Learning more, ‘teaching’ less.

Oooof.

The end of the school year is never easy, for me, for the students, for the parents, for anyone. And this one has been particularly tough. I have had some things happen this semester which have been really challenging (as I revise this we have been cleared from half the building due to a bomb threat outside the building- addendum: no bomb, just some kid’s electromagnetism project left lying around). The sort of things that make working with adolescents emotionally draining.

In the midst of that, I noticed something really interesting.  With workshop format classes, and portfolio grading, I was ‘teaching’ very little. I put directions on the board. My students were working on several pieces of writing at once, and assembling their portfolios, so they had plenty to do. For one of their final written assessments they had to choose between three papers they had already written and develop one further as a final written assessment.

I spent most of class over the past two weeks conferencing with individual students: helping them choose which paper to work on, answering questions about particular parts of the writing they were doing, giving them a sounding board for ideas. i also wrote a final personal essay along with my students, which I hadn’t done yet this year (I try to do this at least once a year- I probably should do it more. I write with my students often, but I don’t always take a piece of writing all the way through with them. Now that I am reading Kelly Gallagher‘s book Write Like This, I see that I need to do more). the few times I was ‘teaching,’ we looked at my drafts as a class to model revision and how to talk about writing an essay of this type (we were responding to the new Common Application essay prompts).

Here is my observation. The less I did, the more they did. The less I told them what to do, the more they did interesting things. The more I got out of the way, the more they engaged their own work, their own process, their own struggles. The more they talked about their own writing with energy and passion (even the literary essays).

Was it perfect- heck no. Some kids goofed off. My problem children still had problems. But all of them were doing better. Some of them were doing a lot better. One student in particular seemed to be digging into his writing in a whole new way- he is in many ways a typical teenaged boy- but he came to me several times with clear and meaningful questions about his writing, and a willingness to really revise that I hadn’t seen from him yet. As I circulated among the groups (I had them arranged in small groups of 3-4 in the room) I overheard some of the most intelligent, thoughtfully critical conversations about writing I have heard all year.

Once again, I am reminded that the ‘sage on the stage’ model really isn’t that great. The core of my job is to set up conditions under which the students can safely engage in intellectual risk taking and experimentation. But once I have done that, I need to let them take the risks. Hopefully I taught them some vocabulary for analyzing their own work, some tools for self correction, and gave them a safe place to practice. Yes, I am the expert in the room. But the main value of that is not to ‘tell’ them anything, but rather to show them that this is hard work, no matter how ‘expert’ you are. To make clear the process by which we do whatever task we are engaged in- literary analysis, formal academic writing, other modes of writing, public speaking. And to be the coach and cheerleader on the sidelines while they do it.

I’ll have to do some analysis after the dust settles, about which I’ll post more when I have time, but my sense is that in some ways the things I have tried have been very successful. I am, of course, struggling with the distance between what we (‘we’ being myself, my colleagues, my students, and my community) think teaching and learning is supposed to look like and what actually works. But I am getting more comfortable with that disparity, and we seem to have built a professional community here that embraces and supports the same sense of risk taking and exploration for ourselves as we strive to create for our community.

So while I am exhausted, frazzled and emotionally depleted right now, I also feel like I am ending the year on a very positive note. So I got that going for me. Which, as Bill Murray said, is nice.

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