What Makes a Classroom Learner-Centered?

By Katy Berotti, Humanities Department Chair

Shake it up, and let it settle.
I’m talking, of course, about snow globes—those little worlds you can hold in your hand, examine, disturb with flurries of excitement, and examine again. I’m talking about snow globes, but I’m thinking about humanities classes, courses, curricula.
Snow globes might fall into two categories: those that serve as tiny monuments, featuring, for example, the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower, and those that have a tableau, a little scene from a frosty New England village or embattled Peruvian citadel. Analogous to planning a course, we might think of some monumental content—a poem, speech, event, artifact, or concept—that we might isolate within a context and magnify for analysis. Or like the tableau, perhaps we’re setting up this small world. Maybe those skaters are Sethe and her children, or the pond is Walden pond, with Thoreau chopping wood as freemen fish on the far side; maybe these poems, songs, and sculptures will give depth to a culture, upset its stereotypes. Planning a unit, teachers are crafty collectors and arrangers of character, color, dimension, and tension. This part of course design is important (and fun), but it’s prelude to where the real magic happens. 
As a teacher, is my role to shake the snow globe, to throw a question into the room and see how it sheds a light or shifts the weight? Sometimes. But in a learner-centered classroom, I can’t be the only one with my hands around the globe. At GPS, our humanities classes often ask the student to be the designer. Sixth-graders are sprawled out in the hallways, ready to explain to the adults who step around them which country is “theirs” and why they chose it. National History Day projects and social justice projects likewise reflect the interests of students, from nuclear energy to the effects of racism on fashion, just as the papers in English class invite each girl to make arguments that align with her perceptions and values. 
Every day, in ways small and large, students are makers and shakers of the curriculum. Sometimes with a scaffold of prompts, French and Spanish students interview each other; in small and large groups, they launch into conversation about pets, routines, social media, job qualifications, what they value, and more. Their vocabularies expand with their interests. Whether discussing their own beliefs, an episode of history, a poem or speech or novel, the most common prompt of the humanities is ‘what matters?’ and ‘why?’ In ways that are as structured as that transparent globe but as varied as the swirl of glittering flakes, our courses often follow this process: model, then scaffold, then turn it over to students. Let it snow. 
And what occurs in stillness—reflection—is as important as any dynamic action. Students observe from the outside, and they are asked to place themselves within a landscape, a culture, a narrative and consider how that feels. They analyze the effects of change. Pre- and post- assessment, we try to consider our own actions: as students, how’s our understanding, our communication, our evidence for our opinions? As teachers, we talk often about how our curriculum functions. This year, we’re trying to observe where skills are introduced, developed, extended, and transferred, both within a single discipline (as a French, Spanish, English, or history/social science student) and across disciplines in each year of study. 
At GPS, we revere stalwart traditions and encourage forward movement. We hold dear what is proven to be important, while we ask, what rearrangement, refinement, or revision might improve our program? We shake it up; we let it settle. Together, it’s a wonderful world we create.