Teacher helping two female students in a science lab

Hun School faculty are intentional about creating student-centered classrooms. But, what does that actually mean? Following a prompt from Upper School Head Ryan Hews, faculty cohorts recently discussed   6 Signs of a Student-Centered Classroom  and ideas for achieving each of the essential elements in their own classrooms.

Active Learning: 18th Century Speed-Dating
When it comes to learning, it’s important to recognize that the process of retaining information is more than just the ability to memorize and accumulate facts. In order for information to effectively stick in a student’s brain, it must be interactive. The lessons that allow students to be hands-on, use multiple senses, engage, discuss, build, and collaborate are the lessons where students are retaining the information better and forming a deeper understanding. 

Lynn McNulty, faculty member in the History and Global Studies department, is most known for her interactive lesson plans. She is a firm believer that when it comes to history specifically, assignments must be structured in a way that bridges the gap between the students and the subject matter. 

“Naturally, because we are studying events that happened centuries ago, there is distance between the students and the subject,” she said. “So I’ve found that when the lessons are more interactive, it really helps to bridge the gap and students are more likely to understand the information, if I present it in a way that they can relate to.” 

For example, students in her AP European History class participate in “18th century speed dating”; each student in the class must choose and research a historical figure from the 18th century and speed date to find which other historical figure would make the best pair based on their findings. Another fan favorite amongst her students is the French Revolution sweater contest; students decorate and design a sweater based on aspects of the French Revolution, wear it to class and present to their classmates. 

Mrs. McNulty notes that during her time at The Hun School, her students have always embraced these projects to the fullest and taken advantage of the creative spirit of her course. 

“I design these lessons in a way where my students don’t rely on me and I act more as a facilitator to the independent learning that the students do,” she said. “I love teaching this way because these projects allow the students to shine in different ways and take different approaches to the material in a way that makes the most sense to them. If they are artists, that will shine through, if they are musicians, they can work that passion into the assignment.” 


Collaboration: A Dynamic Classroom Shift
The difference between a teacher-centered classroom and a student-centered classroom is simple; in a teacher-centered classroom, every learning event must pass through the teacher. In a student-centered classroom, students collaborate with one another, they get instant feedback from peers and by leaning on one another for support, they develop social-emotional skills. 

Jackie O’Gorman, chair of the Science department, notes that over her several years working at the School, she has yet to teach a class in which students did not collaborate with each other. 

“Science classes focus on collaboration in such a positive way,” she said. “It’s a staple in my classes as I firmly believe that every single one of my students can learn from one another. They may not recognize it at first but as soon as students learn to appreciate the insight of their peers the dynamic of the class shifts.” 

Mrs. O’Gorman notes that her goal is to create a classroom environment where students lead the class and are comfortable enough to take the floor to share their insights, perspectives, and problem solving solutions. She notes that the best learning happens when the students have the chance to work in small groups conducting design labs and experiments. 

“When they collaborate, that is where they learn how to develop skills that may be more challenging for them,” she said. “I enjoy seeing the students gaining more knowledge together as they apply their learning to the natural world while demonstrating a meticulous appraisal of the subject matter.” 


Differentiation: Creating Intentional Errors
If there is one thing that all Hun teachers know, it’s that not every student learns the same way and there is no one way to teach. The best teachers recognize the power of being able to pivot a lesson to meet the needs of their students. A successful student-centered classroom is often a revolving door of new teaching mechanisms and information. 

Shaun Workenaour, Physics and Astronomy teacher, is known on campus for creating a classroom environment where different learning styles are celebrated and oftentimes at the forefront of scientific exploration. He notes that his teaching style will never be to deliver content to students, but to teach students the skills they need to be successful problem solvers. 

“The one thing about my courses is that there is a lot of exposure to failure, and in my opinion that’s important for high school students to experience,” Mr. Workenaour said. “I don’t want my students to come to class to memorize formulas and equations, I want them to ask questions, collaborate with one another, get frustrated, and most importantly, learn how to work through their frustrations and solve the problems.” 

He explains that in his classroom, every student is a resource, and oftentimes, the students do the teaching. One thing that is unique to Mr. Workenaour’s classroom is the homework problem solving routine that he established with his students. 

“In small groups, students get a whiteboard and they all work through the same problem from their homework. Once they have arrived at a solution, they present it to the whole class,” he said. “But the twist is, that in their groups, they have to intentionally include one mistake in their solution, and the rest of the class has to examine the problem and expose and correct the mistake.” 

He explains that he does this exercise because it creates a subtle shift in the classroom; instead of students being embarrassed about a wrong answer, it becomes a collaborative effort from the class on how to create the best solution possible.


Social-Emotional Learning: Pivoting Perspectives
Social-emotional learning is one of the most important skills students must develop in order to be adequately prepared for an ever-changing environment outside of the classroom. 

Richard Volz, chair of the English department notes that social-emotional learning is happening in English courses at Hun almost every day, oftentimes, without students even knowing it’s happening. He notes that there are three main ways that social-emotional learning is present in the classroom. 

“The act of reading is the process of seeing the world from someone else's perspective, so anytime our students read text they practice empathy by entering the narrator's perspective,” Mr. Volz said. “When they write, students must consider their own feelings, the feelings of the characters in the text, and the feelings of the audience for whom they are writing. Being able to pivot between those perspectives is a valuable skill. Lastly, the Harkness method that we practice allows students to reflect on their own feelings while inviting their classmates to share their perspective as well. This allows the class to build a collective understanding of the material.” 



Student Voice: The Value of Training Wheels
For Ted Shaffner, Junior Grade Level Dean and faculty member in the English department, teaching students to find their voice through analytical essay writing is the foundation of success in his coursework. He notes that teaching students that their voice is important in their writing is tricky. But, it’s well worth the effort. 

“When I teach freshmen, I teach them how to write a proper analytical essay, but I tell them that although they are writing this way now, they will not be writing this way forever,” he said. “No great cyclist still uses training wheels, and so once they have the foundation, we take away the training wheels and work on writing a strong, convincing essay that they are passionate about.” 

Mr. Shaffner notes that the best essays stem from two things: confidence and passion. Which is why he makes two things a priority in his classroom: students always have the option to rewrite an essay and they can always create their own prompt for an assignment. 

“Anyone can write a good checklist essay, but it will be boring because you aren’t passionate about it. And when you aren’t passionate about something, there is no way to be confident about it,” he said. “Creative freedom is important in my class, and I want my students to take risks with their writing, so if they don’t agree with the prompts I give they can create a prompt that speaks to them. Similarly, I want to mitigate the stress of getting a good grade, so they can always rewrite their essays.” 

Fostering student-voice has always been important to Mr. Shaffner. In fact, when he began teaching at The Hun School several years ago, he began collecting his students' best work to create an ever-growing book titled “Model Essays From Shaffner English”.  Each year, he presents this book to his students to encourage them to take risks, look at things differently, explore their perspectives, embrace new ideas, and find their confidence through writing. 


Technology Integration: Linking Mental Models and Abstract Concepts
When used correctly, technology in the classroom is a valuable learning tool and a focal point for a student-centered classroom. And for Amy Wright, Computer Science and Engineering department chair, technology is used on a regular basis to keep students engaged and prepare them for future endeavors of independent learning.

“In a computer science course at Hun, the students are the creators in the classrooms,” Mrs. Wright said. “They solve problems, develop algorithms, and translate their solutions into code. Because of their access to technology, they are able to quickly go from student to teacher among their peers. For me, the most rewarding time in class is when a student uses his or her screen to assist a classmate who may be struggling.” 

As a passionate computer science teacher, Mrs. Wright introduced the acronym ‘ABC CBV’ to her students as a learning concept – activity before concept, concept before vocabulary. She notes that because of technology integration she is able to guide students to apply themselves to the material they are learning.

“Being able to link mental models to abstract concepts that take place within a computer makes Computer Science much more approachable,” she said. “With the internet and endless technology at our fingertips, there are plenty of tools that allow students to truly experience the material.” 

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