Let Students Teach

I laced up my shoes, grabbed my water bottle and took off running. I needed to get in some fast kilometers so I set my mind on that.  I took off on my usual route but needed more kilometers so I turned a corner, then another and another, my heart was racing, my legs were beginning to get tired. It was a good hard run. But at one point in the middle of my run I stopped. I turned around and realized I was lost. I was so busy concentrating on running hard that I had lost track of where I was going.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 8.12.26 PMThis year for me was like that run. I started out the year wanting to better meet the needs of each of my students. So I set off on the hard run of carefully tracking each students progress in reading, writing and math.  I wanted them to own that data so I created goal setting books for each student with rubrics, checklists and weekly goal setting sheets. I would regularly assess students  conference with them and give them feedback  They would then use this information to set weekly Math, Reading and Writing goals.   Then I would have workshops and activities available to them to teach them whatever it was they were focusing on.  I created detailed updates for parents so they could further support their child at home. It seemed great at first.  Everything was very personalized. It was hard work. I was running hard.  But I was lost.

When I stopped to take a drink of water and reflect. I realized what this whole system was like for my students. No matter how hard they worked, there was always some new problem I could find for them. There was always something else they didn’t understand that I needed them to learn.  I owned the learning.

I was teaching in the old school hospital model.  I was treating my students like patients. “Here is your diagnosis. I have identified all of your problems. Here is your prescription.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 9.53.33 PM

I realized I needed to make some major changes to how I was teaching.  I will get in to more of the changes in other posts but one of my most important changes was pretty simple in practice but profound in mindsets. It involved shifting the focus from all of the things students couldn’t do to what they could.   I needed to build on their strengths. So I started asking students to teach.

At that time my students were beginning a unit inquiring into Heritage. They had each chosen a site that they thought should be preserved and were making scale models of those sites. Students could choose to make models in any form they liked. Some students were interested in using Tinkercad and Sketchup to create a scale model on the computer and then 3D print it.  A few of my students had been working with these programs at home and during I-time (Genius Hour) so they volunteered to lead a workshop to teach interested students.  It went brilliantly. The very next week 4th graders from other classes requested the same workshop, so my students taught it to them.  A week after that my 4th graders were leading the workshops to interested teachers. The surprising thing about it, was it wasn’t just my typically outgoing students leading the workshop.  One of my most shy, quiet students was leading the workshop as well. You could literally witness his self confidence grow before your eyes.  After his workshop he reflected on his experience, -4th grade student I wanted all of my students to have that sort of opportunity so I opened up workshops to all subjects. First I started with Math topics and this was  an easy starting point. It was simple to have students sign up to lead workshops in concepts that were a review but students wanted more support in. They were also very interested in workshops in areas they needed help with in order to complete a project they were working on. Some examples of workshops my students have led are:

    • How to calculate ratio
  • How to find the least common multiple
  • How to model multiplication with arrays
  • How to use estimation to solve division problems
  • How to sew
  • How to create a website using Wix
  • How to write music
  • How to draw action figures
  • How to write a great introduction to your story
  • How to write good transitions for your narrative.
  • What happens to your muscles when you exercise?
  • Why do we sometimes double a consonant in the base word when we add a suffix?

There are many things I have loved about having students lead workshops but one of my favorites is the role reversal.  The students get to experience being both the teacher and student with their classmates and that builds a beautiful classroom culture of shared ownership of our learning.  One example of that happened last week when one of my students patiently taught another student a Math concept she was stuck on.  The very next day that same student became the teacher and she patiently explained a Science concept to her teacher from the day before.  These types of experiences completely shatter any notion students had that only some students were “smart.” Everyone in the class is seen as capable. Students are often seen high fiving each other as they learn a new concept or sitting side by side helping each other work through something they are stuck on. One student explained,

I have seen many benefits to having students lead workshops. Attributes and Attitudes students have developed from this process:

  • Empathy for other students and the teacher.
  • Risk Taking
  • Growth Mindset
  • Shared Responsibility of learning
  • Motivation
  • Metacognition

This is still very much a work in progress. I have been learning from my mistakes as I go.  Some of the questions I have fumbled through have been:

How do I schedule this?

  • At first I just wrote workshop topics on the white board and had students sign up.
  • Then I moved to nicer looking erasable sheets that students would sign up for on a Monday but this presented a logistical nightmare as I would try to quickly schedule the workshops on Monday morning for workshops occurring that same day.
  • I have moved to a digital system where I list some possible workshop options for Math  and Literacy  on a Google Doc and share that doc with students on a Friday. Students can sign up for workshops they are interested in attending or leading and or they can add a new topic they would like to attend or lead. Over the weekend I assign times for each of those workshops and share it with the students on Monday so that they can set  goals and create their weekly schedule.

How do I manage student behavior?

  • There is some sad part of me that giggles when my students are leading a workshop and turn to me in exasperation “Ms. Mindy, they signed up for the workshop but they aren’t listening. Teaching is hard.”  Generally the more opportunities students have had to lead workshops the better they behave when they attend workshops.

One of my students explained the experience well when they said,

How do I know if they have learned the concept if it wasn’t me leading the workshop?

  • I check in with participants after the workshop to quickly see if they understand. I also require them to show evidence that they have achieved their learning goal by documenting it on their blog.  The blogging part is a work in progress. Some students forget to take a picture of their work or don’t have much to show.

    Student’s blog reflection on his Math goal for last week.

How do I ensure quality teaching?

  • I touch base with the leaders ahead of time. Sometimes they are leading a lesson I taught them the week before in a teacher led workshops. Other times it is a brand new workshop. In that case we discuss  how they will teach it and what materials they will need.

One participant reflected on what it is like to attend a student led workshop.

How do I get all students involved?

  • Some students won’t volunteer to lead workshops unless you ask them. I look for any opportunity to ask them. For example I might lead a workshop one week then tell my participants “I notice you really understand the concept.   Would you be willing to lead a workshop next week on it?”  Or I might notice a kid writes excellent introductions so during a writing conference I ask if they would lead a workshop on that.  In some cases I just say, “Hey you have so much to offer the class, I would love for you to lead a workshop.  Do you have any that you would be interested in leading?”

How do I manage the time this takes?

  • To be honest it doesn’t take much time to set the workshops up. But I needed to find a system that would work within the framework of my classroom. Start small. I started with the one workshop. Then open it up as you are ready.

It is still a hard run and I don’t always know my way but at least now I know I am on the right path because my students are running hard with me.

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