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.

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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.


The boards are down


This is a follow on from my previous post titled ‘Student Agency in Grade 2’ where I tried to establish what agency was and what it looked like in a grade 2 classroom. I have really noticed this year just how much my students value responsibility. They thrive when given the chance to be in control of what they are doing and having their opinions and ideas help guide the learning. I’m still working at developing this but I feel very happy when seeing the difference it has made to the students.

Since the previous post our classroom changed. My approach to working with the students changed. And as I suggested in my last post, I did literally bring down the boards. Because, why not? (the maintenance team at school may have some strong answers to this question. But I’d like use this opportunity to pass on my thanks to Micha, Tony and Rocco for all their help.) The children also have a little step ladder which we use when adding their connections to our connection board. A contentious piece of equipment in a place very much concerned with health and safety, but we trust each other in grade 2 so all is well.

Sometimes you need reminding of best practice. We read, talk with colleagues and share ideas, but sometimes the key ingredients of teaching can become routines. It isn’t that we don’t include them in our teaching, but we can very easily fall into the trap of routines and not do it justice. Recent PD from Kath Murdoch @kjinquiry broke my routine and this was when I decided to create ‘The Wonderwall’. Simple self-adhesive whiteboard rolls quickly turned the blank wall in to another part of the room strictly owned, managed, and controlled by the students. And the results have been fantastic.



The ‘planned’ unit from previous years didn’t include many of these questions, which left me thinking what a tragedy it would have been if we’d stuck to the ‘plan’ instead of leaving it all behind and re-doing the unit, a truly student led unit. We are only in week 2 but the students are already taking over the room with plants, and inquiry time is in full flow. Just goes to show what some simple design changes that support agency can do.

As well as the design changes, I also amended my teaching to involve more choice in what we were learning. Not my end goal but my first step. And the feedback from the students has been great. One thing I have realised though is that grade 2 students can be beautifully honest without even trying. And if you ask the questions, then be prepared for the answers because they don’t hold back. So asking the class how they think the new choice structure was going resulted in the following responses:

Child A: It’s great, much much better than before Mr Jeffrey.

Child B: Why didn’t you always do this though? Were you not a good teacher?

Child C: It is better than before. Now you can choose what things to do and before it was boring.

Child D: When we get to choose, I like it more. Because before if I wanted to do the drawing first and you made me do it last, then I did bad in the other things on purpose because I just wanted to do the drawing.

As well as making me laugh, it showed me that giving over a little bit of choice can make all the difference. I work with Grade 2 and so agency will look different than it does in Grade 5, and I’m not there just yet with implementing some more drastic timetable changes. But preparing them for this eventuality and making sure they are ready for this environment are things that I can do right now.

So, I’m trying to provide more opportunities for students to have ownership, choice, agency in their learning. If I was to give advice to anyone starting on this journey then just look at what you have planned for tomorrow and ask yourself the question “How much choice, input, agency do the students have in this?” And if you don’t like the answer, then tweak it. Nothing massive, no big bold statements, just small changes and then see what happens. That’s what I did and I like what I’m seeing.

Finally, give over the room. You can still manage it, but listen to them. If there is anything you can provide that gives them responsibility, then do it. For me this is the first step to agency in the lower grade levels. It’s about fostering the necessary ingredients needed to make agency work later on: responsibility, trust, reflection, curiosity, connections, questions.


“Management of Students” to “Advocating for Learners”

19 tally marks in my notebook.

That’s the number of times the word “management / managing” was used in a 30 minute meeting to describe a student of concern.

19 times.

I rushed to my desk with angry tears and clamored to pull up Rita Pierson’s, “Every kid needs a champion“. This is my strategy for dealing with the silenced rebel in my head; assurance that my thoughts and perspective is not unique. I am not alone.

After Rita, I looked up the definition of management.

The process of dealing with or controlling things or people. Synonyms: dominate, maintain, regulate, oversee, handle.

19 times.

Call me crazy, but none of those words would be my choice to associate with students, learners or education. Certainly not words I would associate with agency in the context of learning.

Sometimes I just wish I could scream in frustration at the irony seeping through disguised as “here for the kids”, and “in (insert student name)’s best interest”.

What if instead of “managing students” we shifted our mindset to “advocating for learners”?

What if we advocated for our learner’s roles, rights and responsibilities instead of trying to “manage” them?

What if we focused our energy on insisting our “problem” students become the best they can be?

They can be.

Not what we can (choose management synonym: dominate, maintain, regulate, oversee, handle) them to be.

Some learners will not fit our predetermined mold or our idea of a “traditional student”.

What if instead of trying to control them to fit our boxes, labels and expectations- we advocated for them to be…. them.

The best version they can be- of them.

What if?