Saturday, March 12, 2011

Go ahead, give it up...

Over the course of this school year I have written here about my release of control in my classroom and pushing my students to take more power over their learning. Many people have asked me, “How do you do it?” I have no illusions that I am an exceptional teacher who has all the answers. I am not and I don’t. However, I pride myself on never settling and always trying something new and finding better ways to help my students learn. I share freely in hopes that someone will be able to take something that has worked for me and use it help their own students. I have been redefining my role as the teacher in the classroom and in turn the work I do with my students. With that in mind, here is a list of non-negotiables that have been crucial for me to push my students to take control of their learning.


Respect – You cannot give up control of your class if you don’t have a mutual respect. If students don’t respect you, they will walk all over you and take advantage of the freedom you have given them. By respect I am not talking about kids “liking” you. You can like a teacher and not have respect for them. Mutual respect has to be in place and often is not. This is when classrooms slip from organized chaos into sheer pandemonium.

Focus – A teacher that is going to give more control to their students has to have focus. What I mean by this is the ability to keep the end goal in mind for yourself and the students. You can’t give students the keys to the car with a destination in mind. Even though I don’t tell kids how to do something, they are clearly aware of what I need them to show me in the end. If students don’t know the target, you can’t expect them to hit it.

Flexibility – Yes, in order to give up control you need to be able to touch your toes! In all seriousness, if you are the type of teacher that has their lesson plans done for three months at a time, this will be tough for you. There are days that I walk into school not knowing what we will be doing. I plan my long term goals and always have an idea of what topics we are covering, but the nitty-gritty is often done with the student in class. We look at what our needs are for that day/week and run with it. I rarely give due dates. A due date symbolizes an end to the learning.

Awareness – This is possibly one of the most important traits. You need to know when to step in and when to step back. This is difficult because each student has a “line” and it is in a different place. For some students, you will need to give them the tools, walk away, and take a hands off approach. Others need more guidance and you will be stepping in and redirecting more often. Being able to recognize when and how to do this is a key piece of a classroom “run” by the students.

Resourceful – What I mean by this is that you have to be able to pull from multiple sources to give your students access to as many learning opportunities as possible. If you think of the Textbook as the Holy Grail, you will struggle here. Students need to have access to multiple sources of information regardless of it is in print, online, or a person. Traditional schools are just one “resource” and you have to open up the door to the world of learning that is largely possible through technology. You will need to go outside your classroom and even school to find better ways of doing things. Beyond just the resources for the students, the teacher has to go above and beyond to find teaching and learning resources for themselves.

Worthwhile – Many teachers think they are giving up control and pushing student learning just because their class is working on a project while they sit at their desk. These students are often engaged in lower level thinking projects such as regurgitating what Wikipedia has to say about the endangered dodo bird. Nothing against the dodo bird, but I am not a fan of having students research and reproduce something that has already been done. I would rather they look at that same topic of the dodo bird and create something new. Synthesis and reconstruct rather than research and retell. Don’t do research, do action research. This comes down to asking students to do and guide them to worthwhile work. You don’t want students to waste your time turning in sub-par quality work, so don’t waste their and ask them to do sub-par quality activities.

Ignorant – This might seem a bit odd to add to the list but let me explain. Some teachers feel they need to be experts and smarter than their students. While my educational background in History and English does help me push students into certain areas, it is not always a prerequisite. The ability to ask good probing questions is far more crucial than your understanding of the content. I know plenty of content experts that talk at their student every day. They are brilliantly intelligent, but horribly failing to connect their students to the content.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have all the answers, but these are things that I have found to be true for me and my teaching. My teaching, as with my life, is evolving and this list will surely change and I grow as a teacher and as new students present new perspectives to my classroom.
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