being a teacher, Critical thinking, get out of the way, student driven, Student-centered

Some Thoughts on Collaboration and Student Choice

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherImage via Wikipedia

I started out on this student-centered journey knowing  that I had to offer my students more time for true collaboration, not just teacher-chosen ones, as well as give them control in the classroom.  I started out dreaming not quite sure what it would look like, what the products would be and whether the  learning would even be enhanced or would suffer.

Now 19 months into the journey, I have made some humbling realizations:

  • Not all units lend themselves well to choice but it is doable.  It can be a challenge to cover the material you feel you need to cover in a textbook for example, but you can.  I have spent many nights thinking up how I could possibly engage my students in this without just lecturing and it takes time.  That time is well spent though when you see the students light up at what they will be doing.
  • It also gets easier.  After a while your brain switches from “How will I present this” to “How will the students work with this?”  It is a subtle difference and you create a toolbox of ways.  Also, if you include students in the planning process you have many more ideas, so that’s leads me to:
  • Include the students!  When I have been stumped over how to make a unit more engaging I have brought it to those it will effect the most; the kids.  It does not have to be a long conversation but just a brainstorm.  It is amazing to see what they come up with.
  • Trust the students.  There have been combinations of students that I have shuddered at inwardly and in the end they created beautiful projects.  There have also been combinations where we needed to have some serious reflection on whether or not it worked.  The big thing is including the students that it involves, don’t just make the decision that a partnership doesn’t work.  We are too quick to decide what collaboration looks like, let the students in.
  • Be honest with the students.  I have very high expectations for projects and I have called students out on poor work quality.  There is a way to do this though without creating a “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” scenario.  Ask them to evaluate their own work, it doesn’t even have to be done, and have them take time to reflect.  Point out what you see as a possibly gap and help them out.  Not all students can just create at the drop of a hat.
  • Scaffolding at various levels.  Some students just need an idea and they fly, others need hand holding and even a cheer or two before they get off the ground, and some are just too boxed in to even know where to start.  Get to know your students and their work style, scaffolding at its best simply.  Invest the time in relationship building and you will see direct results in their output.  
  • It will not always work.  I have had some epic ideas that turned out absolutely ludicrous.  Or ideas that got to be so complicated that the students lost interest.  There have been times where it hasn’t been a fun , engaging work environment or where a project has taken too long and the interest level is near zero. That happens.  And yet I don’t give up, I keep going because I see how invested the students are.  I see how excited they get to use their hands and their minds, to explore on their own with guidance from me, to learn from each other.  

So to choose and to have a voice are the dreams I have for my students.  I see how invested they get in their own education, and that is something lecturing can never do for them in my room.  Education no longer is something done to them, it is something they take a part in, they own and manipulate.  We always talk about how we are shaping the future but the future doesn’t just include absorbing information froma main source, it means taking that information and using it to bridge new things.  To manipulate learning, to shape and form new ideas.  And that is what student-centered learning does for me.

    aha moment, being a teacher, believe, classroom expectations, communication, get out of the way, honesty, hopes, inhibitions, inspiration, kids, learning

    When Learning Fails – We Blame the Students

    Being a 3rd year teacher in my district means writing a PDP or Professional Development Plan, in which we are to continually reflect upon our learning and our focus for our professional development.  I am therefore constantly reflecting with other students both face to face and through the internet on that most important question of all; why did I become a teacher? Well, I became a teacher because I believe in children and in their potential.

     Over the summer, I went through one of the most transformative periods of my life, developing a PLN and going through my chosen curriculum asking myself, “Why, why, why?” Why do I choose to teach the things I teach, besides the obvious state and district standards? Why is it that I force students to do book reports when I find them boring and unproductive? Why do I do packet work when it does not ensure learning? Why do I talk all the time, is it for control, for learning or because I am that in love with myself? Why do I fail 4th grade students? Why do I assign at least 40 minutes a homework a night? All of these were massive questions that were daunting and breathtakingly hard to be honest about, but I did it, I survived and for that I am a better teacher.

    I realized over the summer that when teachers stop to question themselves is when the curriculum becomes stagnant. I know that we all get in our comfort zones and we feel that something works, so it becomes hard to give it up. But how many times have we stood in a situation where a particular cherished lesson or approach did not work and we end up blaming the students, rather than the teaching method? I had to realize that if something was not a success than I was to blame, not the make up of the students, or the particular day of the week, just me and my delivery. I therefore also knew that if I was going to rethink my teaching process than I had to fully believe and be passionate about what I teach. So this year my classroom is all about the students, or as I like to call it; it is the student-centered room. You will still find me teaching the students some of the time, but you are also more than likely going to find me walking around or sitting down and discussing curriculum. The students are learning to take control of the classroom, however, they are frightened at times, not quite sure what they are doing and yet I urge them to speak, to think, and to listen to one another. This system is not perfect, it is work in progress, but as my students grow, so do I.

    So as I continue my conversations with fellow teachers, and we constantly re-evaluate ourselves, often being our own harshest critics, I am honored when others feel secure enough to tell me of the overwhelmedness or exhaustion.  I know that I have been in that same place but that this year I won’t be. Sure there may be things that do not work out, and learning that does not quite happen as well as I would like it. However, when I glance around my room and see the confidence level of my students and also the excitement that is building in regard to our learning, I know that I am to something. I am back and I am staying.

    acheivement, alfie kohn, assumptions, being a teacher, believe, change, choices, communication, difference, elementary, get out of the way, grades, homework, learning, parents, promise, trust

    How Homework Destroys

    It finally happened; a parent decided to disagree with my new take on homework. They do not feel that I am providing enough and thus am doing a disservice to the students by lulling them into a fake sense of security in their skills. My response at first was indignation; how dare so and so question my fantastic educational shift in philosophy. Why are they not enlightened or believers as well? And then it dawned on me; I have not shown them the way.

    I spend a lot of time speaking to students about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the goal is for their learning but not enough explaining that to the parents. And while I hope that parents have faith in me, I cannot take it for granted. I am, after all, messing with a system that has been set in place for many years and that these same parents are products of. So, of course, my system may come as a shock at first, and without the proper explanation it will continue to be so. After all, parents have been trained to think that for every grade level you figure out homework load by multiplying the grade level with 10 minutes. So by 4th grade, students should at the very least be doing 40 minutes of homework a night. And yet, my students don’t. They do most of their work in class, even staying in for recess so that I may help them, and I never willingly send home a piece of homework that I know they will struggle for hours with.

    Homework should be practice, a showing of skills. It should not be a two hour time consumer where both mom, dad and the encyclopedia gets involved. I explain this to my students and the sense of relief is visible in them. They know that I will challenge them in class but at home they may pursue life instead. So if you work hard at school then the reward is rest, family time, and a pursuit of happiness. And it works. My students are still learning everything they should for the year, albeit in a more hands-on manner. I am shying away from worksheets and instead having conversations about learning. Our favorite tool is our dry-eraseboards that allows me a quick check in for understanding. And the students are noticing the difference. No longer dreading the afternoon because I will continue to haunt their day. No longer dreading school because it means so many extra hours of works. No longer dreading learning because they are realizing that learning is something you do at school and that it doesn’t come form worksheets.

    When I recently welcomed 9 new students into my room, one “old” student told me that she was looking forward to seeing how the newbies would react since I “teach a little crazy.” And perhaps that is true. I am loud, obnoxiously so at times, and I have high standards. I push kids to learn, I push kids to understand, and then I back off. I let them think about it, let the learning resonate within them, and then I challenge them to dredge it out again the following day.

    By no means, am I the perfect teacher. I have many years of learning to come, but I do know that I am on to something here and I stand at a fork in the road signaling a massive shift in my whole educational philosophy. I believe these students are learning, I believe I am preparing them as well as any other teacher, and most importantly I believe I am letting them be kids at the same time. My students know that if something is homework it is for the benefit of their learning and is important to do, not just another piece of paper that their teacher didn’t get to in class. They know that I only assign it if it is truly valuable, and not just something for me to use for grades. They know that we will meet and discuss their learning, always knowing what is missing, what is accomplished, what the direction should be. They know that if I assign something to them it is because they have the skills needed to do it. Do yours?