Get Out of the Way

Get Out of the Way

Most teachers like to be in control. It’s part of the job. Imagine 30 middle school or high school students in a small space with a teacher who isn’t in control. That’s a very scary thought. Search “Letting go of control in the classroom” on the Internet, and you’ll find all sorts of advice. Most are class management type tips to deal with discipline. One of my favorites is the article arguing that a teacher has the right to “say no when students have to go [to the bathroom].”  I find this so funny for some reason. Maybe it’s the bathroom humor or because I’ve been teaching for so long.

But I believe we teachers should search for how to give our students more control. Control over their own learning. Even the much debated Common Core advocates that teachers relinquish control in the classroom and give it to students. This is nothing really new. Student-centered learning has been a buzz word for over a decade. But although as educators, we value independence, we still teach in ways that require dependence.

Yes, I know. What about the dreaded state standards and tests? What about that packaged curriculum our district spent thousands of dollars on? What about the assessment for all of these different products of learning? But how about telling our students what the expectations are and letting them arrive at how to get there?

So what does this look like? Well, I can tell you what it doesn’t look like by taking you back to my classroom five years ago. I clearly remember the day that I realized my classroom was all about me. That day I had assigned the third reading chunk of one of my favorite novels, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I was so excited to share my findings on how brilliant this novel. I had my worn copy of the book with all of my annotations. When the students showed up, I asked them about the homework reading section. Some of them told me about the plot. Some of them told me what SparkNotes had to say. And some of them told me that “the book sucks.” WHAT?!?! I started on my As I Lay Dying sell. “Don’t you see how Faulkner structured the book to show the position of the characters in the family?” and “Didn’t you notice the drawing of the coffin right in the middle of the text?” One brave student responded: “All I noticed was a family of dumb country folk trying to bury their mom.” Uh…

By the end of the day, I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I started to comfort myself by rationalizing my failure in the classroom. The kids were lazy. Kids these days don’t want to struggle in order to learn. And while some of this might have been true, I had to admit to myself (and later to my students) that this train wreck was all my fault. I realized that students weren’t really reading. Even if students hadn’t read the books, they could regurgitate what was said in class discussions or lectures and pass the tests. My carefully crafted bank of questions for each chapter wasn’t helping students understand or appreciate the book. Students were only learning what I thought was important about the books we read. I realized that I needed to teach them how to interpret a difficult text, not what to think about it. I realized that I was teaching novels, and not skills. I prided myself on asking tough questions that required students to use higher-order thinking skills, but I was the only one doing the thinking.

I then began to think about the writing in my class. And I realized that students didn’t think of themselves as writers because they were writing about what I thought was important. I was in charge of their writing just like I was in charge of everything they read.

I realized that I was the one making the meaning and learning in class. I realized if my students could achieve so much with fake reading and parroting what I thought was important in their essays and discussions, what could they do if I allowed them more choice? What would happen if I just got out of the way? Gave up some of the control to them?

Giving control to the students can be a scary thought. Traditional teaching is tidy. Packaged units over novels, everyone studies the same vocabulary words. Change is scary and uncomfortable. But I can tell you first-hand what is scarier: knowing that life-long learning only occurs if a person is a self-directed learner. What I was doing in my classroom for years did not promote that mindset.

I’ve moved to a workshop format in my classroom where students have choice in what they read and write. (In a later post, I’ll explain how this method works in my classroom) As a community of readers and writers, we do occasionally read the same novel or write in the same mode. But I don’t force my students to read As I Lay Dying anymore.

What have you done to put your students in charge of their own learning?