By Bobbie Sobel

Imagine walking into my classroom and finding students lying on the carpet, sitting under the sink, or even on the window sill, all doing different kinds of work. Some of them are working independently, while others are working in partnerships or groups. They are playing games, reading, writing and doing math work. Trying to find me in my class can take some time because I blend in with the students as I work with them.

In my classroom, I give students choices in how and where they learn. This stimulates their minds and makes them better students. However, my students also understand that with freedom in the classroom comes responsibility.

When teaching with a Learner Active Technology Infused (LATI) philosophy, developed by Nancy Sulla of IDE Corporation, students work on learning from a felt need and real-life problems. They are presented with meaningful higher order activities that create the desire to learn. Students schedule their own time to accomplish daily work, decide how they want to learn a concept, and who they want to work with. This fosters collaborative work and the ability to work independently in a timely manner. They become aware of their own strengths and weakness to make them better people in and out of the classroom.

Flexible seating and learning options

Using flexible seating around the room helps create an atmosphere in which students thrive. They love the chance to find their spot in the classroom to work. Sometimes they move around as students learn with whom they work best. Each week, students are given an activity sheet for each subject. This sheet gives them the opportunity to choose how they want to learn the concepts for the week. There are standard workbook pages, but there are also games, puzzles, videos and research by which to learn.

In an LATI environment, students learn from whole-group benchmark lessons, mini-lessons in small groups, and one-on-one with the teacher or other students. Students have the option to sign up for mini-lessons when they realize they aren’t 100 percent sure of a topic. The topics are generated by pre-assessments as well as a help board, which students write on to let me know what they need help with. If most of the students don’t know a concept then a benchmark lesson is taught that lasts about 20 minutes.

If a mini lesson is scheduled during the day, students sign up and decide how long they need to work with me. I never tell students they have to attend a mini-lesson, I might strongly suggest it but it is their choice whether they need the extra help.

There is an expert board as well, where I put names of students who have shown an understanding for the concept. These students then become teachers for other students if needed. All materials for the day are kept on the resource table. The students decide where that table should be in the classroom. Giving the students the freedom to choose where tables should be, where they want to sit and how they want to work, gives them ownership of the classroom and their work.

Freedom, self-control and self-organization

When deciding what students want to do each day, executive function is involved. Students must look at their activity sheets, pick their work for the day, schedule their time with other students and even include their extracurricular activities such as instrumental music or art enrichment.

With freedom in the classroom, students need to adjust their self-control. This takes time as this is usually the first class where they can sit with their friends and work. Many students realize that sitting with their best friends isn’t always the best choice because they end up socializing! Because of this, students change who they want to work with or sit by. New friendships blossom in my room regularly.

Since students have freedom, organizational skills are also improved through the year. Students do not have desks, they only have a seat sack, so keeping a lot of books and papers isn’t possible. Colored folders are kept by subject so students can easily see what they need to work on.

Tasks and rubrics

In their folders, activity sheets, complete and incomplete work, tasks and rubrics are kept. Each activity sheet corresponds to a task and rubric. The task and rubric are given in the beginning of the unit, and guide the lessons. All tasks originate from a felt need and give the students a chance to see that what they do matters in the world.

Rubrics, which include the concepts for the unit, match the task so the students know whether they are novices, practitioners or experts. Learning how to use a rubric is one of the first lessons of the school year. Students keep the tasks and rubrics in their folders so they can use them throughout the unit to see what they need to accomplish. My tasks have involved making a miniature golf hole that requires an understanding of area, perimeter and volume. Understanding these concepts enables students to put all the holes together to create The Shongum School Mini Golf Course.

Using fractions, students learn about measuring ingredients and baking. The task is Brownie Day. The students bring in brownies they’ve baked at home but have changed the serving size from the original recipe, which requires mathematical operations involving fractions.

Students have also written their own picture books, which are bound and taken home. They have also written magazine articles that are compiled into one magazine, The Sobel Times. Each student gets to take home his or her own copy to keep for years to come.

My students always want to know what the next task will be.

Time management

Each day, students come into the classroom, read the front board for messages and then complete their daily schedule. On the resource table, they can find the day’s schedule sheet with blank lines to fill in. If they have a music lesson or want to attend a mini-lesson, they write it on their schedules. The activity sheet plays a big part in their scheduling. The students must decide what they want to accomplish, how long each item will take, and who they might want to work with.

Time management is something the students work on all year long. I start with the students just scheduling a one-hour block. As the year goes on, they schedule all three hours of their language arts and math time. Science and social studies are shared with another teacher.

Students learn, as they schedule, that they may need more time for language arts. They adjust their schedules accordingly. They don’t have to follow a set time period for these subjects, however, the must take into consideration that the benchmarks and mini-lessons are scheduled during language arts and math periods.

Do students prefer to learn this way?

You may wonder what the students think and feel about this approach to learning. At the end of every year, I have the students fill out a survey to help me better understand how they feel about the change in their learning and what they have learned about themselves.

In the four years I have had a LATI room, only two students didn’t like it. They liked being told what to do and sometimes having a quieter classroom. A LATI classroom isn’t quiet all the time, as most people are working on different items at different times with different people.

One student surveyed wrote, “This year I learned better by working out of order. I work better in the afternoon and that I tend to work better when I can choose where I sit and with whom.”

Another student wrote, “I learned that I can be really efficient and hard-working if I want to. I also learned how much I love independence, and can’t imagine it any other way.”

When asked if they liked LATI, one student responded, “In LATI, I liked the task, rubrics, activity sheets and mini-lessons. I liked all of them because it gave me independence. For example, I can do the activity sheets in any order I like! Rubrics can make it so I am in control of my grade. I can reach for any goal. LATI sparked my learning.”

Lessons for life

In a LATI classroom, students love how they have the power to learn new ideas, concepts and all about themselves as a learner. Giving students this power teaches them how to be an active participant in any area of life. It teaches them self-control, motivation, time management and cooperative learning. All of these help students become better students as well as better people in life.

I cannot imagine going back and teaching the way I used to teach. Students today need a challenge. With technology at their fingertips, they are used to finding any answer quickly. Having a real life task or problem, however, isn’t something that can be done quickly. Finding different ways to solve a problem or working with different people to solve a problem will help my students in the future as they become adults in the real world.

There are days I am amazed at what happens in my classroom. I love to watch all of my students working on different tasks, in different places in the classroom, with different people, and they are all engaged. It’s a beautiful sight!

Bobbie Sobel is a fifth-grade teacher at Shongum Elementary School in Randolph. She can be reached at bandhsobel@optonline.net.

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