Reflections on Week Two of Project: Citizen

This post serves as a jumping off point for what I would like to write for the NMEF Blog as a member of the Speaker's Bureau.  What I witnessed in the past two weeks during the Connecticut Writing Project's Project: Citizen youth writing lab was incredible.  Surely, I am biased as a co-creator of the experience, but as one of the other teacher's pointed out "it is as much a social experiment as it is an educational one."

Ain't that the truth!

And that got me to thinking.  We mixed urban, suburban, and rural students in a classroom, talked about difficult issues, and all we asked by the end of two weeks was for 2 written, polished pieces.  Despite the differences in their immense learning backgrounds, needs as learners, and prior learning, we had a 100% success rate in assignment completion (which should be noted is never really a focus for us, as the experience of writing itself is the true reward, but for the data-hungry statisticians this proves a point.)  How did we achieve this?  I'm still trying to figure that out, but I do have one part of the answer: the entire program is student-centered.

Learning is Personalized: This is the most crucial element of student-centered learning that allowed a program like Project: Citizen to exist.  Mixing up communities is, as I learned from co-teaching the program, difficult to say the least.  Meeting each student - urban, suburban, and rural - all of whom have very different learning styles, where they are in order to be on the same page was an immense challenge.  But through personalizing their learning (which requires getting to know each student on a somewhat personal level) as a necessary tool, we were able to overcome the insurmountable challenge of bridging gaps.

Learning is Competency-Based: Students, regardless of prior knowledge or experience, were able to write in a variety of genres over the two weeks and decided which two genres they would like to publish in.  It required them to master each genre and then decide which area they felt most comfortable to produce the published piece.  All students are published by the end of two weeks - that's true mastery.  (Please note: there is also no grading whatsoever during these two weeks, only high-quality feedback from peers and instructors.)

Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere: The two weeks are peppered with mini-lessons from instructors, but ultimately the learning lies beyond the classroom itself.  Students worked in small, medium, and whole group instructional settings which allowed for various types of cultural and personal knowledge to be shared.  We were able to visit a museum exhibit, meet up with other writing camps, work with teachers, and have a blog to symbiotically learn about other summer writing camps sponsored by The National Writing Project are doing.  Learning was alive and it was everywhere you looked.  

Students Take Ownership Over Their Learning: By having the students choose what political issues are driving their interest and then choosing what genre they prefer to write in allows each student to personalize and really own their learning, rather than have the education dictated to them.  This is another big factor in trying to figure out how these two weeks were possible.  These students took on tricky issues and were able to write about them during the summer, with no grades attached, and they all come from vastly different backgrounds and with various writing levels.  Without letting them take ownership over their learning, this wouldn't have been possible.

After the clarity of writing this, I am beginning to see that a student-centered approach may be the only factor as to why this was possible.  I'd be remiss to not include the fabulous teachers who made this program student-centered: Dave Wooley, Brynn Mandel, Kelly Besette, and Dr. Bryan Ripley-Crandall.  The power of five like-minded educators unleashed something powerful these past two weeks and it will take me some time to wrap my head around it all.