True Confessions: I’m a bit of a control freak. Aren’t most teachers? Traditionally we have our classroom, our schedule, our curriculum, our students to organize and plan for, as well as the responsibility to successfully execute those plans. So my trepidation about turning over aspects of that control to students was no surprise. Don’t I know what they need? Aren’t I supposed to give them my knowledge? Will they accept correction from each other? Won’t my room devolve into chaos if they are in charge?
These concerns have become a realization of many as we move into the new evaluation system which emphasizes student-centered classrooms and the difference between achieving ‘effective’ and ‘highly effective’ scores a a professional (and ultimately higher student achievement) is the amount of student engagement, ownership, and leadership. As you can imagine, this shift has resulted in a much higher level of anxiety in teachers. So how do we address that apprehension and move beyond it? By stepping off the ledge. By having faith in your students and making the leap. Although it may be easier ‘said than done’ as I am sure many skeptics are thinking….trust me, I jumped.
Two years ago I decided to introduce a new way (to me)of reading and discussing literature with my students. Using a Socratic Seminar approach I wanted students to study, discuss, and analyze the works we were reading. So the summer before the school year, as any teacher does, I prepared. I read materials and ‘how to’ from those who have successfully implemented the practice. I talked with colleagues and read their recommendations. It sounded great in theory and other people’s practice, and now the time had come to see how it would play out in my classroom, with my students. I was prepared but that did little to alleviate my anxiety. How would they react? Did I offer good questions? Would they be able to discuss them? Would their efforts really explore the depth of the text?
Yes, yes, and yes! They loved it! They thrived. They became more than readers, as now they had to discuss their points using support from the text. They had to look to themselves and each other for answers. They explored ideas together-supporting, building, challenging, and provoking more thought. It was exiting. Rewarding. Goose-bump producing! Through the process I had to learn my role as facilitator. I would not bail them out when conversation stalled or jump in with ‘answers’ to their questions (a very difficult task for me). How did they react? They weathered the awkward moments developing a sense of perseverance and review that is often missing in our instant informational society. They learned not to apologize for their opinions, but to support them. They learned to listen, really listen to details, and disagree respectfully. They learned to rely on each other and themselves. Over the course of the first year we added, at student suggestion, an ‘empty chair’ so that those on the outside could participate in the discussion (offering an insight, asking a question) once all members of the ‘inside’ group recognized them and then they would leave the ‘empty chair’ for another visitor. This strategy worked well and offered me a way to probe or question further during the activity. I always followed the rules of the ‘empty chair’, never speaking from my ‘teacher chair’ and I used it sparingly. When I joined them in the group I was just one more contributor to the discussion. For some students they found it difficult to not look at me when they discussed. They wanted assurance, they wanted affirmation that they are on the ‘right track’ or had the ‘right’ answer. They struggled but learned to find it in their own reading and in each other. Their collateral learning was also essential. Through this style of communication, they learned active listening skills, speaking skills, close reading skills, providing constructive feedback and respect for differing opinions. It was amazing! And their feedback told me how they saw themselves now, in control of their learning, their opinions, and their success.
Two years later with dozens of seminars under my belt, I won’t lie, I still feel those twinges of anxiety the morning of the next discussion. I still wonder how it will go, and if they can pull it off. But at the end of the day, they remain constant, with different groups of students-they rise to the occasion, they take the lead, they own their learning. Isn’t that what it’s all about? When we aren’t there they need to want it, own it, and figure it out….whatever that elusive ‘it’ of learning is. So trust me, it works. But more importantly, trust them and step off that ledge, letting go of some aspects of control and empowering them to take them over.
It’s a leap of faith, but don’t worry, they’ll catch you.