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Publish Date: 1/23/2007

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Longs Peak Middle Schoolstudents Olivia Lance, left, and Nicole Pickerell collaborate on a reading assignment in a side room of teacher Ari Gold’s class recently. The students are given learning goals and have freedom to decide how and when they meet those goals. Times-Call/Bradley Wakoff

Gold’s standard
Longs Peak teacher gives students autonomy in learning

 LONGMONT — Longs Peak Middle School English teacher Ari Gold gives his seventh-graders the “what” they have to learn — genres, autobiography writing, bibliographies, spelling.

The “how” and “when” is up to them.

Gold calls his teaching strategy “autonomous learning,” something he developed last year when he was surprised by his response to a colleague’s casual “How’s the school year going?”

“I’m going extinct,” he told his friend.

“That was unacceptable,” Gold said last week. “I can’t change (the students). That’s not important. It’s important for me to change my practice. There was no name or philosophy for it. I just saw something and built upon it in my mind.”

“Expeditionary learning,” as Gold first called it, was an attempt to instill accountability and motivation in seventh-graders, who are often known for rebellion, apathy and indifference.

“It is a bridge year, an important year,” Gold said. “They don’t want to be treated like children anymore, but they are children. They’re stuck in between.”

At first, the students were happy for a change in the classroom. Gold had the desks put into storage, replaced them with tables and installed a computer in the classroom.

Then he gave the class a list of things to do based on St. Vrain Valley School District standards and a final due date. He told the class, “What you get to choose is the how and when.”

“I have to do all this? What do I do now?” he remembered students asking.

Along the path to new vocabulary words and poetry, the seventh-graders learned about independence, working at their own pace and decision-making. Likewise, they were challenged by poor organization, distractions and procrastination.

“They were really at a loss,” Gold said. “We had to break the cycle of dependence. Control and order are mistaken for learning because it looks like learning. But the signs of learning are in the products, the process, the initiative.”

Autonomous learning allows students to check in with Gold on their progress during a 10- to 12-week period, but they call the shots on the order of assignments completed, topics covered and whether they work individually or with classmates. Gold gives them the tools — plotting out a calendar, research materials in the library — and guidance.

Gold, who hopes to write a memoir about his teaching transformation, said autonomous learning “isn’t perfect,” but currently his grade book has mostly As, Bs and Cs.

“It was growing pains for all of us, including me,” he said. “I had to work to be OK with variable levels of production over time. This has real- world applicability.”

Kari Goodrich, now an eighth- grader, said Gold’s teaching style made her better prepared.

Though she was good at organizing her materials, Goodrich learned she was distracted by friends and needed quiet time alone to finish her work.

Haley Schneider, a seventh-grader, said she learned to be self-motivated instead of relying on teachers to prod her along. She now completes easy reading assignments before tackling bigger projects, like writing a children’s book.

“I think it’s going to help later on in life, in college and in a job, stuff like that,” she said.

Barb Kawczynski, a parent of a Longs Peak student, volunteered in Gold’s class in the fall.

“By the end of the period,” she said, “the students didn’t need me at all. I was enjoying what they were reading and writing. I didn’t have a purpose, because they were on top of it.

“When you start thinking about it as a parent, these are the same life lessons you try to get them to do at home, like get their homework and chores done without hounding them,” Kawczynski said. “It’s never too early to start learning those types of life lessons.”

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at msidwell@times-call.com.

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