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35 Minutes of Homeroom

By Paul Magnuson
35 Minutes of Homeroom

Now that was something. Seventeen students and six adults just created an atmosphere that truly hummed.
Two days weekly we have 35 mostly unstructured minutes with our small middle school. Depending on coursework and student and staff interest, activities are planned (or usually not) and carried out. The other day it left me with a really satisfying buzz. Picture this:
Students filter into a room with couches, armchairs, a few small tables, and one large table sporting chess sets. There are 3D printers in one corner, makerspace projects here and there, math posters on the wall, and a couple of rolling white boards. There are books and magazines as well as models of the Eiffel Tower.
Tutors from the Grade 9 and 10 school arrive and teachers pair them with our younger students. Two pairs talk to Tom, the math teacher, before beginning tutoring. Vasiliina reads in English with Alvaro, Kera is doing French conversation with Taisiia and Daria. Jyldyz sits down with Vera for a Russian lesson. It is Vera’s first lesson. She has been learning from Russian peers who now call her Vianka. Simone is working alone to redo a science assignment for a better grade.
The health teacher, Nic, is learning French on Duolingo. Two other teachers are planning together.
We’ve had juggling balls out for the last week or so. A few students practice the skill, while three huddle around a chess board. One student does Buzzmath online while another works on his typing skills. Every time he passes a level he emails me the certificate and calls out “This is so addicting!”
While I receive the emailed certificates and watch chess and juggling out of the corner of my eye, I am conferencing with students about their behavior grades. They compare their personal ratings with those given by their teachers. It gives me a chance to share some high fives and lay on some praise. It also gives me a chance, with a few students, to reinforce expectations.
It’s a combination of teacher-directed and self-organized learning, louder than a typical classroom, and music to my ears.
The 35 minutes runs out and students leave for their afternoon activities. We teachers look at each other in the sudden quiet. I’m thinking that what just happened is brilliant. I’m hoping the students think so, too.
What made those 35 minutes possible?
We want to continue creating opportunities to support lightly structured and powerful learning environments. Here are a few factors that we think make it possible.
The space. We have a large room connected by glass doors to an office/conference room, with a variety of furniture and work spaces. We originally created the space for our maker activity, convincing ourselves it was a space that looked more like a Google office than a classroom. Maybe it doesn’t look like a Google office, but it isn’t your regular classroom, either.
Multiple adults. There were three of us actively working with students and three more of us working on our own stuff, but in the same space. The availability of numerous teachers contributes to and helps sustain our loose learning environment. We can model the soft skills of collaboration, respect, and sharing while connecting one-to-one with students when they need help.
Peer tutors. It was our second day of peer tutoring. Some of our most able students from the ninth and tenth grades sat down with our seventh- and eighth-grade students. Peer role models who are not teachers and not adults create a different atmosphere.
Assessment philosophy. Students are able to redo any past assignment to improve their academic grades and teachers are required to facilitate redoing grades for any assessment that falls below an acceptable level. The students working on math were actually re-working math assessments. The behavior grades (which are separate grades not figured together with the academic grades) provided the rationale for individual conferences. All students not already working individually with a teacher or peer tutor met individually with me. In other words, every student received individual attention at some point during the 35 minutes.
I almost didn’t mention that there are no grades for this 35 minute session. No rubric, no test, no … assessment. This matters.
Self-organization. Teachers gave some students specific tasks and chose, for the most part, who received a peer tutor. But a majority of the 35 minutes was self-organized. No one told the teachers to work with students or to collaborate with other teachers. The teachers did what made sense to them as professionals and colleagues.
And no one told the students who didn’t have a specific task what task they had to do. Juggling and chess happened because students decided juggling and chess should happen, just like online typing and math tutorials happened because students were feeling it. No one needs to remind us that autonomy and self-selection significantly bolster motivation. Nor that the joy of learning might be dampened by the adult overlay of assessment and rewards.
Ultimately our goal is not to hurry our students through as much content as we can. Our goal is to create individuals capable of accepting and giving assistance, groups capable of working together, learners able to make good choices about what to learn, how to learn, when to learn … We want our students to experience the very real buzz one gets, yes, the high one gets, physically and emotionally, when learning and motivation are real.
We lived it for 35 minutes. Now let’s hope, and provide the affordances, for another 35 minutes. And another, and another.
Paul Magnuson is Director of Research and Curriculum and Director of the Middle School at Leysin American School in Switzerland.

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