I Can Feel the Power Shifting

There is a lot I am uncertain of this year. As I attempt to hand more power over to my students, I am uncertain that I am still teaching them all that I want to be teaching them.  As I attempt to let my students take the lead in the classroom more often, I am uncertain that I am still able to teach them the specific reading and writing skills that I believe will make them more successful in this world. As I attempt to help break my students’ dependence on me, I am uncertain that I know them as readers and writers as well as I did when I asked them to check in with me more often and gain my approval on each step of the process they were moving through.  That is a lot to be uncertain about and I want to be honest about all of those things so that no one starts to think that trying to shift power to the students is has been some easy thing for me that feels right all the time.

So now that I have been honest about what I am UNCERTAIN about, let me also be honest about what I am CERTAIN about.

I can feel the power shifting in my classroom. I can see it. I know it is there. And it is. so. exciting.

It is amazing to me that as I have worked to move out of the way a little bit, the students have been eager to step up and fill in that space. As I think back on the changes that I have made so far in my classroom, nothing seems too earth shattering. I know that I have a long way to go in making my classroom a place where the students feel truly empowered, but here are some of the small things I have changed to try and start shifting the power balance in my classroom:

1) I let the students lead discussions. As we debrief activities, as we share our thinking about a text, as we talk about our plans for writing, I have been letting the kids take over these discussions. Often that just means having one student sit in the rocking chair instead of me or letting the students do the writing on the chart paper to create our anchor chart instead of me or letting the students call on other students to share their thinking instead of me.

2) I let the students find ways to use their reading journals that makes sense to them. I do not ask that every child write in one certain way about their thinking. I ask that every child think about what they read. I ask that every child keep track of their thinking so that they can share it with others. But I no longer demand that we all do that in one way. Some children find charts more helpful, some children find it more helpful to track their thinking on GoogleDocs instead of in their notebooks, some children use pictures to track their thinking. As long as students can show me how they are keeping track of their thinking, I am okay with it. It has to work for them.

3) I let the kids choose where they sit. It seems so simple, but having the power to walk into the classroom each day and make a decision about where they are going to sit, makes a real difference to the kids.

4) I listen to their ideas. When a student comes up to me with an idea, I listen. I really listen. I don’t listen just to humor them and then tell them that I will think about it and then just really walk away and forget what they just told me.  I listen to their idea and then I ask them, “Well, how are you going to do that?” And then they do it.

5) Our sharing time has become a time for the students to teach each other. I am not the only one doing the teaching this year. At the end of reading and writing workshop, I ask the students to share what they have done that day that has worked for them as a reader or a writer. Sometimes that means kids are sharing how they have used their reading journals meaningfully, other times that means that kids are sharing a writing strategy that they used and how it worked for them, and other times that means that kids are sharing a struggle that they had and how they worked through that struggle.

6) I am asking them more often what works for them and what doesn’t. Before making instructional decisions, I have started asking my students what is working for them and what isn’t. And then, I actually listen to what they are saying and I change my plans accordingly.

7) I have started to name strategies after the kids who come up with them. In writing, if a student I am conferring with has done something brilliant with his or her writing, I stop the whole class, share the strategy and then ask the other kids to see if they can find a place to try “The Sarah” or whatever name matches the brilliant child who came up with the idea.

So those are some of the ways that I am trying to give more power over to my students. And how do I know that it is working? Here’s how:

My kids have started to actually have more ideas of their own. And they are believing in their own ideas.

My kids have started to create things to share with the class. Sometimes they are giving up recess or their time at home to do this.

I had one student who created a slogan about the importance of editing a Tweet before sending it out and then she stayed in for three days during recess to turn her sign into a poster that we have now hung up in the classroom.  The entire class will now be reminded to, “Reread it before you Tweet it.”

I also had a student who thought of a solution to the problem of too many kids needing me to recommend books to them at the same time or needing me to recommend books to them when I had to do a reading assessment or conference or guided reading group instead. So, she went home and created a Google Form to share with the entire class so that kids could share their own book recommendations and everyone would have access to a list of peer-recommended books and descriptions of those books. She then taught the rest of the class how to access the form, how to fill it out and how to find the results of the form.  By the end of reading that day, 11 students had already added book recommendations to the list.

My kids have started to make more decisions for themselves. They are more willing to try things on their own before they ask for help. They are more willing to believe that they are capable of doing something without me holding their hand through it.

My kids are not afraid to make suggestions.  I think that in the past, I unwillingly sent the message that I was in charge and I did not welcome their ideas. As I have worked to change that, I notice that they are more willing to share their voices and ideas with me because they believe that I am actually going to listen to them.

So I know things are working.  Yes, there are things I still need to figure out, lots of them, but it is so exciting to see these kids starting to feel the ownership that I was so desperate to help them discover. These kids are showing me that if I give them more power, they are not going to abuse it. Instead they are going to take that power and create incredible things with it.  And that makes all of the uncertainty completely worthwhile.

Breaking Their Dependence on Us

One of the things that I have worked hard to do this school year is to give more power and control to the students in my classroom.  One of the things that has surprised me the most is how much my students have struggled with this.  I did not anticipate that my students would push back on being given more control, more responsibility for their own learning, and more power over what they learn and how they learn it.  But, like so often happens, my students showed me that there were things that I just didn’t understand.

In the past, I have had students turn in a draft of their writing after they had done a round of revisions on their own. We have used a revision checklist in the past that lists all of the strategies that we have learned through our mini-lessons and they were responsible for choosing the strategies that they thought could help them the most to make their writing better. They made these changes to their writing and then turned in their work.  Then, I would sit with each of them and have a revision conference. I would look at the changes that they made, notice the work that I had seen them do and then suggest additional changes that might make their writing even better.  Then they would make one more round of revisions and call their writing finished.

It worked well. The revision checklist gave them concrete ways to make their writing better and our time spent conferring was a wonderful opportunity for me to notice what they were doing and push them even further.

But this year, as I started to allow my students to lead more often, the system that I had put into place in the past just didn’t quite feel right.  At first, I wasn’t sure what it was about the system that wasn’t working for me, but as I thought more about it I realized how much power that gave to me in deciding when a piece of writing was finished and when a child was ready to move on to another piece of writing. It gave the students very little control over these decisions.

So I made a change.

This year, my students are still encouraged to use the revision checklist. I think it helps them, in a very concrete way, to know how to make their writing better. I think that we often tell them to revise, to look for ways to make their writing better, but we don’t often tell them how they might do that. So, for us, the checklist helps. So we will continue to use it. But, what will be different is that after making revisions, the students themselves will decide when their writing is finished. And because their writing has more purpose this year, they will decide when they are ready to move ahead with the purpose of their writing. So for this unit, they will decide when they are ready to print off their stories to give to the people in their lives who they are writing them for.  And when they are ready, they will move on to their next piece of writing.  And if they are working on a story and they feel like they need a break from it, they will leave it and go work on a new story. Or, if they are stuck on a story, they will stop working on it and start another one, knowing that they can always come back to their story when they are ready.

At first this new plan made me feel like I would not be able to get to the students in time to help them. However, when I just jumped in and tried this new system, I realized that it was the exact opposite.  I am now able to confer with students when they need me most, while they are drafting their stories or while they are working on their revisions.  In the past, I mostly met with students after they had already decided that they were done with their writing. Therefore, it often made it meaningless to discuss their writing and potential changes. They made the changes I suggested simply because they felt it was what I wanted.  In their minds, they were already finished. This year, I am meeting with the students at a variety of points throughout the writing process and I am able to better help them with the writing while they are in the thick of it.

It’s been wonderful.

Except when it hasn’t worked.  And here is the biggest thing that has stood in my way: the kids.  I know that sounds harsh, but it is true and it is not their fault. At all.  We did this to them.  Our students have been trained to believe that a piece of writing can’t be finished until a teacher has given his or her stamp of approval. They believe that a piece of writing doesn’t have much worth in this world until a teacher tells them that it is good enough.  We have created these beings who are so dependent on us and then we lament the fact that kids often don’t work to solve their own problems without us.  We made them this way.

Every time I told a child that he needed to turn in a piece of writing and meet with me about it before it could really be done, I was telling that child that I did not trust him to know when a piece of his own writing was finished. Every time I insisted on offering one final suggestion, I was telling that child that I didn’t believe her writing should go out into the world until I helped her to make it just a little bit better.  I created children who believed that they needed their teacher to check their writing because they could not be trusted on their own.

So I should not have been surprised when my students this year struggled with what I was asking them to do. When they told me they were finished and I told them to start their next piece, they were confused why I wasn’t going to check their work. They were confused how they were supposed to know if they were really done. They were confused with how to move on without the approval of their teacher.

And I had to remind them that I am indeed here to check their work. I notice their successes and I help them find strategies to deal with their challenges. But now, I can do that throughout the writing process and I can put more of the power into their hands to know when they have done all they can do at that moment with a piece of writing.

As I learn how to better give power to my students, they are learning how to take that power and to be okay with it. As I learn to trust them with more, they are learning to trust themselves. These lessons that we are all learning, they are important and they matter. They might not be the lessons that I thought I would be teaching in writing workshop, but sometimes those are the ones that turn out to be the most life changing for all of us.

I Want to Be the Teacher That They Want Me to Be

This first three days of school are in the books. And. They. Were. Awesome.

I have two amazing groups of kids this year. They are eager and kind and appreciative and funny and quirky and all the things that I would want for them to be. It makes me feel like I should be working even harder because these kids (all kids, really) deserve so much from our year together.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the plans that I had for these first few days were quite different than the plans I had in years past. One of the most powerful uses of our time together in the first few days came from their answers to the question, “What kind of classroom do I want to live, learn and grow in this year?” I asked the kids to think about what they hoped that the other students in the classroom would do and I asked them to think about what they hoped that I, as their teacher, would do in order to help them to become the best learners and the best people they could be. The answers the kids gave made me wish that I had started asking this question years ago!

And as kids got together to share their thoughts and as groups began to formulate visions for our classroom that they presented to the class, I found myself wishing and hoping and promising that I will do everything that I can this year to try to be the teacher that they want me to be.

And you know what amazed me the most? What they want is fairly simple. And still, I was left thinking about how easy it is for us, as teachers, to let them down.

So, from the mouths and minds of my students, here is what they want from me as their teacher:

*They want a teacher who listens to them.

*They want a teacher who asks them what they think about things before making decisions for the classroom.

*They want a teacher who makes them think.

*They want a teacher who helps them to find great books.

*They want a teacher who smiles a lot and laughs a lot.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t give lots of meaningless homework.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t make them sit in one spot for a really long time.

*They want a teacher who lets them take breaks when they need them.

*They want a teacher who introduces them to new things.

*They want a teacher who will encourage them to do things that they aren’t sure they can do.

*They want a teacher who is kind.

*They want a teacher who is patient.

*They want a teacher who teaches them at their own pace.

*They want a teacher who will help them when they are struggling instead of getting frustrated with them.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t embarrass them in front of the class when they do something wrong.

*They want a teacher who helps them to do their best.

That’s it. They didn’t ask for much. They didn’t ask for me to give them parties all the time. They didn’t ask for me to let them play games all day. They didn’t ask for me to never make them do any work. They knew that those things wouldn’t help them to become better learners and better people. They didn’t ask for anything that isn’t exactly what our students should receive from their teachers.

And so, I will keep these words close to my heart this year. I will also keep these words clearly posted on our walls, so that I will see them often and remember what these precious kids want from me. And I know there will be days when I will not be all of these things for them. On those days, I will apologize and ask them to give me another chance. On those days, I will take a step back and read this list and remember how simple these requests really are. On those days, I will promise them and promise myself that I will do better tomorrow. Because that is what they deserve.