The Education Revolution
Empower Your Students to Become Collaborative Leaders in the Classroom
by Paul Solarz
February 2nd, 2015
Imagine walking into a classroom where the students are deeply engaged in meaningful tasks, collaborating in partnerships or small groups, all working together for shared purposes. Notice that the boys and girls are working closely together, respecting each others’ ideas and opinions, and asking each other questions without worry. Instead of bickering about getting their way, students use conflict management techniques and speak respectfully to each other. The teacher is working with a small group of students in the center of the room, while four other groups of students surround him. A student from one of those groups calls out, “Give me five! Give me five!” and everyone goes silent for the moment, waiting for the direction or announcement or question, and then quickly gets back to work. All of this is being done without any influence from the teacher. This is what my classroom looks like after approximately two to three weeks of school, and what I hope it will look like over the remaining nine months of the year.
Many teachers these days are working hard to change the stereotype of students sitting in rows, completing worksheet after worksheet, only getting a break from the silent monotony to listen to the teacher lecture at them about something that the teacher may be passionate about but that none of the children care about. This has been the norm in education for decades even though we all know that:
“What is wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it.
What is right is right, even if no one is doing it.”
Teachers are looking for a new way to teach and they know that it needs to involve the students taking on more responsibility and ownership over their learning and teachers taking more of a back seat. A student-led classroom is one in which the students make decisions and choices ubiquitously throughout the day without consulting the teacher. These decisions impact their own actions, the actions of others, and even the actions of the teacher. Everyone in the classroom appears to have equal power and equal say in what happens, although everyone understands that the teacher’s word is final.
So, do the kids just come into class every day and decide what to learn and how they want to learn it? No. Depending on the subject, most lessons have some component of teacher-led instruction (often a mini-lesson in the middle of the period), collaborative work time (with regular feedback from me and their peers), and time to reflect or synthesize. My curricular objectives are no different than anyone else’s. I just set up my lessons so that my students don’t have to be passive learners for long. I say what needs to be said and get out of their way. That way, my students have lots of opportunity to guide and lead each other without relying on me to do it for them!
Creating a student-led classroom doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a tremendous amount of commitment from both the teacher and the students to make it a reality. In order to get to the point where each student feels comfortable directing the class without consulting the teacher, lots of scaffolded instruction and practice must take place. Teachers need to explain to the class their intentions of having a student-led classroom and what that might look like by providing them with several examples. Every day, teachers need to provide learning opportunities for students to practice these skills in order for them to become habits. In addition, teachers must give positive feedback when students make correct decisions and supportive feedback when incorrect decisions are made. It is also extremely important to show appreciation for any attempt made despite the outcome in order to ensure that they try again in the near future! Practice makes permanent, so help them practice correctly!
Finally, none of this can happen if students don’t feel safe, appreciated, and connected to their teacher. In our classroom, we talk about being a family on a regular basis. I show them that I care in many different ways, and in turn, they begin to care for me as well. In reality, my connection with each student doesn’t start the year that they are placed in my classroom. This actually starts years earlier with my interactions with them in the hallway, out at recess, and walking into the building in the morning! A simple, “Hello!” or a high five is a great way to show students that you care about children and are happy to be a teacher. By the time they are assigned to my classroom, I’ve laid the foundation for a successful school year. When children feel happy and safe at school, they’re willing to work hard for their teachers. And hard-working students is what it’s going to take in order to create a successful student-led classroom!
If creating a student-led classroom sounds like something you’d like to try, check out my new book called, “Learn Like a Pirate,” that will be released in early 2015. I explain how I’ve been able to transform my classroom from a traditional, teacher-led lecture and worksheet-based classroom into an engaging, active student-led classroom where students practice collaborative leadership skills every single day.
Paul Solarz is a 5th grade educator and author from Arlington Heights Illinois. Paul was 2014 Educator of the Year (@ICE_IL), Global @TeacherPrize Top 50, @Imagination Chapter Leader.
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