George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Encouraging Students to Take Charge of Their Learning

Guiding high school journalists in their work led a teacher to create opportunities for all of her students to develop agency and independence in learning.

July 14, 2020
High school teacher and students work together in small group.
SDI Productions / iStock

Three years ago, I adapted a journalism course at my school into Newspaper Workshop—a capstone-style experience where students dictate what, how, and why they report the news. I wanted to provide my students with an opportunity to become independent people and learners. The lessons I learned from teaching this class have greatly impacted the instructional approach I use with all of my secondary English language arts courses.

A Day in the Student Newsroom

On a given day in my tiny classroom, I manage students who are learning how to manage themselves as young professionals and budding reporters. To that end, my students apply for and hold one or more positions, including editor-in-chief, section editor, website editor, or staff writer. Just as they would in a professional newsroom, every writer (and editor) pitches an idea for an article in biweekly staff meetings led by the editor-in-chief.

Although I help facilitate discussions related to the newsworthiness of each pitch, it’s the editors who decide whether to approve each idea. While each writer researches, interviews, writes, and revises their work, the editors hold regular meetings to provide guidance and real-time feedback. They learn with and from each other to publish the news while I facilitate from my conference table to offer each student advice, guidance, or emotional support.

The Impact of Agency and Leadership

My students develop a sense of independence through our focus on critical thinking, teamwork, and agency. Their choice in professional positions improves intrinsic motivation, pride, and focus in their efforts. They build a sense of purpose and belonging within the team. The editors quickly establish a sense of responsibility. Since their names are public, they know that we must work as a team to ensure excellence.

Despite the hierarchy, regular staff meetings allow the group of classmates to become a team. They learn to rely on and inspire each other to grow. For example, Leah, the senior valedictorian, received feedback from a junior on an article she wanted to write to let people know about missing lockers in the school hallways. Her classmate asked, “But we all know they’re missing. Why do you need to tell us? Can you find out why they are missing?” I would have asked Leah the same question, but hearing it from her classmate had a bigger impact, and she continued to seek feedback from her peers when choosing articles. Leah was already a strong critical thinker, but the opportunities to discuss and receive feedback from a diverse group helped her challenge herself even more.

At first, editors can have a hard time finding balance in their new roles since they’re now providing feedback to their own classmates. Morgan told me she was struggling with being forceful. She and I worked on how to have difficult conversations in our subsequent conferences. Candace had difficulties providing constructive feedback; she was often worried that her writers would be upset.

Ultimately, our reinforcement of teamwork and growth mindset is integral to the growth of my staff as individuals and young professionals. They learn how to manage difficult conversations, how and why to find and use their voices in a group, and how to deal with group projects. Although my students work independently on their articles, we are a team first. Many students express feeling support from each editor, which eases the stress of deadlines and publication.

Newspaper Workshop pushes my students to look at their writing at the most basic level because it’s being published, shared, and viewed by, sometimes, thousands of people across the entire world. Since we are entirely digital now, we share all articles on our social media accounts; we have students, staff, and parents who are our regular readers.

Moving to a digital platform was a big adjustment for all of us. I had doubts about publishing inadequate or controversial articles, such as an editorial calling attention to the “disgraceful” way that our top athletic teams have been honored in the past. This is a public forum where the whole community can see what my students do, and we all feel pressure to be perfect. I’m always concerned about the depth that my students are able to reach with their articles, and I constantly push them to find more details, interview more people, and ask deeper questions.

I learned when and how to intervene with my editors and writers—and subsequently my ELA students. I would not make decisions without the rest of the team because that would take away from their agency and independence. I had to learn to let them struggle. For example, Ben turned in a review of Post Malone and Swae Lee’s popular song “Sunflower” at a whopping seven pages. It was beautiful—a true close reading of every intricate detail. His editor told him, “I’m not reading that until you cut it back.” He submitted four drafts of this article, putting aside his frustrations each time. His article is still viewed by readers across the world two years later because he took the time to revise his work. He made something that was already excellent even better.

We are continuously critical of ourselves for the purpose of growth. Every month my staff reviews their articles and side projects, including a weekly video broadcast, sports stats, a weekly comic, and an advice column to determine what worked, what didn’t work, and what new ideas they have. With my positive reinforcement and increased readership numbers, they continue to want to do better.

I take this same approach with my ELA classes to foster student ownership in the learning process. All students must feel an intrinsic motivation to do their best, and that has to come from the opportunity to make the class their own. In my ELA classroom, I give my students that sense of ownership by providing opportunities to choose topics, styles, and texts we study. They also select how they publish their work and use a workshop-style approach to individual and small-group learning. For most assignments, I let them choose to write, draw, make a poster, create a video, or find some other way to practice crafting, supporting, and explaining an argument.

As the classroom teacher, I am able to help students with their specific needs and provide feedback on the skills that make them more prepared for life after high school. Through teamwork, choice, and a sense of purpose, my students have been able to take the lead in their learning.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Interest-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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