"Human communication is more complex than data transferred from a sender to a receiver...People do not learn by being told." —Steven Pinker
"One finger cannot lift a pebble." —Hopi saying
Establishing the right classroom culture is the first and most important task for a teacher. It is a prerequisite to the creation of a community of self-directed learners. It is a culture that establishes the primacy of genuine learning and personal growth, and recognizes that who students become is at least as important as what they know.
Being part of a such a culture motivates and engages students and draws them into common purpose of supporting each other in their drive to learn and grow. It sets the stage for true collaboration between teacher and students by creating the belief that “we are all in this together”.
Preparing students for life means instilling the character traits of tenacity, optimism, creativity, the ability to work well with others, the willingness to take chances, to make mistakes and learn from them. These attributes cannot be taught like more content — they must be acquired through experience. Learning these skills must therefore be woven into the classroom culture and practiced through the day-to-day experiences of every student.
My students and I have been steadily focused intensely on problem-solving skills for some time now. It’s the third week of school and we haven’t talked about the philosophy of the class in while. It’s time to get them thinking about big ideas again.
I want to show you two very different models of a classroom. The first is what I call the Curriculum Transfer Model.” I put this diagram on the projector.
“The idea behind this way of thinking is that the purpose of school is to make sure that you learn a well-defined set of standards — things you should know and be able to do.
“At the top of the diagram is the curriculum you are supposed to learn. In most classes, you can find it in a textbook. Below that there is the teacher, who is an expert. He has an good understanding of his subject, but it may not perfect. For instance, I know a lot about physics, but I am completely lost when it comes to String theory. I don’t have the mathematical skills to understand it.
“So the teacher, with his imperfect knowledge of the truth, transmits the received wisdom of his discipline to his students. That’s you, down here along the bottom row. You don’t know much about the curriculum yet - your job is to absorb as much of it as possible. Some of you do a great job of that, and some don’t.
“In this model, there is a flow of information in one direction only, from the curriculum, through the teacher to the students.
“Does this look familiar?”, I ask. It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Everyone in the room understands this diagram immediately. They’ve been living with it for a decade.
“But here’s where it gets interesting. It doesn’t have to be this way. This model doesn’t work all that well, for a bunch of reasons. Students being passive receivers of curriculum, like you are in this picture, sounds pretty boring. And boring is not an effective approach to learning. “So here is a different way to describe a classroom.” I put this diagram on the projector.
“What do you notice right away about the difference between this diagram and the last one?”
“All the students are connected to each other. It’s not just about the subject you are learning.” Alicia is smiling. She clearly likes this image better.
“There are arrows going in both directions - everybody’s are giving and taking in this picture”, Sam says.
“That’s one of the things I like best about this model; students are active in this picture. This is definitely not a picture of you sitting in rows passively absorbing what the teacher is saying. This picture is describing a community of learners, and it’s what this class is going to be like.
“So does anyone notice anything else unusual about this diagram?”
“Wait a minute - the teacher is just another person in the circle.” Sam is confused. “Are you saying you’re not going to teach us physics?”
“Don’t worry, Sam, I will definitely be teaching you physics. But this model is describing a different relationship between the teacher and students. You’ll notice there are a collection of learners surrounding a subject. There is no special place for the teacher, because he is another learner. He’s a very well educated and knowledgeable learner, but he’s still learning the subject. (By the way, you’ll discover in this class that being a teacher is one of the most powerful ways to actually learn about something.)
“There will be times when I am delivering new ideas, teaching you new skills, and that will look a lot like the first diagram. But the place where the rubber hits the road is what happens next, the part where you take over and work with each other to figure it out together.
“The current research being done on the brain and how it works is saying pretty clearly that we are hard-wired to talk to each other, to socialize, to tell stories. There are even some researchers who say that the only way we really learn is through stories. But in any case, learning as a social activity is deeper and more meaningful than learning, say, by reading a book alone. Our emotions play a role in how we learn; it’s what makes the learning meaningful. That obviously is going to happen much more in a community of learners than it will in the traditional top-down model.
“One of the things that this diagram shows clearly is that learning physics is only part of our work. While the curriculum in this class is at least as deep and challenging as it might be in a more traditional class, we, all of us, will also be learning about ourselves. This is what I call genuine learning because it incorporates learning physics with personal growth and exploration of ourselves as learners. Genuine learning is more meaningful because we are in the picture, we are part of what we are studying.”
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.
It’s a large room, too big for the number of people meeting here today. I am standing in front of a group of twenty five teachers who are new to my school. Some of them have taught elsewhere, some are first year teachers. Their ages range from early twenties to mid-fifties, some have been teaching for years, some are right out of college. There is a mix of idealism and world-weariness in this room. They are here as part of the school’s induction program - every teacher new to this school goes through two years of support and an introduction to the school, the community and the student population.
In theory, it’s a very good idea. As I’m looking around today, however, I can see that teachers are tired, and there is a sense of resigned boredom, even resentment on their faces. They have left their classes in the hands of substitutes for a whole day (generally an unhappy notion for a teacher) and most of them would much rather be in their own classrooms than here. A number of them have that “long gaze” that I recognize as institutional malaise.
I am here as a staff developer, a role that frees me up to work with other teachers. Throughout the morning, other staff developers have been presenting different aspects of the issue of classroom management. What I have observed about the induction process is that has been heavy on the shoulds, the rules, the constraints, the pressures. I am here to talk about something else.
“What I’m noticing is that the conversation so far has been about supporting the students, but also about controlling them. I would like to shift our attention for a while towards the emotional realities of your students. I would argue that being aware of their reality is an essential component of being an effective teacher.
“So let me start with the ideas of an educational psychologist, William Glasser, who describes five fundamental needs of all people. He says that for us to lead a fulfilling life, we need to feel safe, to have a sense of power over our lives, to have freedom to make choices, to experience a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and to have fun.” As I’m talking, I write the five attributes on a board. “When any of those needs aren’t met, people become unhappy, frustrated, depressed, or angry; unwanted consequences occur. And it doesn’t have to be all of them not being met - even one missing need can do it.
“Let’s take a minute and see where that takes us. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are truly powerless. Decisions are being made that affect you, and you have no say in them. Has that ever happened to you in your life? Possibly even in this building?” Finally, there is a trace of lightness in the room - several people even laugh at that one.
“So stop, look at this list, and conjure up a time in your life where several of these needs were not being met, where you didn’t feel safe, or felt no sense of belonging, for instance. Really try to remember the experience in depth. Then, I’d like you to share that memory with the people sitting at your table; tell them your reaction, how you felt, how you acted as a result of the situation.”
After a few minutes of conversation, I ask them to decide among themselves which story to share with the whole group. One by one, a person at each table describes their experiences.
This is Mark’s first year at our school, but he had taught for eight years in the Chicago system. He is a tall, powerfully built man in his mid-thirties. With his upright posture and strong voice, he commands everyone’s attention.
“In my last school,” he says, “I had a department chair who was a control freak - he ran the Math department like a little dictator. After two years of his leadership, the morale in our department was in the toilet. We were told we had to get our test scores up by twenty percent over the last year’s scores, and none of us knew how to do that except by teaching to the test, really telling students what was going to be on it and preparing them endlessly, which they hated. He made it clear that some of us were going to be given terrible schedules and have the most difficult classes assigned to us if we couldn’t meet his expectations.
“The thing that got to me, though, was that he began a program of dropping in to observe our classes unannounced. He would sit in the back, take copious notes, even talk to the students privately while we were teaching. Then he would leave without a word or any sign of acknowledgment, and he would never give us any feedback from those visits. Everyone started to dread those visits.”
“And what was your reaction - how did you act in response to this chair.”
“Well, all of us hunkered down. We figured out what we had to do to look good and to get our test scores up. But I stopped working as hard to be creative and I definitely didn’t put as much time into all the volunteer things I used to do. I started doing exactly what I had to and nothing more. I just felt beat up all the time. And the teachers’ lounge conversations became one continuous bitch session - pardon my French.” He looked around sheepishly. It’s clear this is an emotional topic for him.
“And which of the five fundamental needs do you think were missing for you in that situation?”
He looks at the board. “I didn’t feel safe - we all knew there could be reprisals if we complained or didn’t fall into line. I certainly lost the sense of being part of something bigger - our department fractured into little pieces, and there was a lot of bitterness around the perception that some teachers were the chair’s favorites and were treated better. So belonging went out the window. And I can definitely say I wasn’t having much fun.
“But I’m not sure about the other two. What is the difference between feeling powerless and the loss of freedom?”
“It can be confusing, because they are often missing at the same time, as they were in your situation. But I think it’s worth seeing the difference.
“Here’s how I think about it. We all live in situations where there are people who have power over us because they make decisions that affect us. We feel powerless when the decision makers don’t listen to our point of view while making their decisions. If you feel you have a voice, that your perspective is being taken into account, then even if a decision is not what you wanted, you at least feel like you have been heard. So we feel powerless when we have no voice.
“Having freedom, on the other hand, means being able to make meaningful choices, to be able to steer your own path. All of you, for instance, have the freedom to decide what you are going to do when you walk into your classrooms tomorrow.
“So Mark, I would say you were missing both the sense of power and freedom, because your chair was definitely not interested in listening to his teachers and your decisions about how to teach in your own room were being seriously constrained. So that makes it oh for five in your case - you were batting zero in the needs department. Not a pretty picture.”
Several other people described situations in which they felt powerless or unsafe. One person had left her church after a bitter division polarized the congregation - she felt that the community she had felt part of ceased to exist, and she had to withdraw with a deep sense of loss and regret. Several had had to contend with abuses of power by their bosses or a sense of anonymity in their workplace.
“Now I want you to do something that may be difficult. I want you to imagine being a student walking into one of your classes. Pick an actual student, preferably one that is struggling or doesn’t like school all that much. Now look at the list of human needs again through his eyes, and ask yourself how many of them are being fulfilled.
“I know this makes all of us uncomfortable. None of us likes to think of our classes this way. But it is truly what many students experience, no matter how good you are as a teacher, no matter how warm or charismatic you may be. So let’s take a moment and think about ways in which your students do have one or more of these needs fulfilled. Again, talk to the people at your table, and see if you can summarize one or two strategies you use or classroom structures that help students get these needs met.”
After a few minutes of conversation that was distinctly less energetic than the last round, a few people had ideas to share.
Angela, a new hire in the History department, talked about her spending a few minutes at the start of every class to allow students to talk to each other about whatever they wanted. She felt that the socializing was a worthwhile investment in helping them feel comfortable. Several other teachers responded that they were already hard pressed to cover everything they needed in the forty-three minutes of a class period without losing time to idle conversation. Another teacher, John, said he made sure that students knew he was available before and after school to help them with their work for his class. Mark said he did that too, but that he wasn’t sure which of the five needs on the board that was addressing.
It was clear, after a few more minutes, that it was much easier to find examples of having their own needs unmet than it was to create solutions to the unmet needs of their own students. There was an uncomfortable sense of being stuck with a problem that had no solution.
“I apologize for putting all of you in this position - I know it is a troubling thing to look at, and there are no easy answers to how to fulfill the needs of your students. But there are ways to do it, and unless you recognize that it is a serious issue, you are unlikely to try to find those ways.
“Above all, having heard about your reactions to the situations you described, it should be easier to understand some of the otherwise inexplicable behaviors of our students. When they don’t get these needs met, they respond with anger, resentment, sullen withdrawal, just as you did in your stories, just as any reasonable human being would. These are the symptoms of students who are not doing well in school. I think it’s worth considering that this is a big part of why they’re not doing well in school.
“So the real question is, how do we incorporate strategies as often as possible that fulfill these needs for our students? How do we recognize it when they are missing? And how do we respond when we discover they are missing? That is a large topic, and we can only start the conversation today.”
There is a belief among some teachers that establishing authority at the beginning of the school year requires a stern, no-nonsense attitude. When I was new to the profession, I heard several teachers repeat the title of this section as though it were a truism to be imparted to novice teachers. The task of establishing a warmer working relationship could wait until the control over the classroom had been firmly established.
Reading Diane Ravitch’s critique of school reform, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, I found myself agreeing with her on virtually every topic. That is, until she wrote about her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ratliffe. Here is an excerpt:
“Mrs. Ratliff was gruff and demanding. She did not tolerate foolishness or disruptions. She had a great reputation among students . . . Mrs. Ratliff did nothing for our self-esteem. She challenged us to meet her exacting standards. I think she imagined herself bringing enlightenment to the barbarians (that was us).”
I have a problem with this approach; the conflating of a stern demeanor and high academic standards is a false choice. It is possible, when the psychological needs of students are being met, for teachers to simultaneously have a humane working relationship with their students and challenge them to push themselves intellectually to very high standards indeed. It’s not just possible, it’s desirable.
Mrs. Ratliffe’s method might work very effectively for a student who, for whatever reason, has an intact sense of self-esteem. But for the masses of students whose self-esteem has been battered by school, not addressing their fear and/or loathing of school is a disastrous misunderstanding of human nature. The intellect is not independent of the heart. If we pay attention to the essential question of why so many students, successful and not, are unmotivated to learn, we ignore the emotions of our students at our (and their) peril.
More to the point, the kind of authoritarian rule that was common in classrooms fifty years ago is much less effective today, simply because our culture’s attitudetoward institutions has changed so profoundly. Between that time and this, we have experienced Watergate, the impeachment of a president, Abu Ghraib, pedophile scandals in the Catholic church, Enron, lobbying scandals in our government, the financial meltdown of 2008, and the growing awareness of inequality in our society. Every new crisis and scandal has further undermined the credibility and stature of institutions everywhere. For better or worse, teachers can no longer automatically assume they will have an inherent authority over their students. It requires a different working relationship, and I believe that is a healthy development.
The past few days have been a burn - we’ve been working through some very challenging problem-solving skills and, while we are making good progress, it is starting to feel like a grind. I’ve planned the day so that we will finish the current work within the first half of the period. It’s time to shift gears and have some fun.
“Let’s do something new,” I say, once we’ve reached a good stopping point. “Let’s play a game I like to call ‘ask me anything’. We have about twenty five minutes left in this period. During that time, you can ask any question you like about me and my life, or about physics or science in general. In fact, it can be about anything you’d really like to know. If I can answer you, I will. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you so and give you an informed guess, if I can.
“The only constraints are that you can’t ask me anything that is obviously inappropriate or illegal.” Several students express disappointment - they know I went to college during the 60s, and they undoubtedly want to know about any potential drug use.
It’s always interesting to notice the direction different classes and different students will go with this exercise. Some dive in immediately into my personal history - where I grew up, whether I am married, how many children I have, whereI went to college. Others want to know about my opinion on topics like whether there is other life in the universe, (it’s a statistical certainty), whether UFOs have ever been here (I can’t imagine any being traveling ten thousand light years, observing some alien life forms and then leaving without a trace).
Some students get serious and ask the bigger philosophical questions - What do I think the meaning of life is? What do I believe happens when we die? This is tricky ground, of course, and I tell them every person has to come to terms with these questions on their own and I don’t have an “answer”. Having said that, I know that it is important for my students to know that adults think about such things and have beliefs, sometimes strong beliefs. And so I dive into my understanding of Taoism and Buddhism and how they have shaped my understanding of the world, how having practiced meditation all my adult life has shaped who I am, and how I have learned to hold these beliefs and practices lightly, knowing that they can only ever be a partial understanding.
More than anything else, I want them to see that the world is an amazingly complex and interesting place, that a sixty year old man can still be avidly learning about it, and that I, like they, am a complicated person with interests that span far beyond what they see of me in the classroom. It is equally important to let them know that the interests that drive them are valued here as well, and whenever something they love can be tied to what we are studying, say how a musical instrument works, or how the lenses on a camera work, or how speakers make sound, I make a big deal about it.
The subject of this class is not just physics.
I would first like to begin by saying that this year in your class was one of the best educational experiences that I have ever had while in school. I strongly feel that your system and philosophy of teaching has allowed me to personally grow into a better student by being more open about my lack of understanding in certain areas of physics. The group/family atmosphere of our class helped me embrace my weaknesses and seek help, while also sharing my strong points in a comfortable environment.
It is in my personal opinion that this philosophy of learning should be modeled in all aspects of education in order to prevent kids from “shutting down” when it comes to schoolwork. Once again, it was a pleasant surprise to be in a class with a bunch of wonderful students and a very talented and skillful instructor.
An important component in creating a culture of learning is the creation of what I call a “living classroom”. This is an experience that envelops the teacher and the students alike, a sense of being a part of an entity dedicated to learning and imparting that process to every one of its members. It is a hard thing to describe, but a powerful experience for everyone involved.
In science, some properties of a system can be described as being “emergent”. The neurologist David Eagleman describes the property of emergence this way: if you take apart an airplane, none of its pieces contain the property of flight. It is only the successful functioning of the whole that is capable of flying. Flight is an emergent property of all the parts of an airplane working in concert. Similarly, a living classroom is an emergent phenomenon of all the students and the teacher working in concert.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that letter at the beginning of the year. I thought I wouldn’t be able to master the course work, or that I wouldn’t understand concepts. How silly! It might be due purely to your teaching tactics, but I feel like I’ve learned more in Physics than in any other class I’ve ever taken. I truly feel like I’ve learned and not memorized. Before this year, I don’t really think I knew what learning was. Sure, I could remember formulas and plug in numbers, but what did it all mean? What is the point of F=ma if I don’t know what it means? What’s the point in memorizing anything if I don’t learn from it?
I think we as students become so accustomed to the way every other teacher teaches that we’ve just unlearned how to learn. I think the way you teach physics makes it so much simpler. I don’t think that any other classes learned any more than we did, but I think that their classes were harder. They were harder to comprehend and harder to learn in.
The way you run your class is how all classes should be run. It’s not about the teacher, it’s about learning, it’s about the students. You tailor to the individual student without smothering them. Even the small things, like not having to ask you to go to the bathroom, or not having those hideous overhead lights, really make a difference in the atmosphere of the classroom.
Physics is a life altering course. It’s how the world functions and how people found that out and how we can understand it further. It really has been a pleasure being in your class this year. I’ve learned a lot about physics, the world, and what school should really be like. Thank you so much for everything.
Eleanor is a veteran teacher, and I love her. I’m not alone; she has been teaching English in this school for nearly three decades, and I don’t know anyone, teacher or student, who doesn’t respect her and like her. Her gentle spirit, compassion for her students, and quiet authority with them are legendary. She was born and raised in Alabama, and she still has a slight southern accent, and a courtly bearing that curiously makes her seem from a different era. She also has a twinkle in her eye when you talk to her.
She and I have been on a number of faculty committees together, and have had some wonderful and serious conversations about education. We have observed each other’s classes several times. During her last observation, she told me she was particularly surprised by how self-directed the students seemed to be. After I had given them a quick introduction to a new skill, the rest of the period had been open work time. They had moved purposefully to start their various tasks, some in study groups, some by themselves, some doing bookwork, some working on labs, some in conversation.
When the period was over, she asked me “How is it that they have become so responsible that they can take care of themselves like that?” In fact, whenever I have visitors, that is one of the first questions they ask.
“Well, Eleanor, that’s a long story, but I would say the fact that they feel like they have a voice in this class is a big part of it.”
“But why do they feel that? It’s clear that they have a sense of ownership. What do you do that gets them to that state?”
“It’s a combination of things, I would say. I’m often stopping what we’re doing to check in with them as a whole class, to see whether what we’re doing is useful. If they seem bored or disinterested, I’ll stop and ask why, and that will often lead to an interesting conversation. If it seems genuine, I’ll shift gears and do something different. That definitely gets their attention, and it builds trust.
“Another thing we do is a steering committee. I should explain that every student has a job - maintaining the library, being a lab assistant, keeping the portfolios organized, watering the plants, things like that. But one of the jobs, and an important one, is being part of a steering committee. Years ago, we’d meet every other week, but now, after implementing a lot of their suggestions over the years, we only need to meet once or twice every quarter.”
“So what do you do during these steering committee meetings?”
“I bring any issues I am concerned about to the table, and four or five students from each of my classes bring what they or their classmates are concerned about. We dive in and see if we can improve things. They have been an endless source of great ideas. Probably half of the structure of this class has evolved out of those conversations. And when I announce the next day that the steering committee came up with an idea, and we’re going to implement it immediately, it has a profound effect on my working relationship with the students. They feel a renewed sense of ownership.
“Personally, I think talking about it isn’t going to really explain what we do. I think you ought to see one for yourself. We’ll be meeting in two weeks - why don’t you sit in?”
She agreed, and two weeks later the two of us found ourselves in the conference room sitting at a table with four of my students from the class she had observed.
“So I have a few things I’d like us to discuss, but let’s start with you - what is it that you think we should talk about?”, I say.
Jasmine jumps right in. She began this year as a shy student, very reluctant to speak, even in small groups. When I was looking for students to join this steering committee, I was surprised at the enthusiasm with which she raised her hand. She has been an outspoken and very constructive member of the group ever since.
“We have been doing too much homework too quickly,” she says. “I think a lot of students are feeling rushed, and for some of them, it’s starting to feel like busywork.”
She knows that will get my attention. I’ve been so relentless in bashing busywork, that there’s no way I won’t take this seriously.
“How about the rest of you?”, I ask. “Are you feeling the same way? Are you hearing this from other students?”
They are, quite emphatically.
“Well, let me tell you why I planned the unit this way, and then we can talk about how to fix it for this unit and prevent it from happening in the future. My thought was to get a lot of the conceptual work out of the way early on so that we could launch into a longer period of open work time. That way, people could have more time to pursue their own directions.”
“Why can’t we have several smaller open work times spread out throughout the contract?” Mark asks. That way, we could take more time to digest the work, some of us could do the reviewing we need before moving onto the next thing so we’d be better prepared.”
“I like it. It’s the obvious solution - that’s what we’ll do from now on, whenever there is a string of homework like there is in this unit. But that leaves the problem of this unit and the people who are feeling frustrated or lost right now. What would help them the most?”
“First of all, telling them about this conversation and how it’s going to be in the future will help a lot, I think,” Jasmine says. “That way they know we’re working on the problem, and it’s going to get fixed.”
Mark adds, “And give us a day of open lab tomorrow, with a review session for people who are lost and some above and beyond activities for everyone else.”
In fact, that’s exactly what will happen. The day after this meeting, I will follow Jasmine’s and Mark’s advice, and the sense of relief in the classes will be palpable. Every time we change course based on the voice of students, the sense of being in it together is strengthened.
We talk through some of the details of how to proceed with the open lab, and how to reorganize the calendar for the rest of the unit. By the time we’re done, we have a clear plan.
Then I bring up one small issue that has been bothering me. When students are choosing from the optional items, it’s not clear which items are designed to review specific required items on the contract. It leads to confusion and makes it harder for students to choose the appropriate work.
We bat ideas around, and what comes out of the conversation is a clear improvement; rather than listing all the required items in a row, I will list work in groups with each required item followed directly by the optional work that reviews it. And, equally importantly, I will give a brief description of each item on the contract, and the review items will say directly what required work they are reviewing. It is a clean, simple solution, and despite the wastefulness of running off a whole new set of contracts, I will in fact correct the structure and hand out new, replacement contracts tomorrow.
Finally, the period is over. It has been an enormously productive forty-three minutes. Both Eleanor and I have the next period free, so we stick around to talk. It is clear from the look on her face that she is troubled.
“Eleanor, what’s the matter?”, I ask.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she says. “I see how it works, and I know how much you and they are getting out of it, but I don’t think I can pull it off.”
I’m confused. “Why not? What is the problem?”
“I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I like to think I have a pretty good relationship with my students”, she says, “but I just don’t think I can open up like this and run the risk of being criticized or challenged in this way. I don’t think I can be this vulnerable.”
I’m shocked. I thought if there was anyone in the school for whom this would be appropriate, it would be her. But I can see that she is filled with doubts.
“You know, what you saw here has been evolving for a decade. There are ways to do a small bit of this, and control how open you want to be about it. Asking for suggestions or feedback about how the class is going can be done in lots of ways. You might turn it into a writing assignment about what a perfect school would be like, or what perfect homework would be like. You could have one-on-one conversations instead of a group.”
“I know,” she says, “I was thinking along the same lines while all of you were talking. But right now, it just seems like too much.”
“You know, the problem with grabbing just one idea out of this system I use is that it is a small piece of a whole web of activities that reinforce each other. We spend so much time at the beginning of the year developing the philosophy, growing the trust between students and in their relationship with me, that I’m not even aware of how much I take that trust for granted. It really requires a whole approach to set up the conditions for something like this to work well.”
We will continue to have our conversations. Eleanor’s attempts at getting feedback from her students are initially limited and infrequent. Over time, she’ll find ways to listen to them that are comfortable for her.
The lesson for me is that every teacher has to be true to herself in finding new ways to structure a classroom. I have found my way, and it works for me. When I become a consultant years later, this experience with Eleanor will remind me to listen carefully to what each teacher needs in order to make changes in their practice. I will have to work hard to find the fundamental truths that can then be adapted to each situation. As with my students, one size does not fit all.
I don’t consider myself a math-science person at all, but I always looked forward to your class, not just because you made science class interesting to me for the first time in my life, but also, every day I could count on learning something more than just physics. Perhaps the most meaningful thing I took out of my year in your course was your philosophy on teaching, the idea of assuming responsibility for your own learning and self-directing your path for success. I loved that I was able to learn so much in your class, but never once did I feel overstressed or a desire to compete with my peers. That has never been the case in my other high school courses. In your class, everyone worked through the concepts together, and we were there to help each other understand. Your class was unique, refreshing, and I learned more than in any other classroom setting.
As I’m finishing up high school and reflecting, I’m certain that my time in your class was the most positive academic experience I had. I won’t soon forget all of the lessons you passed on.
Based on decades of conversations with students, I think it is fair to say that, generally speaking, they feel school is being done to them. Their lack of power and freedom, the inflexible structures of everyday school - bells ringing in a relentless schedule - conspire to make them feel like parts of a large, impersonal educational machine.
When a student has the good fortune of being in an energized class with a supportive and charismatic teacher, he can feel that school is being done for him. He is learning and enjoying himself, but it is still a passive position, he is still a recipient.
But when a student begins to participate in a living classroom, begins to feel a sense of ownership and belonging, then school finally feels like it is being done with him. This is when genuine learning can take place.
The deepest problems schools face cannot be resolved without this kind of engagement on the part of students, because it is the lack of their active participation lies at the heart of so much of the failure of schools.
I haven’t seen Jean since the end of the summer. We met once so that I could give her what I’d written on community building and to talk briefly about how to start the year. These days, I’m busy consulting with other teachers, and our schedules don’t mesh. Finally, after a workshop in November, I run into Jean. “How is it going?”, I ask. “How did the start of the year go for you?”
She begins by telling me that this year feels totally different than anything she’s experienced, that she is seeing a level of engagement that is remarkable in all of her classes. Then there is a pause, and I look at her face and see that she is tearing up.
“Jean, are you crying?” I am speechless. This is a well put-together person.
“I just didn’t know this was possible,” she says. “They are working with us, they are part of the class. I just didn’t know...”
She goes on to describe a remarkable transformation. The sense of community and having a collective goal of being successful is so built into the classes that administrators dropping in to observe, even for a few minutes, consistently remark on it. There is something going on here that is powerful and unexpected.
In March, I check in with the two of them. They tell me that they’d like me to observe one of their classes. There is a problem with motivation, they say, and they’re feeling like the sense of community is starting to unravel.
A few days later, I sit in the back of their room as the students file in and the class begins. The first thing I notice is that they are ready to go right away. One teacher is working in the front of the room, and the other is having private conversations with several students in the back. The level of engagement, questions being asked, responses to the teacher’s questions, are all remarkable. When they break up to work on various items on the contract, the transition is smooth, and most are working within a minute. When one student seems lost, another leans over and starts describing how to do a certain task. Meanwhile the teachers are moving around, encouraging, answering questions, joking around occasionally. There is no coercing or hounding going on.
When we meet the next day, I can only tell them that, from the outside at least, this is a high functioning class. The motivation level seems high. In fact, given the academic histories of these students, it seems astonishing. I tell them that I have observed other classes similar in make-up to this one, and this is a model of what can be done. I’m not sure that I’ve been of any help to them, but they at least get the reinforcement that the work they have put into building the culture of learning has taken root.