Creating Student Centered Classrooms

During my high school years, I had two history classes that particularly stand out in my memory. The first class was an Honors American History class that I took my sophomore year of high school. That teacher had a very strict and rigid way of teaching: we had to take Cornell notes. We had to set up our notebook with fourteen pages left blank in the front for vocabulary. We had to turn in a two paged paper on the end of the unit, our points supported by direct quotes from the lecture and most of all, we had to sit still and be quiet during ninety minute lectures.

To be quite honest, I can’t tell you a single thing I learned in that class.

However, my final semester of high school I took a class on European history that completely changed the course of my academic life and was a major factor in my becoming a history major. On the first day of class, my teacher told us that she described her classroom as “organized chaos” and every time there was a project due, we had many different options for how to complete it: we could write a paper, we could create a PowerPoint presentation, we could write a poem, a song, a story, and, most notably, she once let us write a rap over the beat of Nicki Minaj’s “Chun Li” (because that was her favorite song at the time). As long as she knew we had a solid understanding of the content and our projects were organized and well thought out, she didn’t care how they got to her. She spent maybe twenty minutes every class period lecturing us–but it never felt like lecturing. It felt like she was telling us a captivating story that we couldn’t help but engage with.

At the end of the semester, before we even realized it, she had taught us to think and research like historians under the guise of narrative stories, songs, and poems.

Creating student-centered classrooms means having students engaged with hands-on, interesting projects. One of the main tips that we learned in the reading was to have students engaged with a hook. In my European history class, my teacher always made sure to hook us with a story. If we were studying the Black Plague, she would show pictures of plague masks and different medical tools used while she told us the story of a working peasant coming down with the Plague and the progression of the sickness on his body.

Another point that we learned was that PowerPoints can be a lesson killer. As a student with ADHD and another learning-based disability, my brain is not set up for success when it comes to lecture courses. Even with accommodations, lectures do nothing for my brain. It’s just so much, and that’s a point that we read in the Mann article, where she writes: “PowerPoint slides are a powerful aid to today’s lecturer, who can use it to easily prepare dozens of slides to accompany a lecture. And that is the problem – lecturers tend to prepare too many slides, pack them with too much information, and whizz through them in a manner that obliges students to spend most of the session attempting to copy copious amounts of text from the screen, while bypassing active processing of the material.” PowerPoints give the potential for lecturers to cram a million pieces of information and for students who may not be as detail-oriented, this sort of teaching style causes nothing to sink into long-term memory.

The best sort of classrooms are those that put students at the center. Classrooms with engaging, hands-on activities and good, concise lectures are the kinds of classrooms that let all students succeed.