students with flexibility and the freedom to lead the experience. Project-based learning is a great way to do that. PBL doesn't have to be student-directed, however, which I really just recently discovered.
As a quick reminder, project-based learning is the active exploration of a particular topic where students are fully engaged with the community. Students demonstrate learning with an innovative final product, and share their outcome with a public, authentic audience. For more on PBL see previous posts - What is Project-Based Learning Anyway? and Key Components of Project-Based Learning. All of that in theory could be arranged by the instructor with little to no choice or input from students. However, as a project-based learning teacher who also taught at an experiential high school for 9 years, I can tell you that project-based learning is the perfect canvas for student-directed learning. It's just a matter of proper execution. I have a PBL bundle in my store that gradually transitions students (and teachers) from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom using project-based learning. If you're unsure how to make this transition, this may be a great place to start - Project-Based Learning Bundle: 20 Integrative Projects.
Other Activities with Student-Directed Learning Potential:
- Passion Projects
- Genius Hour (although I would argue you do this all of the time instead of for an hour!)
- Learning committees or clubs run by students
- Maker projects
Again, any activity has promise to be student-directed, you just need to let students do the directing!
4. Shift Your Role:
Teacher's Role in Teacher-Directed Learning Environment:
Obviously the activity going on in your classroom at any given time would look very different in a student-directed learning environment than a teacher-centered one. Imagine observing a teacher-directed classroom. What would that look like? You'd likely find students sitting in their desks with pen in hand jotting down notes while the teacher lectures from the front of the room. The teacher may walk the room a bit, reminding students with eye-contact and body language to pay-attention. You may walk into the classroom one day to find students working together on a hands-on activity, but upon closer inspection discover that they are following a prescribed recipe.
Teacher's Role in a Student-Directed Learning Environment:
Now imagine walking into a student-directed classroom. There isn't a typical "scene". There is always activity, but students are pouring into every corner of the room engaged in a different enterprise than their neighbor. One student might be working in the makerspace on their final product. There might be a pair of students in another corner of the room deeply absorbed in a brainstorming session. Another student may be at their desk engrossed in a phone interview with a community expert. And let's be honest. There will of course be the kid who is wandering around looking for someone to banter with, or the kid sleeping in the reading chair. Even student-directed learning classrooms have their challenges. But that's for another day.
Now, where is the teacher in all of this? The role of the teacher changes to facilitator. The teacher is guiding and assisting. You may find the teacher sitting with the pair of students brainstorming, asking questions that challenge their thinking. You may find the teacher in discussion with the student who will be giving the interview. The teacher may be proofing the interview questions or offering suggestions before giving the student the go ahead to make the call. The teacher may be redirecting the wanderer. The teacher works the room offering assistance and inspiration.
What Role do you Play?
My guess is that most of us are probably trying to find a balance between the two roles, especially if you're a high school teacher. There are limitations, rules, time constraints, the pressures of testing. Sometimes whole group instruction is necessary. Full disclosure: sometimes I lecture. I keep it as brief as possible and it's always in connection with student-directed projects. If you find yourself lecturing most of the time, I get it. I have been this teacher. What I do know though, is that if you want your students to be truly engaged, to practice deeper thinking, to have a passion for learning, the internal motivation to thrive and improve, then a great start is shifting your role to allow for more student-directed learning.
How to Start the Shift:
Start small. You don't need to flip your classroom upside-down in one day. If you decide to start doing student-directed project-based learning for example, start by taking one concept that you'd typically teach through lecture, such as climate drivers, and replace it with a PBL project. Once you're comfortable with that, try another one, until you've replaced lecture-based instruction (for the most part.) My PBL bundle and manual that I mentioned above starts with more teacher-centered projects and gradually moves to projects that are entirely student-directed. Play around with your options and ultimately do what feels right and is working well for your students.
I am a huge advocate (clearly) for student-directed learning. I love to talk about it. If you have any questions, need advice, or even want to challenge me, I invite it! Please reach out. Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day (not all of it). Our students lead their education through student-directed project-based learning. For details on student-directed PBL, go back to this post. Each student in the example above is working on some component of a student-directed project. One student decides he wants to gather information for his project by reading books on the topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach their authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product to demonstrate learning. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts to utilize for his project. The small group of students watching the live webinar is using this modern technology to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, such as a standard that needs to be met (or not), but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions based on their passions and needs.
The question then is where is the teacher in all of this? If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or providing a structured lesson plan or activity, then what is the teacher even doing there? Teachers wear A LOT of hats. ALL educators know this and experience this, regardless of pedagogy or philosophy. Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, provide input, and even teach students how to direct their own learning. What changes in a student-directed learning environment is your role. You are far from obsolete. You are a facilitator of learning. You guide and support, you challenge, you give feedback.
What does the teacher do in student-directed learning environment?
1. Help students learn how to direct their own learning -
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students -
In order to serve your students effectively in a student-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is very personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical to when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities. The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship building is huge and sometimes you have to work at it.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative -
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great decisions! They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have that blank PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
The picture above shows one of my students learning about history through photography. Getting to know this student I discovered she was interested in photography. She needed history credit so she decided to stage major events in history, take and edit photos, and write a description of the events. She eventually developed an entire gallery of recreated historical events. She CHOSE her final product, a way of demonstrating learning that was of interest to her. I guided her through this process. I was so impressed by her results that I created a guided PBL project around this idea and it's available in my store - History Through Artistic Expression.
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans -
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help them write this plan and modify it as they learn and grow. My personal learning plan template is also included in my PBL Toolkit.
5. Assist students with finding resources -
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl. I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
At the time when the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, a group of my students chose to raise money by having a holiday pie fundraiser. This was their plan for their student-directed community action project that I assigned. Also in my store. I helped them locate resources, in this case, ingredients for pies, by connecting with and arranging deals with local orchards.
6. Provide input and feedback -
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc. I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. In most cases with my students it's a rubric for project-based learning. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community-
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
8. Organize learning activities and sparks -
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible. Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialog about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team building event that I arranged.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners -
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should give structure. It is your job as their instructor to provide the tools they need to direct their own learning. Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
10. Everything else that comes with territory of being a teacher -
You wear a lot of hats regardless of teaching style. The same goes for teachers in student-directed learning environments. You will always have a student or two that are distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with baggage or trauma. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on. With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are reduced because students have choice and autonomy. Their learning experiences are based on interest and real-life.
That was long! Thanks for hearing me out. Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do student-directed learning in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
My entire teaching career was at one school, and the philosophy is strongly rooted in "community" as the foundation for learning. In nine years teaching there I developed a deep appreciation for student-involvement in the community.
Students have the capacity to make massive waves of change because they are young, technologically savvy, and many injustices happening in the world today are happening to them, impacting them directly. What they need from us are the tools, skills, and knowledge to have their voices heard. They have opinions, they have ideas. They just need a nudge, some guidance, and a little confidence.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills, and knowledge that they need for a lifetime of community work and activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot. My community action projects are entirely student-led. They are a cool mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Students identify important issues in the local and global community, explore solutions, create action plans, and take action. These types of projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as collaboration and responsible citizenship. Most importantly, action in the community gives students the tools to make a positive impact long after they have completed the project, finished the class, or graduated from school.
You can take a look at my Community Action Project Tool Kit for all of the guiding materials needed for student-led CAP, or you can choose from some themed community action projects in my store such as Mental Health, Women's Issues, and Nutrition. Good luck!
Student-Led Service Learning Projects for Secondary Students
There are many ways students can take action in the community today! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Giving time is one way students can be active in the community. Students can organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up days, regular visits to a food shelf, take on a role at a relevant established organization, and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and to give their time to that cause.
Students love fundraising! Encourage them to direct that spirit toward a cause that is meaningful or relevant in their lives. Many people don't have the means to donate money from their own pockets, especially students. They can plan and host a fundraiser for a specific cause and donate money to a worthy cause that way.
3) Advocating for Legislation:
This is a really important learning experience for students to have in my opinion. In many cases it is the most effective course of action one could take. The Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) coordinates an annual "Legislative Day", where students from across the state come to the capital to speak with their legislators. This is a powerful way for students to be heard. This type of action also teaches students important citizenship concepts, among other things. I had a student who personally contacted her legislator to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student. That legislator traveled a long distance to come and meet with my student.
4) Education/Raising Awareness:
Education is the most effective course of action in making long-term change. Say what you will about social media, but in this case, it is a huge ally. Information travels fast, far and wide when shared on social media platforms. Students are especially competent with technology. A simple awareness campaign poster posted on social media will reach more people in 5 minutes than a flier would in weeks. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community. If social media is not an option, challenge students to spread awareness far and wide without it.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. What seems like a small and simple gesture may not be small and simple for some. I had a student who wanted to get a crosswalk put into a high traffic area near the school. Getting a crosswalk put in may not bring world peace, but it's something, and an important something to that student and her community.
Change the world one project at a time! Have a great school week everyone.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.