When you walk into Sandra Murdoch’s 5th grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary School in Novato, you enter a tropical rainforest teeming with the life of young imaginations. Mrs. Murdoch has filled spaces everywhere with visible evidence of student learning.
Like caterpillars, student understandings may slowly inch along at first. Given the right environment, they are capable of devouring the leaves of entire trees, eventually emerging as butterflies. With a little finesse, you can capture and pin them to the wall to marvel at their colors. But they are at their most magnificent in the open air, gathering nectar from the flowers.
Nancie Atwell, an educator from rural Maine, was recently selected to receive the Varkey Foundation’s first Global Teaching Award from an international field of finalists. As reported in a Washington Post blog, the most important innovation of Atwell’s approach is student choice. Students choose individual books and subject matter, allowing them to invest themselves “in the way a literary critic does, a writer does, a mathematician does, a historian does, a scientist does, out of real curiosity, real passion, a real sense of motivation.” Atwell eschews tests and quizzes, assessing students exclusively through portfolios of their work.
Similarly, San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! residency program asks students to invest themselves as artists do, as they collaborate to make choices about plot, music, lyrics, and how to portray a story in performance.
While transience is part of the beauty of performing arts, it does present a challenge to communicating its impact on learning. Mrs. Murdoch, a Guild partner for 19 years, has clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into sharing her students’ learning process and creative choices with the wider community.
“We are our choices,” Sartre said. The ability to choose wisely, discriminately, and with foresight is ever more important in our modern, free society where choices have multiplied exponentially. Choosing well is embedded in critical thinking and creativity, key capacities we seek to cultivate in Book to Bravo! classes.