Alumni Profiles, Giving Back

Back to School: Three Alumnae Wrote the Book on a Student-Centered Approach to English Class

Back to School: Three Alumnae Wrote the Book on a Student-Centered Approach to English Class 1
From left: Meg Donhauser, Cathy Stutzman, and Heather Hersey, authors of the book Letting Go: How to Give Your Students Control over Their Learning in the English Classroom.

The end of summer means parents and their kids are making the transition from vacation to learning mode, from fun adventures to days in a classroom. But a teaching method based on a philosophy formulated a century ago could make going back to school more enjoyable and satisfying for many students and their parents.

Ever since educator John Dewey advocated, in the early 1900s, hands-on, experiential learning, teachers have explored ways to help students become active participants in their education. The goal is to help students hone their critical thinking skills and develop a love of learning, rather than be mere vessels filled with their teachers’ knowledge.

Now, three Rutgers alumnae have written Letting Go: How to Give Your Students Control over Their Learning in the English Classroom (National Council of Teachers of English, 2018) to guide English teachers in letting their students take the reins of learning. The core of Letting Go is the inquiry learning plan, or ILP, which was created by the book’s authors. While inquiry-based learning has been around for years, the ILP is a new tool that helps students set their own goals for what they want to learn.

The book’s authors acknowledge that ILPs can be intimidating for educators, students, and parents alike, since they are a big change from traditional teaching methods. But the alumnae trio encourages keeping an open mind about inquiry-based learning, noting that many teachers, students, and parents embrace the approach once they see how it works, and the result is often a more engaged and collaborative classroom.

Inquiry learning plans can also be effective in courses other than English literature, and the authors cite examples in the book of gender studies and Holocaust classes in which ILPs were used successfully.

The authors recently talked about how ILPs work and how they help students get more out of their English classes. Meg Donhauser RC’05 and Cathy Stutzman LC’01, GSE’02 are English teachers at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ, and Heather Hersey GSE’99, SCILS’06 formerly taught at Hunterdon Central and is now a teacher-librarian at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, CA.

Q: How did you come up with the concept behind this approach to teaching?

Meg Donhauser: We were looking for ways to help our students have more choice in what they could read and learn. I came up with the ILP idea but it would not have happened without Cathy and Heather’s help.

Cathy Stutzman: I was getting ready to teach The Catcher in the Rye and one of my students said it was her favorite book and asked me not to ruin it for her! She explained that she didn’t want to just study the things I wanted her to learn about it. She wanted to be able to explore some things that she was interested in, especially since she had already read it several times.

Heather Hersey:Inquiry learning is not a new idea but it does feel like with connective technologies and a lot of people rethinking education right now, there’s an opportunity to get the inquiry-learning plan concept into classrooms and help it flourish.

Q: How does the inquiry learning plan model work?

HH: There’s a saying about teachers, “we are the sage on the stage, the guide on the side.” I feel like inquiry learning really advances the idea of the teacher being the guide on the side. Our book enables teachers to customize the ILPs based on what they are willing and able to turn over to students.

MD: Teachers are there as a coach but as a student is reading a text and formulating ideas, we’re there to ask questions, give guidance and feedback, and help create learning experiences. We know who to pair them up with in class, who to put them in groups with, but we’re really there as a mentor rather than standing in front of class delivering all the information.

For example, we figure out what a student wants to know about, say, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I teach a writing class so the students may choose to write a poem or a screenplay; it depends on where the student wants to start. The students then get feedback from me and their peers, and they do a lot of reflecting along the way.

CS: There are lots of ways to approach texts. A student reading The Catcher in the Rye might even look at adolescence and what it means to grow up, or addiction, or parents, or school systems. Even when a school requires a common text, this approach is flexible enough to allow students to choose an avenue into a book.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important for students to direct how they learn?

CS: I think it teaches them how to do life. Students are, of course, practicing English skills but they’re also learning how to ask questions and how to problem solve. They’re reflecting on progress and setting goals for improvement, and those are key life lessons. They learn how to approach setbacks and figure out how to overcome them. It’s something they can apply to any subject area.

How do you deal with pushback from parents or students who are wary of inquiry-based learning?

CS: In the beginning, we had a lot of pushback from students. Turning over some of the responsibility to the students was a little scary. So turning that fear into a sense of empowerment is important. If a kid is reluctant to choose a text, I might ask them, “What do you like to read? How can this not be scary?” It’s not that they have to get the right answer or come to the same conclusions that their teachers are coming to. They really have the choice to experiment and see what works for them, and they aren’t going to be punished for trying something and maybe failing. We also had some pushback from parents. It was so different from what they knew of school. Once parents understood the philosophy and research behind it, they saw the value in it.

Q: What have been some reactions from students who do the ILP?

MD: I’ve had so many kids over the years who come back later and say they really learned to love reading because they got to read books they were interested in and were at their level. They can’t believe they read a 500-page book or a series. That’s a great thing. That’s what we want our kids to walk away with, to be readers, and this is a great way to do that.

Q: What is your advice for helping teachers learn to “let go” and help their students use ILPs?

MD: I was teaching British literature for the first time. When I was told I had to teach a thousand years of literature in nine weeks, I was like, how do I do that? I realized that I needed to give my students the opportunity to make choices about texts. It took me a few years before I could let go in my other classes. I did it little by little. I would have the students come up with questions, come up with reading activities, or create a rubric. You let go of what you can. I think because I had Cathy and Heather’s support, that was a huge part of it. There were days when the class wanted to revolt! I had to stand firm and have multiple conversations with my kids about what I wanted for them. If teachers get stuck, they can reach out to us. We’re ready to help them.