When I was a first-year teacher, I thought my job was simply to present content to my students and help them learn it. This is what I learned in college, after all. If you were to ask my students what my classroom was like that year, you would most likely receive responses with the word “lecture” in them. They did SO much listening, and when I think back, I think my passion for my content got in the way. If you were to ask me how much they learned, I honestly couldn’t tell you. All that talking left me little time for formative assessment, reflection, feedback, reading, and writing. Now, as I am about to start my 15th year of teaching, I know that my job contains so much more.
Today, talking is still visible in my classroom, but I am not usually the one doing it. I’m more often than not, the listener. My students share ideas and what they notice in a book. They share their thoughts with their peers around them. When I do talk, I notice that I am usually asking questions to further their thinking. At the very beginning of a school year, I often find myself participating in small talk to get to know my students. As they share their likes and dislikes, I do as well. Those short conversations create a sense of comfort and trust, and make the class easier to manage.
Once that trust in me is created, I begin trying to help my students trust themselves. This is one of the most difficult tasks I have with my 9th graders. Every year, I hear the same phrases: “What do I do now?” or “Can you tell me how to get started?” They have this learned behavior that the teacher will do the work for them. I’m sure somewhere along the line this happened, but not this year. They want me to tell them what to do, or even give them the answer, and when I don’t it frustrates them. Instead I teach them strategies to figure it out on their own. For starters, reading the directions always helps, but what about when they aren’t given? For something requiring a bit more creativity, student choice is involved. Some students view choice as a gift, but many struggle with it at first, for it means that there is not one right answer. This is where modeling comes in. When students don’t know how to share their own thinking about a chapter in a novel, I model what I would do as I read aloud. When they feel they can’t write a proper hook if it isn’t in the form of a question, I show them samples from other students, and then model how to get started. I tell them what I’m thinking as I go, even when I’m struggling with what to write. I ask for their suggestions, and sometimes even get a few. I try to modify those learned behaviors to create more independent new ones.
By the end of the school year, I hope my students are more confident in their abilities as thinkers, readers, and writers. My time with them is done, and I can only hope their next teacher stresses that same independence. If not, they will go backward. We cannot let our students take the ease way out. Instead of those specific study guide questions, or the one essay question, or even the one novel, we need to do more. Yes it’s more work on our parts, but by encouraging that independence, we are doing what’s in the best interest of our students.
The images above show students’ reflections on their year with me in an end-of-the-year survey.
NOTE: This post was inspired by the recent Kelly Gallagher workshop I went to. Gallagher encourages that same independence, and the strategies he uses can be found in his books.