Having observed my classes over the past few years, Janis and her co-teacher Jane have implemented some of the structures I use with their own students.  They teach “general” Chemistry (that’s the description of the lowest track - what was once called “remedial”.)  They work with some of the toughest classes in the school; a high percentage of their students are in special education programs, some students have behavior disorders, all of them have a record of consistent academic failure.  The notion of these students having choices in how they learn is a real reach for them, and has been only minimally successful so far.

Today, Janis is observing again.  When she first walked in the room, I was sitting with a groupin the back helping clarify a point they were struggling with.  It took her a minute to find me.  That is just the way I like it.

Students are gathered in groups, going over homework together.  There is a steady murmur of multiple conversations, punctuated every now and then with laughter or some boisterous exchange.  Everyone has their journal and textbook out in front of them, and they are talking, questioning, arguing, teaching.  It is a teacher’s dream.

She wanders from group to group, sometimes just listening in on the conversation, occasionally asking a question about how they are reviewing the homework.  Sometimes she takes notes, but mostly she’s just observing.

Now we are standing to the side, watching a class humming with energy.  There is learning going on here, and I have almost nothing to do with it.

“This is amazing,” she says.  “How did you get them to be so focused?  They want to learn.  They want to help each other.”

“Janis, more than anything else, it’s a question of creating the appropriate classroom culture at the beginning of the year.  I spend a whole week talking with them about philosophy, about what school is for them and what it would be like if it were perfect.  Once we all agree that we have a common goal, that we’re here to learn, then I introduce the structures that give them this kind of freedom and this kind of responsibility.  It takes a while, but the time spent creating this culture is definitely a worthwhile investment.”

“Do you think I can do that work now, in the middle of the year?”

“You can, but it will probably be less successful because your students have already got a working relationship with you, and it’s harder to change something that’s already in motion than it is to shape it from the beginning.  But I can definitely share some ideas that you can implement right now.  It will do some good, for sure, and you’ll get some practice in so that, at the start of next year, you’ll be ready to create a more intentional classroom culture.

“Okay, that sounds good.  But what do you do during that first week?  Have you got a set of activities or guidelines?”

“Janis, it’s funny you should ask that question.  I’ve been thinking lately of writing all of this out so that if anyone wants to reference it, they can.  This conversation will finally push me into doing it.  As soon as I have something down, I’ll give you a copy.”

Over the summer, I write out a description of my approach to community building.  I don’t realize it at the time, but this is the start of a project that will take several years tocomplete - writing a handbook for teachers that outlines all the techniques I’ve developed over the years.  And that, in the strange way that writing morphs from one thing to another, is what led me to write The Teacher’s Guide to Self-directed Learning.