"It is amazing how many teachers just don’t listen to their students." — Cara-Alexander S., student
Students, quite literally, have little or no say in their academic lives. If they find homework boring or if the class is moving too quickly, they will complain to each other, but saying so publicly is generally considered rude or disrespectful to the teacher. There is no way for them to express their point of view.
Part of your job in creating the classroom culture is to create mechanisms for them to do so. Their perceptions are important feedback for you so that you can respond to their academic needs. Checking for your students’ point of view can be as simple as stopping a class periodically to talk about, say, how useful the recent homework was, or whether the test they just took was a fair assessment of what they learned.
They can also express themselves in writing, which gives you a chance to read and respond to your students on an individual basis. When asking for written feedback, I always provided prompts, giving them potential topics for their writing, and encouraged them to write a letter, rather than writing in a question-and-answer format. I would stipulate no minimum length, to avoid them seeing it as busywork. I did not grade these efforts, and I made it clear that their responses would not affect their standing in the class, or their standing with me personally.
Grade conferences, also discussed in ”Grades Reconsidered”, are another excellent opportunity for candid conversations and real dialogue about each student’s experience.
Giving students voice—the ability to express their experience—can be much more than a safety valve to relieve their frustrations. As you change your practice, students can have a powerful role in steering the path you take. You can explicitly invite them to participate in steering the process of change with candid discussions.
Some teachers may, at first, find it daunting to give their students this kind of opportunity. Teachers may feel that it is rude or disrespectful for students to critique the class. They may also be fearful, on some level, about what they themselves may learn during the feedback process. After all, if students find fault with some aspect of the class you have created, it can feel as though they are finding fault with your abilities and efforts. It can be difficult to remember that you are on the same side as your students: that you are trying, together, to create a better, richer, and more authentic classroom culture. Teachers may feel that it is safer to continue as they have done, without ever truly checking in with their students to see how things feel on the other side.
This attitude, however, damages learning—both your students’ and your own. Your goal is for them to change their behavior, their motivations, and their working relationships, at the same time that you yourself are changing your classroom structures. In a sense, you and your students are co-evolving. In my experience, when students are given a forum to provide feedback, they will become a rich resource of ideas for improving every aspect of the classroom. Their creativity and the quality of their constructive criticism can be quite extraordinary.
A potent vehicle for student voice is a steering committee. This structure gives a small group of students, who are willing to meet regularly outside of class, the opportunity to express their point of view about classroom issues. Even if the group is as small as three or four students, they can represent the others in helping to make collective decisions about the structure and functioning of the class. Getting the entire class involved is as simple as reminding them of an upcoming steering committee meeting the day before, and giving them time in class to talk to the committee members about any issues they think should be addressed.
At a steering committee meeting, students can bring those issues up, and you can raise any issues that you think should be addressed. Students will often have remarkably useful suggestions for dealing with those issues, because they are seeing them from a student point of view. Of course, you retain the power to veto ideas that seem impractical or otherwise misguided. I found that suggestions from students were consistently useful in improving the class.
Announcing the day after a committee meeting that together you have come up with a new strategy that will be implemented immediately can have a powerful impact on the sense of ownership students feel. It is perhaps their first sense of representative democracy, and it can be profoundly empowering.
Of course, giving students voice and listening to their point of view takes courage, whether from a steering committee or from the class at large. You have to trust that they will take the opportunity seriously and not use it to merely vent or criticize you personally. You have to find your own balance on this issue, and you have to be true to yourself. Your goal should be to trust students as much as you comfortably can and to have faith in your own ability to deal with any abuses of that trust as they occur. As the level of trust between you and your students deepens, you will find new ways for them to speak more candidly and provide ever more useful feedback.
One of the invisible factors in creating negative student attitudes and behavior is their near-complete lack of freedom. They march from class to class and teachers tell them what to do. They rarely have any significant choices to make. A colleague once told me, “Of course they have a choice—they can do what I tell them to do, or not.” My response was that this is not my understanding of the meaning of freedom.
One of the most important lessons that comes from students participating in a community of learners is about living responsibly with new freedoms. Defining freedom in the classroom is largely about defining the limits of freedom. A student’s freedom of expression and behavior ends the moment it interferes with any other student’s ability to learn. Ultimately, the Prime Directive defines what freedom looks like in the classroom.
For instance, one of the rules in my class was that on the rare occasions when we watched a video, it was a student’s choice whether he would pay close attention or take notes. What he did not have the right to do, however, was to interfere with anyone else’s ability to watch and learn. In other words, there was no freedom to talk during the movie. This rule defines and limits freedom, and is true to the Prime Directive.
Many of the structures described in this book promote the appropriate use of freedom by students. Learning contracts and other forms of differentiated learning offer excellent opportunities for students to make meaningful choices. Once they learn to be more metacognitive, they become better suited to deciding whether they need to continue practicing a new skill, for instance. Even a small amount of choice makes a huge difference in their posture and their working relationship with you.
The freedom to fail
I have heard administrators and teachers say that students do not have the freedom to fail. I could not disagree more. The freedom needed to be successful is exactly the same as the freedom to fail. Students cannot make good choices and become responsible, independent learners unless they are also able to make bad choices. Making mistakes is an important part of independent learning, both academically and personally. You have to trust that if they make bad choices, even disastrous choices, they can learn from the experience. Mistakes provide teachable moments that can lead to personal growth.
One of your jobs as a teacher is to wean your students off their dependence on you, but to do it at a pace that allows them to be successful. Many students, even successful ones, have little or no practice in making meaningful academic choices. Therefore, how you introduce student choice is critically important.
Giving up the unrealistic belief that you can make your students successful does not mean allowing them to fail without responding. Being tenacious in your support of a student who is struggling is not the same as using force to try to make him succeed. Some students desperately need to know you will not abandon them, even as they test your resolve repeatedly. They may not show up for a review session you scheduled with them, or repeatedly “forget” to do the work they’ve agreed to do. It takes grit to hang in there with such students. Having compassion for them, understanding that they have been damaged by years of being told they are failures in school, can help provide the tenacity needed to be persistent in your work with them.