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.


penny said...

I more I read your tweets, the more I find you a kindred spirit. After a good lunch convo yesterday with some fellow teachers I am more convinced than ever that the first, most important step is RESPECT.
I am certain that all teachers have unintentional ways of disrespecting students they are not aware of; I propose that peers visiting each others classes during instruction, small group, one on one would be able to be trusted, critical friends to help highlight where we can improve in respecting our students so that students may respect us.

Lisa Cooley said...

I have been thinking and talking about the issue of respect for awhile now among my colleagues here -- school board members and education activists. I've also been commenting on blogs that discuss respect. I've found in many cases that people misunderstand the relationship of respect and of trust. There is almost an idea that kids are too immature to respect. What they want most to learn is referred to as "whims," as opposed to the big important things we want them to learn.

But it's a hard nut because most traditional schools are based on lack of respect for children from beginning to end -- the bell schedules, the homework, the subject matter, the demands of the classroom. So when you ask teachers to respect kids, you are applying a veneer on top of a system based on the opposite.

Which leads me to look at the disrespect for kids underlying our whole society!

Sometimes I think those of us pursuing the dream of relationships in school based on respect and trust are grasping a chimera.

Lisa Cooley

Nate M said...

Hi Josh,

I'd like to challenge you on one thing (albeit a major thing).

Under "Respect" you write "the freedom you have given them." These two statements seem highly contradictory and I think they say a lot about your underlying assumptions about students.

Respect is born out of a mutual trust and understanding. If you're the automatic authority giving them their freedom, then there can be no respect. If they have to "respect" you and not "slip into sheer pandemonium" when you "give them freedom," they're not respecting you, but obeying you. Who wouldn't obey if it was the difference between some choice and none?

True freedom would be the allowance of students to cause pandemonium without your restriction of their choice. Only when that occurs, if they then decide without coercion (very difficult if not impossible to do in a school) to listen to you, you know they truly have respect for you.

But, if you don't believe they deserve their "freedom" unless they can be "civil," the mutual respect you talk about has already been broken from your end and won't be returned by the students.

I enjoy your blog and love the sincerity which you pursue teaching with.

Josh said...

Thank you for the comments as they are always appreciated. I knew respect was going to be the one area that folks commented on as it is often undervalued and misunderstood. I am thinking it might be worthy of a whole post on its own.
To address Nate’s comments, I can see what you are saying. Yes, as the teacher I am the authority within the room. This may seem contradictory, but that is the reality within the classroom. For me, it is how you use that perceived authority in a respectful and positive manner. What I was more getting at was that when you have a culture of respect in the classroom, students will respond quicker and more appropriately. If the classroom is slipping into pandemonium, it is easier for the teacher to bring the students back on track if there is respect there. I have seen teachers try to “reign” in a class with little or no success. Often it is because students have little or no respect for that teacher. This is not something that can happen overnight and takes a while to build and in turn can be lost very easily.

Lisa Cooley said...

You can look at it as the difference between authority--which we naturally have as older people, people with more experience, the people who provide the food and the shelter and keep children safe--and authoritarianism. The latter doesn't trust that the former will ever be enough--a dictator assumes the peasants are about to revolt.

We have the authority, yes, but we also must have respect for the young, both in the Zen sense that kids are haven't lost the innate wisdom that comes from being a kid, and in the sense of children being people who have rights, but because they have no power they are often stepped on by those who do.

To wield and authoritarian baseball bat in the context of a system that is supposed to serve their needs, introducing them to the world and how to explore and experience it, is not a good mix.

In fact, it grows another generation of people who say, "Hey, I didn't get any respect when I was a kid, and look how good I turned out!"

I grapple with this stuff in the top few posts on my blog, please check it out!


Justin Stortz said...

I particularly like your thoughts on flexibility. You sound like me.

In order for the students to drive more of the learning, there is simply no way that teachers can have the fine granular control over lessons they may have in the past.

Thanks for sharing.

- @newfirewithin

elysabeth said...

Awesome advice for teachers. I shared this with a friend who teaches 6th grade and is kind of questioning himself and his abilities. - I'll sign up for your blog postings if you put an email subscriber up (I don't do RSS feeds because it means I have to open my blogger dashboard every day and I just don't have time for that). E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of the Junior Geography Detective Squad, 50-state, mystery, trivia series

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