After reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive I began to think about the idea behind companies that allow workers to direct their own work on specific days, pursuing whatever projects interest them. Couple those insights about the power of autonomy with the persistent, nagging acknowledgment that there is simply too much history that I want to include in my limited course time. The result was what I called “Free Friday.”

I gave students a class period to research anything in history or current events that they wanted. They were expected to spend an hour beyond class time researching and then to write a post to a Moodle forum sharing what they had learned. The final piece was to comment on at least one classmate’s post.

It was interesting to see that some students seemed to jump right into it and take off. Others struggled to find a topic. There were definitely some who spun their wheels for a while. Both groups of students convinced me that it was a worthwhile exercise. I was only able to do it once this year with juniors, but next year I would like to do it with all of my classes – grades 10-12, several times a year. My hope is that they will at least learn something about whatever they choose. My dream is that they will take what they learn and pursue it in greater depth at some point, either in a portfolio project or a major research paper, that they will then share.

There are elements to tweak. I think that I need to provide more lead time  for students to think about things they might want to pursue. I may even consider providing a list of potential topics, particularly things students may not know about and that we would be unlikely to discuss in class otherwise, with the caveat that they are welcome to discard my suggestions. I think that I would provide a structured setting in class for students to share what they have learned, beyond simply writing a paragraph for a Moodle forum.

I have a vision of creating a community of scholars in my classroom. It seems that giving students some ownership over their learning is absolutely critical. I know that I am making choices about what content we study every single day. It’s about time that I gave up a little control. While I believe there are historical topics that are essential, and it’s my job to construct lessons to illuminate those, there are many more worthy contenders for the remaining time I have with my students.

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Comment by ron_peck on June 25, 2011 at 12:49am
My thoughts on this start with designing how to teach them to get to the point of free learning. As a class I want to try starting with Feedback Friday. This would include self and peer reflection about what we are studying as well as what they would like to study and why. Try to make connections to their own life through reflection. Then move them to the point of a Free Friday that would be productive for everyone.
Comment by Kay Conners on June 12, 2011 at 5:09pm
I love these ideas and would like to try it with 8th grade - I think it would be interesting as they are very conditioned to be told what to do, what to read, what mutliple choices there are before they get to my classroom in the very traditional schooling they all have had (sad, I know). But it would be worthwhile to try to "teach" them how to own their learning and make decisions. I am thinking current events research - I teach World Geography. I have heard Dan Pink speak and have all his books - Drive is great because it is all about intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic - a major issue with my students. They have a hard time doing anything without a grade. Thanks, Molly, for the great suggestions. Regina, I also like the idea of posting to a blog. I also teach Lang Arts and have a class blog "showcase" for which students could post any type of writing on there and that took off.
Comment by Shawn McCusker on June 10, 2011 at 8:26pm
I definitely want to read Pink's book.  I like what I hear.  I see many connections to the books that I have read about student choice.  It think it goes to the greater idea of generating democratic institutions within your classroom.  I am going to get that book and add it to my summer list.
Comment by Molly Smith on June 1, 2011 at 10:46am
I plan to do it once a quarter with my classes next year. I would definitely suggest allowing the 80 minutes. I think that the importance of this activity is in not having them feel rushed to get into something. It should be fun and interesting and very low stress. Some kids have trouble getting started, and others wander from one topic to another. I found that they also broke down into informal conversation to share something really interesting once in a while. I had them write down topics they wanted to learn about on notecards periodically before we did this, so they could have a ready list if needed. Many went in other directions. The accountability comes from the sharing with their classmates, not from me.
Comment by Regina Schaffer on May 31, 2011 at 9:15pm
I love this idea, every time I read about a company (like Google) providing this time for employees to pursue whatever they like, I wonder how I can incorporate it into my class. Thanks for the ideas. I have 7th and 8th graders, I think next year I will try it with my 8th graders once a marking period and have them post it to their individual blogs; then spend time exploring other student's blogs and questioning/commenting. We have double periods (80 minutes), do you suggest 1/2 a period (40) or the entire 80? And I will definitely need to have lead time and closely guide their journey in the beginning.

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