Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Action Research Course


Jayne Peters

Thirty students and one teacher. All of us with different abilities, expectations, and needs. All of us learners and teachers. How do I as the 'teacher' make sure that each child receives the most out of his or her year in my classroom? How do I engage my students, juggle the outside constraints, and cover the 'curriculum'?

Were these the same problems faced by my teachers when I was in school?

Although I was a well behaved, hard working student I can remember nothing positive about grade six. I had a teacher who ate in class. We on the other hand were not allowed to eat in class, unless it was granola cereal, which was what he ate.

I remember him putting gum on the end of Matthew's nose and the sugar dripping down his lips and chin.

I remember the time when the teacher supported a bus driver when he told a group of us we had to write , 'I am a bad girl' one hundred times. Needless to say my father put a stop to that.

I don't remember anything we learned that year. Other than these few incidents that told me about fairness, degrading behavior, and putdowns. I do remember how much I disliked my teacher. This feeling of dislike caused me to want to make grade six a better year for my students, and I like to think I have.

What about me as an adult learner? Am I any different than the students in my class? I don't think so.

It was Saturday morning and I was starting a new course. I was excited and filled with enthusiasm. I would be involved in the course for the next four days. I hoped that I would not be participating in four days of lectures. When the course started, Joel, the instructor made us feel very comfortable and welcome. During the first day he set high expectations, gave us open ended projects to work on, and made it very clear that we were to do as much as we could or as much as we felt comfortable doing. If we did not want to present our final project then we had the option not to. No pressure. Taking the pressure off at the beginning made me feel more at ease to learn and have fun (Peters, 1998).

The way that Joel structured the course was not unlike Frank Smith's enterprises. Smith (1988 1)argues that one of the necessary elements of successful enterprises, which I tend to call projects, is that there is no coercion of students. He contends that if we force students to learn things that do not interest them then they will not learn. He also argues that students should be allowed to learn as much as they choose and this learning does not just have to take place in the constraints of the classroom.

Joel opened many doors for us. He continually used the metaphor of a buffet and compared it to our learning. We did not need to take everything on the table--just what we needed. I liked that. He also said that he did not want us to become sick. I liked that too. Information overload, anxiety, frustration etc. can sometimes make you 'sick.' I think being 'sick' can hinder learning (Peters, 1998).

I know what it feels like to be expected to eat everything on the table. During another recent course there were a lot of times when I was forced to eat it everything in sight. No one looked at the possibilities. I may have been full, I may not have liked what was on the table, or I may have been allergic to some of the ingredients in the dishes. I survived, but didn't enjoy the course or learn as much as I could have.

The issue that all of this raised for me as a teacher was whether or not there are students that I am disengaging because of the experiences I set up in the classroom. Am I only preparing four different dishes for the buffet when really nine are needed? Am I making too many of the menu choices? If disengagement is happening, and I am sure it is, how do I recognize it and what can I do about it?

Herb Kohl (1994 2 )raises an interesting notion--one he calls "not-learning." I know there are several students in my classroom who have learned to not-learn. My question is how am I able to recognize their not-learning? Is it measured in effort? What if students are overwhelmed or feel like they can't succeed? Is their avoidance of tasks an instance of not-learning?

Riley enters the room, still wearing his winter coat even though it is late spring, whispers to Grady and sits down. Soon he reaches for something to drink from inside his desk. Often I catch him before he has finished, sometimes I don't. It doesn't matter because the next day it will be the same thing, except perhaps he will wander the room first.

When silent reading starts Riley often talks and disrupts those around him. He glances in my direction. I look up over my book at him and he stops, for the moment. Often I walk over to him and ask if I can help him. I wonder how he must feel. His reading level is very low. He should be reading picture books, yet, like everyone, he does not want to appear different. (Peters, 1998).

I began to wonder why I expected Riley to sit quietly through silent reading. I know his reading level is very low. After reading Kohl's article, I recognized that his wandering around was a good example of not-learning. I decided, finally, that each morning, for the first hour he and Salwa, who also needs help, would read and do activities with a childcare worker. Now, I wonder why I hadn't thought of something like this for the two of them before. Are there other students who are disruptive because of my unrealistic expectations?

Newman (1997 3 ) in her paper 'Building a Supportive Classroom' discusses the fact that students need to feel as though they have some chance at succeeding before they are willing to take risks. I have tried to build that support into my classroom by making accommodations for those students appearing to have difficulty and by demonstrating to them that I am always willing to listen. I try to allow choice and accept a variety of answers and responses. The problem that arises is that students need to want to help themselves.

One day Arlen refused to do anything in the classroom. He insisted that he doesn't have to do anything if he doesn't want to and I couldn't make him. The saddest part is that he's right. If he chooses not to learn or follow the rules, there is very little that I am able to do. I set up the best learning environment I can and hope that my students choose to engage in what we are doing. Ultimately, however, it is up to them (Peters, 1998).

I feel that most of Arlen's resistance to learning has come from the fact that his skills in all areas are very weak and yet he does not want to appear any different than anyone else. Sometimes he will accept help but lately it's getting harder to draw him in.

The resource teacher and I arranged for Darla, a childcare worker, to work with Arlen on a regular basis. We selected five brand new books for him to read. He went reluctantly with Darla to read them.

One day when I asked Arlen where the books were he replied , 'Don't know'. He looked away from me as though the conversation were over. Later, I found out that he had thrown the books in the garbage the day before while a substitute teacher was in my room. Arlen admitted it, but didn't care because he didn't want to read them anyway (Peters, 1998).

Why did we send all five books with Arlen in the first place? I am sure this must have overwhelmed him. I also wonder why I felt the need to choose his books for him. How can I expect Arlen to be engaged if he is not interested in what he is reading? Now I allow him to choose his own books.

And yet when I give Arlen a hands-on assignment he works quite well.

At the beginning of the year Arlen was fascinated with the video camera and he wanted to do a lot of video taping. Against my better judgment I allowed him to take the camera. I even let him go outside. To my surprise he was very careful and responsible with it. He became an 'expert' (Peters, 1998).

I truly believe that Arlen has, for so long, chosen not to learn that he is very far behind everyone else. He will need a lot of supportive attention before he will be willing to learn. We might capture him if we allow him to work on computers and with other technology. He might finally become engaged. It is difficult, however, to provide these kind of opportunities for students when the resources are not readily available. I will have Arlen again next year. We are moving into a new school filled with all kinds of electronic technology. It will be interesting to see whether and how he engages.

Smith contends that 'situations that are not made relevant, interesting, or comprehensible to the learner are ignored' (Smith, 1998). When I look at my own learning I see how important it is to communicate with others. When I have someone questioning my beliefs or encouraging me to broaden my understanding, it allows me to strengthen my beliefs or change and modify them. I, therefore, try very hard to promote a child-centered classroom. I engage my students in various cooperative activities. I don't, however, allow them to have as much control over their learning as I am sure most of them could have. I think this is because there are some very weak students in my room, but mostly because I have some real behavior problems that I'm afraid would not accomplish anything. If I let them maybe they would prove me wrong.

I decided to allow my grade six class an opportunity to choose among several topics of study. I asked them to select three areas of interest they wanted to research. I couldn't wait to introduce these inquiries. I really wanted to see the students' reaction.

Ovide rushed up to me once he saw that I was not busy with anyone else. His eyes lit up as he asked if he and the other five people sitting with him could investigate the Scottish settlers. He informed me that he and the others wanted to do a play. Elysha asked if she could borrow my book on the Scottish settlers.

At another table Jerome and Duane quietly prepared to do a puppet show for the class. An innovative idea that I probably wouldn't have given them the opportunity to try (Peters, 1998).

My question is, can there still be not-learning if I am allowing some topic choice as well as allowing students to choose what they want to research? I suspect there is. I will have to be on the lookout for those students who are still finding it difficult to engage.

I know I'm much more aware of signs of not-learning and have some idea about how I might better facilitate a more engaging learning environment. However, I still have a large number of concerns. What, for example, do I do to help those students who need structure or those who are unable to motivate themselves to attempt and complete the work. How do I handle the not-learning that stems from cultural differences? I can see I have a lot more to explore.

Kohl, H. (1994). I Won't Learn From You. In: I Won't Learn From You. New York: New York Press: 1-32. Return

Newman (1997 ) Building a Supportive Classroom. Teaching Today for Tomorrow, 9. Return

Smith, F. (1988). Collaboration in the Classroom. In: Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH. p.64-79. Return