Student self-direction with Evelyn Rebollar

Evelyn Rebollar teaches High School English at Bronx Area High School in Bronx, NY. During the last 3 years, 100% of her students have passed the New York State English Regents exam, despite entering her class, on average, below grade level. Last year, she was awarded TNTP’s Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. While Evelyn has an amazing perspective on a wide range of topics in education, we used this opportunity to ask her what differentiation and student self-direction look like in her classroom.

Thriving Schools: Could we begin with a little background on your school, Bronx Arena? I think this context will be important for our audience to understand.

Evelyn: It’s a very, very unique school. We operate with a fully-blended, asynchronous model. And so by its nature, our curriculum already encourages students to self-direct. Half of our curriculum is on our school’s online platform and half of it is taught by teachers in the classroom. So when I have students completing online coursework in my class, they could be working on any subject. Also, as part of this, I get to work the same 25 students for 4 hours a day. During the remainder of the day, students receive direct instruction from other teachers in various subjects.

Thriving Schools: And how does the school’s model work in your area of expertise, English?

Evelyn: Well, to start, most of the students aren’t reading the same book at the same time. In fact, right now, I don’t have a single student reading the same book as someone else. All of the books my students read have been chosen by them, with my approval (based on their reading and comprehension levels). I certainly encourage my students to always challenge themselves, but their enjoyment of the reading is even more important. If we do some small group work, the students might be reading the same short story, or they’ll come to a consensus on a novel.

Thriving Schools: We’ve heard that you have some amazing differentiation practices that you use in your classroom. Can you start by describing for us how you think about differentiation or students self-directing their own learning?

Evelyn: At its root, it stems from embracing the phrase, “I don’t know!” And showing students that someone who’s supposed to be an expert at something doesn’t have all the answers and that’s okay. Sometimes you will be wrong, but that’s how you learn. So when a student asks me a question about math or science or history, the 3 subjects in which I don’t have a certification, there are plenty of times when I just don’t know the answer. And so what I do is tend to ask the question right back at them. And when they say, “I don’t know,” then I get to ask the question “Well how can we go about solving this problem?” So they’ll use Google, they’ll use other online resources, and then I have a strong practice of encouraging them to use each other. So my students know I’ll only provide them with help after they’ve exhausted all of their other resources.

Thriving Schools: How are you able to get such a high level of self-direction in your classroom and still have impressive student performance on state exams?

Evelyn: Standardized tests are the one thing that make me tick. I don’t spend much time on the Regent’s Exam in my class. In fact, I hate teaching to the test. It’s so annoying. It’s boring. We spend about 2-3 weeks in the year preparing for the exam. But the rest of the year, my students are learning what they want! Standardized tests marginalize students. It’s hard for a student to answer a question about docking a boat when they’ve never even seen a boat. My students are in the South Bronx and some of them have never left the borough. They have a $2.75 subway ride into Manhattan and they’ve never been there. So the text on these exams can be so foreign to my students. Everyone wants to push for more individualized curriculum and sees the value in that, but then we have this assessment that is so disconnected from that sentiment. It’s so weird to me. So I know people will be impressed when they see 100% of my students pass this test, but for me, it’s the least important part of my job and my least important accomplishment.

Thriving Schools: That’s fascinating! So you hardly give any thought to your standardized tests, yet all of your students are getting the skills they need to pass them.

Evelyn: When I’m writing a unit or curriculum, I really don’t think much about how the questions are written on the assessments. I usually start from a philosophical perspective – what life lessons do I want them to learn or what hope do I want them to see in the world, despite the fact that most of their lives haven’t been that hopeful. So when I write lessons, I write them with the intent of improving their world view. And when you start there, you’re going to meet them where they are.

Thriving Schools: Most teachers would die for this – allowing high levels of differentiation and having all students pass their tests. Clearly, you’re doing something here! How are you able to do this?

Evelyn: It’s really hard when you’re a teacher and you’re expected to be the keeper of knowledge to relinquish control. So I really try to empower my students to work with and teach themselves. And this is the most challenging part. I didn’t start out this way. When I first started teaching, I thought I had to have the answers to everything. But then I realized, my students are way smarter than I am. I don’t know half the things that they know. So, they should be the ones leading these lessons. And so how do I do that? I model for them – this is how I learn. We take the time to understand how each of my students learn so that they can teach their peers other methods when needed. So even though I work in a blended model and the work my students do can be very individualized, they tend to work with and teach one another quite a bit. And then I get to be more of an observer and help them improve the instruction they might be providing to each other.

Thriving Schools: It definitely sounds like you have a strong emphasis on peer collaboration and instruction. Can you give us a few more examples of how you coach your students on this?

Evelyn: At the start of the year, my students come up with their own class rules. I make sure there are no more than 4 and that every student is okay with them. So I immediately show them that this is your classroom and I’m just here as a facilitator – if all else fails, you can come to me. There are no rules or structures in our classroom that haven’t had student input. Let me give you another example on the instruction front. So I might model what it looks like to teach a skill on a text that I like. And I let my students know that you’re time is coming – you will have to do what I’m doing right now. And so by the time they have to pick out their own texts, they also know the questions and main ideas they’re looking for at the same time. I also have student mentors in my classroom. Because we have open enrollment, I’m constantly getting new students as other students graduate. So I have mentors in my classroom who are basically like coaches to our newer students. And we give them an elective credit for the mentoring that they do.

Thriving Schools: Can you tell us about some of the skills or mindsets that you’ve needed to cultivate in order to be successful with this approach?

Evelyn: When I first started teaching, I was very focused on me and how I was feeling at the moment. And I had to shift that mindset to what moves my students were making and what that says about where their headspace is at. And once I figured out how to understand how their mind was working, it was a lot easier for me to figure out how to proceed with each student. Getting into their headspace was the most helpful change that I made.

Thriving Schools: How did you do this? Were you studying psychology on the weekend? Hahaha!

Evelyn: I definitely wasn’t studying psychology! It’s more so studying their moves. It’s in their conversations and interactions that they’re having with one another. It’s the look in their eyes when I would question them and I could start to see how their wheels were turning. The answers they give you to any question you might ask also give you clues into their mindsets. And again, this takes a lot of emphasis off of me and what I’m doing and puts it onto my students.

Thriving Schools: Are there any individuals or resources that have been critical to the development of your thinking on these topics?

Evelyn: If there’s one educational philosopher that I completely agree with, it’s Paulo Freire. His philosophy is essentially that every student comes to you with their own unique set of skills, that all of those skills are of value, and that they should be important in guiding your instruction. His most notable work is called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Note: Evelyn was also featured on a PBS NewsHour segment in 2015. You can check out that video clip here.