Yesterday I had the wonderful privilege to give a webinar for SimpleK12 on the topic of student centered learning. I am not an expert on this topic, far from it, but I am someone who has done it by following her own instincts and now can marvel at the classroom I get to be a part of. The webinar was very short and we had a lot of questions, the biggest one being, “How do I get started?” So here are the first 5 steps I took to give my students more control:
- Search your heart. Before you let go of certain aspects of the classroom you have to figure out what you can live with. Can you live with more noise? More movement? More conversation? Someone asked me if it was a lot more work to teach in a student-centered classroom to which I answered no, it is the same amount of work as I put in before but now I do it in school rather than outside of it. If you cannot handle more noise you may want to dig a little deeper and try to figure out why, it may be that you fear students will goof off or get off task, which yes that still happens but much less frequently. If they are engaged they will work.
- Tell the kids why. Too often we make decisions and never tell students what led us to those decisions. Every year I start out with a discussion of why our classroom is the way it is and how I envision it to run. I set high expectations for my students who are always surprised at the environment and I let them ask questions. One thing that inevitably comes up is whether they can earn rewards (nope) so I politely discuss why they should not expect that from me. That also includes limited homework (if they work hard in school I don’t need to take up their time outside of school), no letter grades except for on report cards (we have conversations and feedback instead), and no punishment (no lost recesses here most of the time).
- Then let them talk. I tell the students this is our room and that they need to decide what type of learning environment they want to be a part of. This conversation is totally student-run, they brainstorm in small groups and then share their results. They do not post a list of rules or even vote. We discuss, decide and then move on to bigger things. Throughout the year we re-visit our expectations and tweak them if we have to. The level of responsibility and buy-in to the classroom immediately increases without me having to beg for it.
- I challenge them. Every year, I have some sort of team challenge right after they have set the rules to see whether they can figure out how to work together. This year it was the amazing Bloxes challenge that brought my students together and got them excited. Throughout the year we do mini-challenges to continue working on teamwork and expectations for the classroom. Different students step up as leaders, again without my direction, and they share the success of the challenge together. And challenges doesn’t have to be anything crazy, it can be to give them an extra science lesson to explore whatever they want. Teachers think there is no time for this sort of thing but there is, because our engagement level is higher we get through our curriculum quicker which gives us time to explore. The biggest time waster in a classroom is usually the teacher talking at the students – how much do you really need to talk?
- I ask the kids. No single thing is more important in our classroom than the voice of the students. How do they want to learn something, how can we improve, what are we missing? All of these questions pop up on a regular basis and they add so much to our curriculum. I know what the goals of learning need to be but the students can certainly work on how we will get there. Even at an elementary level these kids have incredible ideas and methods for covering curriculum thus getting natural buy-in (no carrot and stick needed) and increasing their enthusiasm for school.
This is how I get started in my classroom every year. I didn’t read a book that told me to do these things, instead I asked, “Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?” That answer is now a resounding yes! We do a lot of hands-on learning, student-led exploration, and try to keep school fun no matter what we are doing. I love coming to school, I love my students, and I am proud of what they accomplish every day.