Control in the Classroom: Letting Students Lead

I hadn’t been teaching very long before I discovered that my students were naturally boundary pushers who wanted the approval of the adults around them. I came to the conclusion that managing a classroom was a balance of subtle approvals and implicit corrections. Running a classroom, like the game “Operation”, took a pretty steady hand. Getting a group of naturally oppositional and quasi-autonomous adolescents through the Cincinnati Public Schools English curriculum, especially the independent reading requirement, was a challenge. Many of my students were disinterested in reading. Or at least they lacked the skill set and the resources to figure out how to pick an engaging new book, so picking six over the course of the year was a daunting task.

Worse yet, I had unwisely placed restrictions on the books they could choose – I told them it had to have a certain number of pages, and that I had to approve it (among things I considered very important at the time were reading level and font size.) I guess I was trying to prevent them from reading the Magic School Bus, or maybe I was concerned that students would try to bring in a stack of Dr. Seuss books and read them in a single sitting, thus completing their independent reading requirement.

So I got some of the things wrong. I know now that most young readers need a lot of help selecting a new book – recommendations from friends about the subject area, engaging main characters, and strong writing were necessary supports to get a non-reader into a new book. I also know now that even good readers routinely select books far easier than their current reading level. Readers, even good ones, don’t necessarily read or revisit easier books because they lack reading skills or as an attempt to skirt the rules, but because they find that particular book engaging. No reader wants to be at the “frustration” level in every book they read, and certainly young readers don’t want this.

But I got one thing right. Wanting to take advantage of the rebelliousness, I issued each student a photocopy of a list entitled “The 100 Most Commonly Banned Books in the US.” We talked about why books might get banned, either from communities or certain schools. We marveled that the Bible and the Quran were both on the list. Students leaned forward in their seats as they defended the right of authors to say whatever they wanted in a book, and a small cadre of black students defended the use of racist language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Look, that’s probably what he called Jim. Jim didn’t seem to mind.” To a person they were shocked and a little outraged that an individual school, district, or town could simply ban a book.

And then, when they were at the height of the discussion, I reminded them of the reading requirement. And then I added, “I hope you will consider choosing your independent reading books from the most banned books list.” I pointed to a few that other students had enjoyed reading, including Go Ask Alice, The Outsiders, and The Chocolate War, and challenged my best readers to take on Brave New World, which explored themes of dystopia that matched our second semester theme.  We scratched a couple off the list however, including To Kill a Mockingbird, which we had already completed, and Of Mice and Men. I told them, “We are going to read that in class this spring.”

As I had hoped, students arrived the next Monday with their books, many checked out from the library instead of purchased. Some were excited to report that they had started reading already. One student expressed disappointment. “I read my whole book over the weekend, Mr. Jose: The Giver. I don’t know why it was banned. There’s nothing in there that’s bad.” In a brief exchange, I related why the themes of the book were controversial in some areas, and then I asked her to hold on to that idea, because the themes related so closely to our second semester work. (The next year, largely because of our conversation, I added the reading to my dystopia unit.)

What had I done? Sure, I had tapped into their inner rebel. I knew that would help. More importantly, though, I had given them choice. Students who have this kind of control in the classroom, to help drive the direction of their instruction, are far more likely to get engaged with their learning. Adolescents are naturally keen to push back against unreasonable limitations. I had given them a tacit permission to question authority, to doubt the justice in banning certain books, and to explore the boundaries that various communities placed on their students.

Giving students choice in the classroom is one way to let students lead.

Letting students lead means giving up some control in the classroom

At Edutopia, Rebecca Alber explores student choice in her article “5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice” She proposes allowing students to lead their learning by expressing what they wanted to learn about, or having a team of students explore a topic they collectively found interesting. Structuring their interests to guide further learning, and thinking out loud to model how one topic builds on another help build skills that will serve a lifelong learner. Finally she suggests allowing students to have a voice in how their work will be graded.

George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, is an advocate for unleashing students’ creativity in the classroom. He regularly posts ways for educators to help students create content and take charge of aspects of their own education. His recent post on creating meaningful change highlighted an important part of the professional creative process. He asked the question, “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day they did in their classroom to a school hashtag and took five minutes a day to read each others’ tweets? What would that do for learning and school culture?” He is asking, what if we were listening to each other?

We are asking, what if we were listening to our students?

Each year, for each sport, Gamble Montessori honors our senior athletes at our last home game for each sport. But eight years ago we had no tradition, we only had our first graduating class. Tracy Lynn proposed a senior night as she had seen the previous year, when we were combined with Clark Montessori for volleyball. But then she took it a step further. She encouraged us to honor the seniors from the visiting team as well. So as part of our ceremony that night, she received a flower, a miniature volleyball with her uniform number on it, and individual recognition. Our opponent’s seniors were also recognized individually and given a flower. A student showed us grace and courtesy by thinking of her opponents.

Our school started in 2005. That means our first groups of students had a lot of opportunities to impact the whole history of the school. So we helped them lead.  When we formed, we did not have a mascot and school colors. In fact, we were initially formed with a school name we would later officially change. Some teachers approached me and our LSDMC (a local school decision-making committee, empowered by the Board of Education to make key decisions regarding the school, including approving the budget and helping hire the principal) with their ideas for branding the school. “How often does a teacher get to choose their school’s mascot and colors?” they asked. It was clear in one case that the teacher had given the matter considerable thought, presenting me with color drawings of his intended mascot. I rejected it, politely, and turned the decision over to our students.

How often does a student get to choose her high school’s mascot and colors?

Our teachers led our first graduating class through a process of brainstorming and winnowing the choices, with the goal of selecting our permanent mascot and school colors. At the end of the process, the students returned a mascot proposal, and a surprise. Predictably, perhaps, they chose as our mascot a “Gator”. This made us alliteratively the Gamble Gators, and this also matched the mascot many of them had brought with them from our feeder elementary school, the Dater Gators.

The surprise came from letting our seniors lead: given the option to make the choice themselves as the first graduating class, they decided to share that privilege with their schoolmates. They asked me to let the entire school vote on our school colors. At our direction, they narrowed down the options to a ballot of five color choices, and planned a vote to take place the last week of school their junior year. They tallied the results and sealed them in an envelope, which I received minutes before stepping out in front of our entire school. The result was NOT what I would have chosen. And that is fine. The students chose purple and green. Purple and green we are.

In this way we allowed our students to lead in creating our school. There are other important places where we allow them to make important decisions about their own education each year.

As a requirement for graduation, our students must complete an immersive year-long investigation of a specific topic that is then presented to an audience of peers, parents, teachers, and other adults from the community. We call this simply senior project. Through a process of self-exploration and conversation with teachers and peers, a student derives his senior project topic late in his junior year. Compared to a traditional approach to selecting topics, where a teacher presents a list of topics students might encounter in a book (at least, that was how I used to do it in my classroom), students are more deeply engaged. Often students pick a topic that is not just of intellectual importance, but of deep personal relevance, exploring matters of faith, relationships, race and discrimination. Other times they pick a topic that is engaging to them and sustains them through hours of reading and research. This can create profound realizations that transcend the curriculum.

Having students lead means letting them work at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.

In senior project students are provided choice in how to show mastery of a topic. This was a model I used in my own classroom, and was made easier, I am sure, by the fact that I taught English. Students could show mastery of certain aspects of a unit through writing an essay, of course, but successful student projects in my class included dioramas demonstrating mastery of aspects of setting, drawings depicting theme, or (one of my favorites) playlists of popular songs depicting characterization. Students were creating their own vision of how to show they had learned. This is profound, because a student who is asked to design her own assessment must not only think about the content, but think about how best to represent it. This is a cognitively demanding task, at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy – a combination of synthesis and evaluation.

Helping students take control of the classroom (or even make key school decisions) can be scary. It should be thought out, and intentional, and it is appropriate for the teacher to set parameters. There are aspects of the work that are rightly variables for students to manipulate, and there are some which must remain firmly the teacher’s call. Certainly boundaries of decency, fairness and inclusion, and demonstration of mastery remain the full responsibility of the adult guiding the learner.

Creating work within those boundaries can provide students opportunities to grow and claim meaningful ownership of their work and work process. This is the greatest learning we can structure for them. By calling out to their inner rebel, and setting them up to challenge themselves … and then rise to that challenge, we create lifelong learners.

2 thoughts on “Control in the Classroom: Letting Students Lead

  1. Just a reminder, Jack, that before you were an administrator, I observed you in your English classroom. You said in the blog entry that you did one thing right when you were a classroom teacher, buy I saw many things you were doing right. As a matter of fact, you were able to hold the attention and respect of your students in a way I had never seen an inner city teacher do before. (And I had seen many, many classroom teachers.) You taught content and skill, and inspired thoughtfulness and curiosity in a way that made your students want to come back for more. If you can do that at Gamble, you can teach anyone, anywhere. You honed the teaching craft of skill and heart and I am so happy you have carried those qualities to your school leadership. Obviously, I’m a fan of your work… I’m still talking about it all these years later.

    • Well, Marta, I do remember you perched in the back of my room that day – I was so nervous! I was a veteran of some 15 years in the classroom. (I don’t know why that is we teachers get nervous when being observed – we are doing what we do well and often our students are slightly better behaved with visitors.) I am humbled by your praise. I do know for sure that I made an effort to involve and challenge every student in every activity, much like what is described in this article. As some of my students reach out to me on Facebook or come to work for me (as three currently do), I hear them say that they had a voice in the classroom. And I hope we have given them a voice in the school as well.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I hold you in highest regards for your unflinching faith in my ability and gentle prodding when I fell short, and for always seeing who I was down deep. You helped me grasp the meaning of “namaste” long before I encountered the word, and for that I am deeply grateful. I strive to become the listener that I feel you always were for me.

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