Cambourne lists eight conditions of literacy development—and responsibility
is one of them. Cambourne points out
that students become responsible, independent learners when they make their
own decisions about “when, how, and
what ‘bits’ to learn in any learning task.
Learners who lose the ability to make
decisions are disempowered.” 1
I realized that I had been assuming
responsibility in other areas of my students’ learning as well. For example, in
whole-group instruction, I was deciding
what students should read, what type of
assessment they should have, and what
they should write about. I believed I was
a good teacher because I was working
really, really hard. In fact, I was working
too hard—often a lot harder than my
My first attempt at having students
assume responsibility for their own
learning was enormously fun for me. I
purposely overplayed my new laissez-faire attitude and simply said
to them, “During these nine
weeks, you’re to do a reading
and writing project.” They
waited for the directions, pens
poised, looking around for
handouts containing specific
“So what do you want us
to do?” they asked after a
moment, at once perplexed
“I want you to read and
write—you decide what
that will be,” I said casually,
allowing them talk-time to
make sense of what was happening. Then, together, we
brainstormed lists of topics,
books, and writing ideas,
filling both whiteboards on
the wall. Each student eventually came up with a plan for
what he or she would read,
write, and present to the class
Too many students have had so little
experience making academic choices that
they don’t know how to decide.
(see fig. 2, p. 70). It was a true responsibility breakthrough for all of us.
The next few weeks provided all the
data I needed to know that this concept
was the yellow brick road to authentic
learning. Students were not just
engaged—they were absolutely devoted
to their projects. They stretched their
intellects, abilities, and curiosity. To
encourage organization and discourage
procrastination, I required students to
turn in a weekly progress report, telling
me how they were faring. They could
also schedule conferences as needed
before or after school or during lunch.
In addition, we devoted one period
FIGURE 1. Questions for the Due Date
each week to this project, and students
had to decide how best to use their
time—at the library, meeting with me,
working with a partner, writing, or
reading. Sharing their work with the
rest of the class was an added bonus.
When their projects were completed,
copies of their written pieces were
placed in the class library for other students to read.
Sample projects included
; Reading Jane Austen’s Pride and
Prejudice and Kieran Scott’s Kiss and Tell
(today students might compare Pride
and Prejudice with Stephenie Meyer’s
Twilight); writing a comparison of the
two novels, with an emphasis
on how the notion of love has
changed in the past 200 years.
; Reading Harold Kushner’s
When Good Things Happen to
Bad People; writing an analysis
of Kushner’s philosophy and an
autobiographical piece about a
difficult time in one’s life.
; Reading the annual The Best
American Short Stories; writing
an analysis of the characteristics
of good short stories as well as
an original short story.
; Reading Alex Haley’s The
Autobiography of Malcolm X;
writing a summary of the major
points and an analysis of how
Malcolm X influenced the civil
; Reading Robert Cormier’s
After the First Death; writing
a response to the novel and
an essay about the underlying
motivations of terrorists.
; What new due date are you requesting?
; Describe in detail the work you have done
on the assignment so far. Attach a copy of
what you have completed if appropriate.
; Why are you requesting additional time to
complete the project or assignment?
; How many times in the past have you filled
out a due date extension form?
; If the due date extension is not approved,
how do you propose to address this problem?
A printable version of this form is available at www
Source: From Engaging Adolescent Learners: A Guide for
Content-Area Teachers (p. 64), by R. Lent, 2006, Portsmouth,
NH: Heinemann. Copyright 2006 by Heinemann. Adapted