How do you capture the attention of 800 high school students? In our case, it was putting them in charge of their education.

I work for Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, New Jersey. We have students from grades 9-12 in one building who use the Canvas learning management system (LMS) by Instructure. As a longtime 1:1 school, all of our students have iPads. Our district has recently been certified by Future Ready Schools - New Jersey, a group that helps districts implement personalized learning, researched-based digital learning strategies, and prepare our students for college and careers.  We continue to focus our efforts on self-directed, student-centered learning.

Two years ago our school moved to a schedule where students had four classes per day, with an hour long lunch period. During this period teachers work in Professional Learning Communities and provided opportunities for students to get extra help and make up work. This is where our amazing students first demonstrated that they could be productive with unstructured time. After years of trying to convince my colleagues that we were ready, we planned the "Open Campus Day" that happened in spectacular fashion on September 14th. 

Gurysh tweet

Students went to their first period class for attendance. They all logged into Canvas, where all of their teachers posted their lesson for the day. Teachers were required to use the LMS to provide new content and provide a means to assess the learning. Students were provided some graphical organizers to help them plan their day and then were dismissed 10 minutes later. Students had the whole day (noon dismissal) to move about the building and work anywhere they wanted. Students had to scan their IDs as they moved between different areas of the building, but no restrictions were placed on them. Some hunkered down in the library, cafeteria, or a favorite teacher's room, but most moved about.

The result: awesomeness.

It didn't take long for teachers to realize their fears of chaos were unfounded. Students worked and worked hard. They took ownership of their learning and ran with it. At one point I walked into a classroom of 20 students and had to whisper to the teacher because the room was dead silent. Other places were bustling with activity as some students had assignments where they had to collaborate with their classmates. I spent the entire day walking around and saw nothing but students working. It was amazing. Typically, our school website has 50,000 page views. That day, we had 130,000.

DelVal photo

I heard from some teachers that the day "converted" some of their colleagues who had not yet invested themselves in Canvas. The ultimate takeaway? A quick poll shows that 90% of teachers want to do this again, and 83% of students do too. For the students, it was evidence that they ultimately were in charge of their progress, and taking an active role ensured achievement—and grabbed their attention.

Interested in hearing more? Contact me at [email protected] or @mgurysh on Twitter.

Keep learning,

Mike Gurysh
Vice Principal for Curriculum
Delaware Valley Regional High School (New Jersey)