Independent Practice in the Middle School Classroom
Independent practice is a new Responsive Classroom strategy for introducing concepts and skills to middle school students by creating opportunities for them to interactively explore the content through hands-on learning. In independent practice, students work by themselves without guidance from their teacher. This kind of practice requires students to have a firm grasp of the routines and procedures they will be asked to implement, as well as an understanding of the concepts they were just taught, so it is most effective when preceded by active teaching and student practice.
One way to make independent practice dynamic is by offering student voice and choice. Student voice and choice means giving middle school students a say in what or how they learn. One important way to offer students this kind of choice is by giving them options for how they display their learning so that they can choose the way that they feel best represents their knowledge. For example, instead of a teacher having every student write an essay, students might be able to choose among developing an essay, a podcast, a poster, or a PowerPoint presentation. This allows students to have confidence in their work and can give them intrinsic motivation.
To learn more about these practices, Responsive Classroom curriculum and instructional designer Amber Searles sat down with two teachers who have been applying the practices in their classrooms. Stephanie Griffin is the instrumental music director of Roosevelt Magnet School and a district-appointed teacher mentor for Peoria Public Schools. Ellie Zatorski is the middle school choir director for Roosevelt Magnet School. Here is what they had to say about their experiences with independent practice.
How do students benefit from doing student practice before independent practice?
Stephanie Griffin (SG): Student practice before independent practice is important because students are still in the stage where they’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. It might be a subject that they have not fully bought into yet; giving them the option to choose the format for how they start learning about it further can help with that buy-in, which helps students take in the content on a deeper level in preparation for independent practice.
Ellie Zatorski (EZ): Doing student practice also gives students the opportunity where—especially if the student practice is in groups or partners—there’s a chance they might have to explain the topic to their partner, and that will help further their understanding of it.
Why is it important not to grade student practice?
EZ: Not grading gives students a chance to make mistakes without getting penalized for it; they have a low-stakes environment [in which] to practice and make those mistakes.
SG: It also builds the relationship between you and the student in an academic setting. We talk all the time in Responsive Classroom about Advisory as a setting [where students and teachers are able] to build community, but taking time to build those relationships in an academic setting is just as important. When you give students that safe space to make mistakes and ask you questions, you’re really building that bond. Then, when they are having issues, they feel safe enough to come to you. Instead of shutting down if they get a bad grade on a test, they will ask, “Can I take it again?” or “What can I do to get a better grade?”
How can you use student voice and choice to set your students up for success during independent practice?
SG: I’m a band teacher. If my fifth grade students are learning eight notes on their instruments, I might give them the choice of what song or style of music they want to use to learn those eight notes. It doesn’t matter to me how they practice, but it does matter to them because some of them like the song “Baby Shark” and some of them hate it. Giving them that choice means they have more internal motivation to learn those eight notes.
How does student voice and choice help you assess if your students truly understand the content?
EZ: Giving students that choice gets rid of any parameters that might make it difficult for them to complete an assignment. If a student is not good at drawing, for example, then the drawing part of whatever assignment I might give them won’t be an issue because they won’t be drawing. Instead, they will be doing a podcast, a PowerPoint, or some other option. That difficulty won’t interfere with their demonstration of the content. Then, when I’m grading, I can assess if they understand the content rather than if they understood the assignment.
SG: To add to that, every student learns differently. For instance, a student might struggle with writing and would rather do a PowerPoint presentation. When you offer a student voice and choice, that student is thinking, “I don’t have to write an essay. I can do ten slides. That’s totally fine.” Another student might not really understand PowerPoint, or their creative outlet might be writing. That student is thinking, “I don’t have to make a PowerPoint. I can write an essay. I know I can do that.” These two students are showing us the exact same knowledge, but they’re picking the best way for them to display that knowledge to us.
Student voice and choice can mean grading the same assignment across many different mediums. How does making a rubric support you in accomplishing this?
SG: A rubric makes grading easier because you’re only grading on specific criteria. In the arts, they do this quite well. When our band goes to contests, the contest judges are assessing hundreds of different pieces, but they’re judging on the exact same criteria. It doesn’t matter if a band is playing a march or a ballad: the judges focus on components such as tonal quality and pitch accuracy. If we’re talking about a core class like reading, it doesn’t matter if students pass in a PowerPoint or an essay. They are getting graded on if they are getting their ideas across clearly. As long as the rubric is broad, it should be quite easy to grade different mediums of projects.
EZ: Creating a rubric also saves teachers from the pitfall of grading students on skills that they have learned in a different class. You can’t grade on writing in a music class, right? My rubric helps me grade students on how well they know the song we are learning.
—Stephanie Griffin is the instrumental music director of Roosevelt Magnet School and a district-appointed teacher mentor for Peoria Public Schools.
—Amber Searles is a curriculum and instructional designer for Responsive Classroom.
—Ellie Zatorski is the middle school choir director for Roosevelt Magnet School.