Giving up Control

7th Grade reading club

7th Grade reading club

This summer I had a huge “aha” moment about teaching.

I’ve always felt that my classroom (and now, on a larger scare, our school) is a bit like a laboratory where I get to experiment with new teaching techniques and theories. The way we teach at The Community for Learning is continually evolving, but (as with many changes) the evolution is slow and barely perceptible. This week, though, change stared in the face and made me take notice.

In January this past school year, the Language Arts (LA) teachers and I took a look at the independent reading our students were doing. We realized that many of them were faking their reading, losing interest, and definitely not reaching our goal for them to become lifelong readers. So we made some changes to the way we taught (see our process here). Although the changes were fairly small, they meant placing control in the hands of our students, and the results were huge. We were excited and motivated by our students’ reactions – they were reading!

Now let’s jump forward to August. I was planning a session for our new LA teachers, in which we would be going over how to run a reading workshop. I usually begin by handing out our “bottom lines” – the basics of reading workshop – and then, as we discuss the different sections, I model some parts (read aloud and mini-lessons) and show videos of teachers at work.

bottom lines 1Most of the bottom lines were fine. However, it was the section on “independent reading” that floored me. How could I hand this out to our new teachers? In 6 short months, everything about our independent reading section had changed. We’d handed ownership to the students, giving a freedom of choice that was not reflected in these prescriptive and limiting bottom lines.

I then had a look at the Independent reading “contract” that I used ot hand out to my students with such pride. It was well thought out and organized, had clear expectations and a rubric; it was everything I’d ever been taught about good teaching…and it made me groan. Really? This is what I gave my students and then later had my teachers create a version of for their classrooms? Wow. How my students must have cringed when they saw this bossy write-up. How controlled and oppressed they must have felt. My independent reading contract was basically a straitjacket for students in the prison of my classroom. No wonder it caused rebellion in so many of them.

I sat down and tried to rewrite the independent reading bottom lines, but I couldn’t think of how to do it. How do I write up expectations for teachers when they sound so wishy-washy? I considered writing something like “give kids freedom and let them make choices.” But this hardly gives a new teacher anything solid to hang on to, and the classroom is a scary place. Teachers like to have a feeling of control… how could I meet everyone’s needs and still reflect our philosophy?

bottom lines 3

So I did what I always do when I’m faced with a dilemma: I called for reinforcement. I asked one of the secondary LA coordinators, Ylonka Logroño, to come in and brainstorm with me. We talked and laughed and marveled over how something like choice and taking away reading logs can change the classroom environment so radically. In the end we came up with the bottom lines on the right:

If you compare the two, the changes don’t seem all that great. We took away the prescribed number of reading hours and the mandatory reading responses. We added choice in how to respond to reading and we got rid of the reading logs. And yet, in reading the two, the feeling is so different. The straitjacket is slowly giving way to freedom, choice, and respect for the learner. We didn’t just tweak our lesson plans with  a few new teaching techniques – we radically changed the way we viewed our students, and we began to put them in control of their learning. This is not a little make-over, this is deep and meaningful change.

As I reflected on the differences between the two documents I realized that this is what makes me come to work feeling fresh and enthusiastic every day: the look on the faces of our students as they take up the reigns and become the masters of their own learning.

I’m so excited about continuing on this journey towards empowering our students!


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