In Literature 1, students are writing their own prompts, syllabi, and goals. It’s how they are realizing their education is theirs. 

In conferences and in back-to-school night, in information sessions last year and this, and in check-ins with parents and the school’s humanities advisory board, I’ve often engaged in conversations about opportunity. 

In our high school literature class, that opportunity comes in many forms: students have the opportunity to take a college-level writing class as freshmen in high school; they have the opportunity to engage in long-form discussions of literature and history; they have the opportunity to think critically, to read scholarship on issues like ethics, and to write papers that perform highly sophisticated intellectual tasks. 

But they also have the opportunity to learn past the meager confines of the content of a class. This block, for instance, students are writing their own syllabi, authoring their own writing prompts for their papers, and articulating their own goals. It’s a way for students to realize their education is theirs.  

It’s a risky move, having them write their own teaching and learning materials, but it’s also calculated for success. That’s why in block two I gave them the assignments, but not the timeline for getting it done. They worked in groups to calibrate the various writing assignments and estimate how long they’d need to get each one done; they debated whether they wanted homework over the week-long Thanksgiving Break; they rationalized their choices. It introduced students to the more sophisticated independence of blocks three and four.

This block, at the start of week two, I gave them the major writing assignment for block four along with an empty timeline with hashmarks on it. There were two due dates listed: one for the draft of the major assignment, and one for the revision. What they came up with was logical, pedagogical, and rather incredible:

One example of a syllabus that a team of students devised.

One example of a syllabus that a team of students devised.

From there, we talked about what they might need to write in block three that would be a meaningful stepping stone to their block four paper. That’s when I tasked them with filling in the timeline, writing their own writing prompt, and identifying their own goals.  Here’s what one student wrote:

  • Write a 1-3 page response paper by February 12th explaining one of the three theories we read over the past few weeks. The response paper should have two main sections. The first section should explain the theory in detail, making sure you understand the theory thoroughly. The second section will explain a possible test case, and show how the test case challenges the theory you have described or casts light on a new perspective. This response paper should be a stepping stone to our larger 6-8 page paper in Block 4. The goal is to be able to understand and articulate the theory, to propose a possible test case, and to understand and be able to explain how the test case complicates the “initial reading” of the theory. 

Collectively, the class demonstrated an innate ability to think metacognitively about the intellectual task of the block four paper. They showed they can—and want to—set very high expectations of themselves. They showed that, beyond being exceptional learners, they are eager for the opportunity to learn. 

--Zachary Sifuentes