What Makes for Powerful Learning? Students Tell Their Own Experiences

What works best to engage, motivate, and challenge students to learn? In the midst of the national fervor to raise the quality of teaching and learning, educators or policymakers often forget to ask the students themselves. Yet if we listen to their words and look closely at the work they do, we can find clues to some of the most pressing questions that face schools.

The interviews, accounts, and samples of work in this issue of Horace-contributed by Essential school students and teachers-serve as a useful text for discussion about the key question that links them all: “What makes a powerful learning experience?” In reflecting on the passages in which students speak at length about their learning, readers might also ask:

  • What has this student learned in the experience described?
  • How might a teacher assess and document that learning?
  • What did the school do that helped that learning take place?
  • What do all these experiences have in common?

In each of these examples, the Coalition’s Ten Common Principles show up as a specific design or strategy a school has chosen in its quest for more “essential” student learning. When rendered in the students’ own words, these yield a vivid picture of just how individual-and yet how common to us all-the experience of learning is.

Hixson High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee sends ninth-graders out to visit workplaces for a day, hoping to forge connections with the real world that will personalize their learning as the Fourth Common Principle suggests. Now a senior, Amber Osborne spoke with Horace when she attended the 1999 CES Fall Forum:

As a freshman I went to a kindergarten class, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I had never been around little kids much, and it was so different for me to see what they were like-how they learned and how loving and accepting they were. They’re so eager, wanting to learn.

Since that time I’ve visited a lot at Head Start, because my mother used to work there. A girl in the class was mentally challenged, and in a wheelchair; I’d never really been around that, either. Working with her was so neat; she needed so much help and it made me feel so important to be able to help her out. I’ve also visited with other mentally impaired children, through school and my church. A couple of friends from my church are in special education programs at school; they’re autistic. I don’t work with them much at school, but I go to their houses sometimes and do things like cook with them. When we see each other in the halls, we say hi.

From that experience sprang all this other interest in me. I’m taking a service learning class next semester. Also, I never really liked English much before but once I realized what I wanted to teach, I knew to concentrate on little things like my grammar so that I’d be able to become a better teacher.

By treating its students as workers whom teachers coach to use their minds well, New York City’s Landmark High School gave Carmen Espinal the opportunity to follow up her childhood passion for stargazing. She writes:

As I lay down on that clear night in the middle of the green grassy flat plains of the Dominican Republic I told my cousin Ornelia, “Look up at the stars, aren’t they beautiful.” The night sky seemed as if it had been pricked with a million pins and light from the other side was shining through tiny holes illuminating the earth. After that night of star-gazing I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how things were outside of planet Earth, and wondering how I could find out more.

Upon my arrival to the United States, my dad told me that I could no longer continue my stargazing. There were no stars to see because the lights reflected from New York City to the sky prevented any stars from being seen. In addition, the city was too dangerous for young children to be out in the streets at night. I was extremely sad for a while, but when I enrolled in junior high school, I had totally forgotten about astronomy. When I began high school, I took my first physics class. I fell in love with that class when we did a section in astronomy. Then it all started to make sense. It had to be destiny that had reunited me with what I wanted to learn about as a child.

As a senior in high school, I have learned innumerable new facts about the universe and the many things within it. I had the chance to work with a graduate student at Columbia University and design and conduct a year and a half of research on low-mass stellar objects in space. I was one of eight minority students accepted into the Pre-College Collaborative Program at the Museum of Natural History.

I learned that Brown Dwarf stars are low-mass objects. They are virtually invisible because of the space dust that blocks them, which makes it impossible for them to be seen in the optical view of a telescope. Even though I am studying low-mass objects, I’ve always had an urge to learn about Black Holes, the last stage after a star has collapsed. They have such a high concentration of gravitational force that not even light could escape from them.

The universe has always been a mystery to me because there are so many more things to learn about it. We humans are like microbe organisms compared to the universe. We know so little about our surroundings outside of earth.

In college, I am considering the possibility of majoring in astronomy or physics. Someday I hope to help build a spacecraft that could send humans up to space to explore territory yet uncharted. I want to learn everything I can about space and like a black hole suck all the information into my head and not even let the tiniest of details escape.

Because Boston Evening Academy expects all its students to reach for important understandings, it creates in-depth projects that culminate in an exhibition. Student Felicia Calhoun described to a Fall Forum workshop how she navigated a term-long boat-building project in the Core Science Review class taught by Gena Merliss. (For the assignment see sidebar, page 3.)

[The teacher] made us think about definitions and what we thought different words might mean. When she proposed the word density to us, we had to figure out a formal definition in our group. At first I was confused-I was trying to find a dictionary-but the assignment made me broaden my horizons a little bit. The first thing I thought of was a cloud, fog. I just figured it would be dense because all the water particles are trying to come together and make it compact, a very thick cloud.

The vocabulary helped us a lot because you have to use it in order to actually build the boat-if you remember certain definitions, you can use common sense. Most frustrating was getting our definitions together to make a formal one. We were in groups of five and we tried to brainstorm. I usually don’t like to work in groups at all; I just like to get the definition and apply it. I like to learn off the board and then do an open lab.

When the teacher brought this boat project to us, I looked at her like, “Why do we have to build a boat? How long is this going to take?” Somewhat into the project I was like, “Whatever.” But then I thought about seeing why a boat floats, not necessarily because of the weight-all my assumptions were wrong! So it made me want to find out more. We had to do our design on graph paper, and then the whole thing of making a model and then making it life-sized and actually putting somebody in it. I’m not a water person, so deciding what boat I would or would not get into was important. In real life, I would have to see the boat first and examine it. I kept thinking of the Titanic!

Overall, it was a good learning experience. I still hate working in groups, but I learned to accept the fact that I’m going to do what I have to do. The best thing: It pulled my class together as a whole. It brought everybody a little bit closer together.

Teachers at Irvington High School in Fremont, California regard themselves as generalists; they seek to connect course work with issues of decency and democracy not just in school but in the larger world. An American Studies class conducted a service learning project called “Hunger at Home” as part of their study comparing Depression-era policies with those of the present day. Abeda Bayanzai, Nicole McBicker, Minnie Whalen, Amanda Pitman, and Sean Asplund presented their learning at the 1999 Fall Forum:

Sean: The hunger education coordinator came to our class from the Alameda County Food Bank, which gives food out to the homeless and hungry people in our community. Not every person who needs food is homeless; many people have jobs and just can’t afford food. When we received all this information we then had to integrate it into a project that would serve the community and satisfy the school-wide outcome that we were focusing on.

Nicole: We had to somehow help somebody who can’t afford food, and we had to document it. Some of us wanted to educate kids about what we learned; some of us wanted to do a food drive; others wanted to change things out of school.

Amanda: We were planning to go teach a sixth-grade class about hunger in our area, but we didn’t feel we had enough information. To see first hand how it worked, we went to a local organization that provides a free breakfast for anybody who needs it, no questions asked. We came up with a question, “What does this do for hunger- and poverty-stricken people?” We found that not only does this breakfast program feed people and offer them food to take home, but it also satisfies a social aspect of their life. Lots of people in the community don’t really care about these people, so when they go there they talk and have a good time while they’re eating breakfast.

Abeda: Jessica’s presentation taught us that anyone could come from a low-income family; it could be me, you, your friend, someone who you’re sitting next to in the cafeteria. Alameda County conducted a survey: 40 percent of the people benefiting from the food programs are children, 72 percent of all households have incomes of less than $11,500, and only 8 percent of households earn enough to meet babies’ needs. In 9 percent of households with children, the children have missed meals because of not enough money to buy food.

We shared these statistics with the sixth-grade kids and we talked about breakfast programs. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If students have breakfast, they have higher test scores and lower tardiness rates and absences, and they have fewer disciplinary problems and fewer health problems.

When we first started doing this project we did it just for the grade, just to get it over with. As we got more involved with the project, we wanted to actually do the project and forget about our grade. We wanted to do more for our community, so we just kept doing more.

Sean: When we were gathering information from the breakfast program, we were getting live interviews with people that use it. And when we went to teach the sixth-grade class, there were a few students in the class that used the breakfast program. I saw real life people that I was helping and trying to make them prosper.

Abeda: I really felt like we made a connection with the sixth graders, and they had a deep understanding of what we were trying to teach them, from their responses and the way they were acting. Everyone wanted to share their stories with us. It was really touching, and I also think it was really important. They had these awesome intellectual ideas. I was learning from them!

Embracing the Coalition’s metaphor “student as worker,” Eisenhower High School in Houston, Texas puts students in the driver’s seat when it comes to technology education. A group of students who call themselves the “Lab Rats” provide coaching to staff, students, and community in the school’s new Eisenhower After School Technol-ogy (East) Center. Though previously inexperienced in technology, they have became indispensable in their school of 2,200. Brandy Fonteneaux and Anjali Oza were two of the students who described their experience at the 1999 Fall Forum as follows; the others were Rafiq Dhanani, Yared Marquez, Eliza Martinez, and Ted Nguyen.

Brandy: I set up the network of Pentium III PCs, using different ports. It was hard work. We learned their different functions, and if people have trouble, they raise their hand and we come help them.
Working with other teachers and other students, you can’t have the attitude that “I’m better than you.” We’re all here together; we all have to do this as one, as a team. When we were doing staff development, a lot of teachers didn’t know how to use Adobe Photoshop. We helped them understand the program so they could go back to their classrooms and teach it.

This year a lot of students are working on their presentations at the center. If a student gets an attitude with us or isn’t having a good day, we work patiently with them. If they don’t understand something we teach them more slowly, or we try to work out the problems and help them out. We’re there beside them, we demonstrate things, but we don’t want to do it for them because then they won’t learn.

Even though you know something is wrong, sometimes it’s hard to tell somebody what they’re doing is wrong; you have to kind of cope with it and ask them questions rather than giving them the correct answer. Guide them step by step. And you learn how to work with others. This is our workplace. We share all our knowledge to each student and teacher, so they can share their knowledge to other people-and we become better students, a better campus, a better school.

Anjali: Last year in the science club we created a presentation at the East Center on personal hygiene, which we took to several elementary schools. This year, for the Key Club community service organization, I plan to use the Center to put photos I’ve taken into Premiere to make a video that we’ll present at our banquet-a cumulative thing of what we’ve done over the year.

I’ve also used the East Center to search for information for colleges, to download files, applications, to look for research on colleges. It provides us with so many opportunities to do research. The Associated Press has every photo that they take, and you can download all the pictures-you can find things about historical events or any photograph that you need. Things like that, you can’t do at home-or even at the library. You have access to so many things like that, which give you a broader perspective. It has helped me in my whole educational experience.

Because budget decisions make teaching and learning a priority, CES schools often find themselves strapped for supplies. But Far West High School in Oakland, California turned this into a learning opportunity and a chance to practice democratic action. Students in a Community Investigation and Action class won a grant from a community agency to increase community understanding and awareness of their 100-student school, which lacked even a sign to identify it. Sophomore Natanael Marino and senior Nicholas Shere talked about the resulting projects at their 1999 Fall Forum presentation:

Natanael Marino: Our class focuses on social, environmental, and labor topics in the community. We worked together in groups on a grant to the Community Health Academy, asking for about $4,000 to improve the school. Our projects included computer upgrades, landscaping, and plumbing repair. A disabled student also worked on making the school compliant with disability laws. Everybody was feeling like they could learn by working with each other, not having the teachers giving us all the directions, because all the students had different choices.

One project advertised for a physical education teacher, and tried to get greater resources like basketball hoops to bring the P.E. facilities up to date. We got together in a group and learned to write up a newspaper ad, and after two weeks we had five people to interview. The students had a chance to interview the people who applied, not just the teachers and the principals like they always do.

When we started with the mural we had a contest in school for the students to draw sketches. We picked one we thought was the best and then the people who did the sketch did the mural, as well as other students. We went out as a class to ask for donations from different stores around the area.

To get our grant accepted, we had to go into the agency and make a presentation. One of the questions was how we were going to prove to them that we used the money the proper way. I decided I should make a video on the grant, and I did. It’s still in editing. It took me about six or seven months to finish. I did some footage of the P.E. classes and of students working on the mural-footage on everything.

Nicholas Shere: Our class took certain goals and we achieved those goals, and it came from and was executed by students, universally. One teacher served in an advisory position, but it was the students who were doing the work. That was important to a lot of us, particularly students who weren’t necessarily the most successful in other regions of schooling. It was really good for people to see that they could produce a real visible change.

There were other aspects to the class, too. At the beginning of the year, students grouped together by neighborhood and went out and did a visual and statistical research project for each neighborhood. We came back with presentations comparing the different areas of Oak-land, which is a very diverse place.

I think student-centered learning is whatever draws on the student’s own mind and experience, whatever sends the student back to him or herself or back to his or her own experience, cultural background, neighborhood. As to how it meshes with the state and district standards, well, that’s hard. I don’t think we had our class worked out on the transcript until halfway through the year.

Curriculum in Essential schools often emerges from school designs in which teachers and students know each other well enough to inspire breakthroughs in learning. Michael Ferguson, a senior at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, posted this note to the school-community e-mail discussion group there:

I had a realization today about education, at our school in particular, [after] a friend of mine in Pennsyl-vania recently decided to drop out of high school. She said she didn’t like what it did to her, and she wanted to be done with it.

I’ve been taking great art classes these past two quarters. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist; I’ve certainly had no training or experience with art. I thought I would be doing painting, but I ended up creating all sorts of things from materials I would never even consider as art. We completed many exercises and projects, all aimed at visually representing an idea or a concept. Sometimes I just attached ripped-up pieces of paper to string; other times I used an old 3.5-inch disk drive from my closet. Not all of it was spectacular, but I really surprised myself. Here I was making “art” and visually representing my ideas.

The most amazing thing to think about is that I would never do anything like this on my own. I would never wake up one morning and decide to alter a piece of copper wire in three ways; I would never attempt to visually represent the digital divide; I would never think of rearranging Paul Simon lyrics in a line. I probably would just forget about art altogether, I would never even bother. Yet I’ve found that I really enjoy a lot of the things that I’ve done in the art classes.

This isn’t just about expanding my horizons and trying new things; it’s something deeper than that. It’s something about years of projects, experiments, lessons, and explorations. There is so much to learn from these things, but I couldn’t possibly ever get myself to do them on my own. There are plenty of amazing people around me, who are not just smarter than me or more experienced, but know about something they are willing to share with me. And I’m willing to stick with it not just because I can learn more and expand my horizons or some cliché like that. I know I’m not mature or responsible enough to create those opportunities for myself yet. If I can’t do a project that is due next week, how can I ever expect myself to do something that I really want to do in my life? If I can’t do a research project on a genetic disorder, then I probably can’t be a musician, or a writer, or an artist, or environmentalist that is trying to save the rainforests.

I can think of many problems with the education system, but I think that if I look at it as an opportunity, a possibility for who I am practicing to become, then it works very well. And because we focus so intently on developing skills and responsibility at this school, I’m even more confident about the way it is affecting me.