Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Handing the inmates the keys

I learned three things today. But first a little context about how I got there.

There are occasions when they drive me nuts. It isn't the lack of progress because I am patient. It isn't their idiosyncrasies because I am amazingly tolerant (though this isn't always apparent). It is the whinging. The whining. Some are vocal about this and that I can handle. When they harp on about being boring I know they are giving me feedback. But that feedback can be interpreted in a number of ways. Yes, sometimes the structure is repetitive. Sometimes the content is uninteresting. What the young, unengaged mind fails to appreciate is that sometimes repetition is necessary.

My class uses an objective goal sheet. I put the goal on the board, they write it down and score themselves at the beginning of the lesson. This efficiently tells me how much they think they already know. At the end of the lesson they score themselves again and hopefully realized they have learned something. They score their effort too. Most kids understand what to do and do it well. Sometimes they fill it in with the purpose of helping me achieve MY goal (which is to see a progression in their learning). Interestingly most tend to be pretty honest with their effort score. They know when they've tried and when they haven't been "feeling it."

Something happened yesterday that changed this pattern.

Five students gave themselves the maximum score of four at the start and end of the lesson. They were telling me they knew it before I taught it, and still knew at the end. My first reaction was immediate offense - how can they be so arrogant? How can they know something before I taught it? Why are they such smart alecs?

Then I thought - what if they are right?

I decided to test this group of students. In homeroom I announced they would be teaching the afternoon class. I literally handed them the keys and said you need to continue our learning as a class. Set the goal, deliver the lesson. There wasn't a randomness to this challenge since we are working our way through a novel. I'll admit I was petrified. What if the boss wanders by and sees the anarchy? What if they completely stuff this up and I've got to reteach the whole lesson tomorrow?

I decided to throw caution into the wind. I sat myself in a student's chair at the back of the room. And I learned.

Firstly, the students did not understand the implications of a learning goal. The goal they set was narrow. "React to Old Bill." Actually that was the second goal. The first goal was "do the same as yesterday." (It should be noted that Old Bill doesn't even appear until well into the section we are reading. For the most part, we weren't going to be reading anything to do with our learning goal.)

The negativity (and I'll admit it, glee) I felt towards this apparent failure was soon replaced by something grander. As I watched them and completed the lesson to their instructions I saw them copy my lesson format. Without notes. Without planning or discussing it at lunch (refer to that goal - they clearly weren't prepared.) They managed to organise people to read and set out a note-taking form for quotes and reflections. And the students followed them. Herein lied my second lesson - the students had reached a point of aromaticity in the learning process. For all intents and purposes the boring repetition has served its function. Their notebooks are full of good quotes and thoughtful insights into them. And now they could do it with minimal instruction. I had in front of me, a group of students who had been influenced by my teaching and could independently put it into practice. It was a joy to watch and complete the questions the students set alongside them. I offered my own responses at appropriate times and pointed out some interesting insights. I paired and shared with my table group. It was an opportunity to model from the back of the room. (What a great idea! How had I not done this before?) And I loved it.

They liked it to. Not the authority (for ultimately they had none). But they learned. There was five of them who had to be active and checking student responses and making sure the class stayed on track. They realised it was harder than it looked.

The third lesson was more of a confirmation than a new idea. Risk taking can work. Every once and awhile I need to throw away the lesson plan and rely on my instinct. These kids gave me some feedback so I gave them a challenge. And they responded. Not perfectly mind you, they need a hand with the learning goal and making sure the lesson stays relevant throughout. But so do lots of qualified teachers. It is a lesson we can learn together. They had picked up on the key aspects of my modelling though had not been able to apply them perfectly. There is time for mastery. Hell, Bob Marzano says it takes a reflective, expert teacher ten years to reach mastery. I can't expect these kids to get it in 45 minutes.

When I got home I continued reading Roland Barth's 'Learning By Heart' for my Masters. In a chapter on the need for teachers to be active learners and researchers Barth summed it up perfectly - "[schools] can become cultures where youngsters are discovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning and where adults are continually rediscovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning." The message my students had been sending me was clear. The message I replied with broke some new ground for them and helped them develop a new appreciation for what we do. And I learned more about my class by not being the teacher and perhaps taught more by being a fellow student.

So how do I top that tomorrow? I probably can't. But I'm certainly going to try.