Listening, Learning, and Letting Go

By Amy Nystrand

Amy Nystrand is a 4th Grade teacher at Gower Elementary School. In this installment in the CoOp Corner, she shares her thoughts on the power of listening to her students as well as to her fellow teachers in the Cooperative when the time came to push harder to engage more challenging critical thinking skills. It’s a powerful read that offers a close look at the planning and processing of an award-winning unit as well as the Cooperative’s impact on students’ learning and in classrooms all over the city. Read, comment, ask, and share!

Last year, I tried teaching my first Project-Based Learning (PBL) project with my 4th grade Response to Intervention (RTI) group. We meet for 45 minutes at the end of each day and get to work on additional critical thinking skills and projects. My goals for these students are to challenge them to think outside the box, to present them with information and activities that force them to think critically, and to start to develop a sense that the world is not all “black and white”. I felt like a PBL project would offer the structure I needed to create a learning experience that would be relevant to my students and work toward these goals. I also wanted to develop some sort of cultural competence in my students, especially in light of our tumultuous political climate. I decided to take on the life of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. I thought my students could relate to someone not much older than them who was making a difference in the world, despite the numerous forces working against her.

We would read her memoir I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was shot by the Taliban. It provided us our first look into Pakistani culture and how it relates to similar issues that the United States is facing. To be honest, when we started last year, I didn’t have a clear vision of where we were going. I knew I wanted to do some sort ofIMG_0037 project, but didn’t know what it would look like exactly, which was one of the things that made this project fun; I was discovering along with my students. As we went through the book, we would stop frequently to fill-in gaps in background knowledge and build their understanding of the many things contributing to Malala’s struggle – the Taliban, Muslim culture, freedom issues, women’s rights, etc. One of the benefits of doing this project during RTI time, was the freedom to really explore the topic, to take my time and see where it led me – freedoms not usually afforded during the typical school-day schedule. It also allowed me to explore how much I could give control of the reins to my students and see where it would lead, something that is very difficult for my Type-A personality.


The project ran from October until December. We did mini-projects on the Taliban, the TNSM (a militant group popular before the Taliban invaded Malala’s home), and Pashtunwali Culture. We watched the New York Times documentary created about Malala’s family and her fight for equal education. We read the diary entries she was commissioned to write for the BBC. We learned about the long recovery from her shooting and why she was targeted in the first place. We watched her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and learned about the prize in general. We also learned about the other awards she has won. We learned about the Malala Fund, her foundation to bring education to the world. These 28 students now had more knowledge about Malala and educational rights than many adults I know. They understood the nuances of the complicated task of solving inequalities such as these. Because of this, I decided the best way for us to share our collective knowledge would be to create a museum exhibit in “Gator Park”, the entrance way to our school, through which all students pass during the day.

Students got to choose a topic and had to create a presentation to add to our museum exhibit. I was afraid we wouldn’t have captured all of the moving parts if I let them choose on their own, so I chose the topics. MalalaTableofContents Because I didn’t know where we were going until near the end, we didn’t have time to really explore the topics they may have wanted to do. I’m also not sure that they really understood what a museum exhibit would look like since many of my students had never been to a museum before. Despite all this, I was pretty happy with the way the project turned out for the first go. The exhibit was well-received by other students at school, and we earned a Silver Medal at MNPS’s PBL expo in the spring.

Knowing I wanted to do this project again next year, I had a list of things I wanted to change. How could I allow for more student-led discussions, ideas, and projects? If they knew from the outset they would be creating a museum exhibit, would that allow them to more readily think of topics throughout? How can I make it better the second time around? How can I truly develop cultural competence in my students?

And then The Educators’ Cooperative came in!

As part of our week over the summer with the Educators’ Cooperative, we engaged in a Critical Friends protocol, for which we were assigned to bring some lesson or project that we have done in the past but need help improving it. We spent one hour each day of our workshop in the same groups of four people, devoting a full hour of structured feedback to one person in our group. This was one of my favorite parts of EdCo.

My group consisted of teachers from a variety of school types, subject areas, and grade levels. I was skeptical that a math coach, a 1st grade teacher, a high school English teacher, and myself could give valuable, constructive feedback to each member of our group. However, our work together over the course of the week erased my concerns. Getting three unbiased, outside opinions on my project was invaluable. I had to explain the project as succinctly and clearly as possible to people who didn’t have the project swirling around their heads for almost a year. We came up with ideas that would have never crossed my mind and ways to improve it that I had never considered. 

We are now starting week 6 of the project this year, and I am so excited about where it is going. I started the project almost a month earlier than last year, hoping that having more time would be beneficial to the project as a whole. Before we began the book, we talked about what a museum exhibit looks like and took a couple virtual field trips to get some examples. I have been much more intentional with our interactive notebooks, using them as a place for students to develop an understanding of the complicated things we are learning about. (pic of notebook pages)

I am also trying to give them more freedom to decide what sorts of information we need in our interactive notebooks. For example, after a particularly heated comparison of the freedoms we have in America and those in Pakistan, one student suggested we create aMalalaIdealWorld page in our notebooks describing our “Ideal world”. What a great idea! How could we analyze other cultures and our own before we named what exactly our ideal world would look like? 

At the suggestion of one of my “critical friends”, we are also tracking themes throughout the book. Students have also already asked if they could do their museum exhibit on specific things, meaning my plan to have them develop their own topics is working! 

Every day is a constant exercise in giving up control and trusting my students to lead their own learning and discovery. Our class periods are a little less structured than last year and we are moving much slower through the book, but I am ok with that. I cannot wait to see what our museum exhibit looks like this year and the ways in which my students’ ideas increase their own understandings and help improve the project as a whole. I am also excited to continue to share the project’s progress with the CoOp. Our continued work throughout the year provides an opportunity to continue to shape the project through both formal and informal meetings, and act as a much-needed accountability check to continue to improve. This extended support network of colleagues and friends has given me renewed spirit to continue to grow this project and my craft as a whole, and I am inspired and excited to get to work!

2 Replies to “Listening, Learning, and Letting Go”

  1. What a great project. I love giving time and space for the students to follow their own ideas and responses to the project. Great facilitation and planning on your part for that to happen!

Leave a Reply