Part 2 of 5 in a series by CUE guest blog editor Doug Robertson
As teachers we often feel like our power is being usurped by forces outside of our classrooms, forces that seem to be constantly telling us what to teach, how to teach, when to teach, and how to best reach the students in front of us. When we feel our power being taken away our instinct is to find creative ways to take it back.
We know our students best. We know what they need and we know how best to help them get that. We are better teachers when the learning is under our own control and we feel safe and free to make choices that work for our students and ourselves. We are more inspired, more motivated, more innovative, and more creative when we are not simply following the directions that are handed down to us by others.
If this is what we want for ourselves, if we know that feeling empowered leads us to do our best, shouldn’t we want this for our students as well? Shouldn’t we want them to know that they have some say in what they are learning, how they are learning, and how they are demonstrating what they have learned? Shouldn’t we want them to feel safe and free to make choices that work for them and for their own learning needs? Shouldn’t we want them to be more inspired, more motivated, more innovative and more creative with their learning?
I have spent much of my energy this school year trying to focus on giving more power to my students and helping them to gain more control over their learning. What I have seen has made it impossible for me to ever dream of taking that away from them again.
In the past, I worked hard to show my students that I was willing to listen to their ideas. I listened really well. I looked them in the eye, heard what they had to say, nodded along with their enthusiasm, smiled at them, and told them what a great idea it was. Then I would turn around and move on to the next thing that I had planned. I never realized that when I did that the message that I was sending to them was, “That’s a nice idea, but not one that I deem worthy enough to do anything about.” And so, they stopped sharing their ideas with me.
Instead, I had a classroom full of kids who waited patiently while I told them what they should do, how they should learn, and how they could show me that they learned what I told them to learn. Often, my students even enjoyed the learning. They appreciated the experiences I brought to them. They worked hard to make me happy. They even thanked me for making learning enjoyable.
Then I realized something: They were completely passive participants in their own learning. They were not coming up with their own ideas, they were not following their own passions, they were not thinking of ways they could change this world for the better because they learned that their job was to sit and do as they were told.
This year I asked my students for their ideas within the first minutes of the first day of this school year. One of the first things we decided as a class was how we were going to know where to sit each day. They said they wanted to be able to pick their own spots in the room every day when they came in. We worked together to compose our very first Tweet from our class Twitter account. From the very first day of school, I wanted my students to know that they had the power to bring their own ideas for learning into our classroom.
Once they understood what kind of power they really had they were much more likely to come to me with their ideas.
The next step was harder. I had to do more than just listen.
I changed the way I responded when they came to me with an idea. I began to respond by saying, “That’s a great idea! How are you going to make that happen?” I invited them to dream up a plan of how they were going to carry through their idea. Often we would talk through their plans and I would support them in any way that I could.
Our classroom became filled with evidence of the creative and innovative ideas that my students were having. Their ideas didn’t simply disappear in the business of the school day. Their ideas came to life.
Because my students felt empowered this year they have accomplished incredible things. They organized a school-wide fundraiser to raise money to fully fund four Donor’s Choose projects for schools in the highest poverty areas of Chicago. They organized a full-day debate-a-thon to celebrate the end of our persuasive writing study. They put together a video that they shared with the world on Twitter as a part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. They wrote and edited a whole-school newspaper, and they submitted articles to our local paper and several of them were published.
These things only happened because my students had these ideas. They happened because I trusted that my students were capable of coming up with ideas for their own learning that were infinitely better than what I could have come up with on my own. They happened because when my students had an idea I reached out to others online and found the resources that I needed so that we could make them happen. They happened because I was willing to say to my students, “That’s a great idea! How are you going to make that happen?”
When we, as teachers, imagine an ideal school administrator, we often imagine a person who would be willing to listen to the ideas of the teachers in the school. We imagine a person who would hear those ideas and then respond by saying, “That’s a great idea! How are you going to make that happen?” We imagine a person who would be there to guide us through the work that would be needed to make that idea happen and then be there if and when there were bumps along the way. We imagine a person who would make us feel safe enough to try something new even if we weren’t certain of its potential success.
We may not have the power to put that person in the front office of every school in America, but we certainly all do have the power to be that very person for our students.
Jess Lifshitz teaches fifth grade literacy in a suburb of Chicago. She works hard to help students to use their individual strengths to do important work inside and outside of the classroom. Her greatest joy in teaching is seeing her students find their voices and use those voices to start to change the world.