11 Misconceptions and a Few Reflections from my Own Classroom
What exactly is a student-centered classroom? If you were to ask ten different educators, chances are you would get ten different responses. While opinions vary, you can be certain of what student-centered learning is not.
Student-centered learning is NOT…
1) Utter chaos.
Truly student-centered classrooms require much planning by the teacher--even in the area of classroom management. These classroom are often very structured, with students understanding their expectations and the proper procedures for running the classroom. Students are often required to reflect on their own behavior throughout the day. Teachers communicate expectations, follow through on discipline procedures, model the behaviors, and require students to not only emulate the proper behaviors, but to help monitor classroom behavior. Grouping students strategically will help cut down on the chaos.
2) Doing worksheets.
Oh, those worksheets. They seem like a necessary evil. Ok, not even that evil. However, students in a student-centered classroom move beyond the piece of paper and discuss the text or the problem. They ask (and answer) why and how questions. They project what will happen in the future. They apply it to their daily lives. They make connections with the curriculum. Student-centered teachers aspire for authentic, intellectual engagement.
3) About compliance
“Do I have to do this?” will be a thing of the past. Instead, students will say, “Is it time to go already?” I promise; it can happen. Active learning and problem-solving are terms that student-centered teachers use. In many classrooms around the country, students are passively learning in class. In other words, they are sitting and letting the teacher think for them. (See the next point.) The harder the students' brains are working, the more quickly the time will pass! I remember one of the first times this happened in my own classroom--the bell rang and not one of my junior high students had been keeping up with the time! Their heads swiveled toward the clock with a very surprised look on their faces, like, “How did we forget to look at the clock?” ha!
4) Students copying notes
Unfortunately, students will not copy notes very often in a student-centered classroom. This is a bit harder for secondary teachers to grasp. Remember, these days, students can google just about anything. (At what point did google become a verb? Ha!) Knowledge is a commonality instead of a commodity. But there are things that students just really need to know, right? Give the students a text, such as a primary document, and have them grapple with the big ideas that they will carry throughout their lives. Does this mean that notes are never written? Not at all! Students are just more involved in the process. Think about this: when students copy notes from a powerpoint, even if you are discussing it, there is little thinking involved for the students. The teacher did all of the thinking--summarizing the original text, selecting overarching themes, and the communication of the concept. The kids just sat and wrote. And some of them listened. Maybe.
5) Always student-led
Teachers have said to me, “How will they ever learn anything if they are leading but they don’t know where they are going? Some things just need to be taught.” Agreed. A great strategy for student-led classrooms is the gradual release method. Some people call it “I do; we do; you do.” Interestingly, every part of that the gradual release, though, can be student-centered. Remember to ask yourself, “Who is doing the thinking?”
6) Assessment through bubble sheets
Bubble sheet, bubble sheet, wherefore art thou bubble sheet? If I were a full-time teacher today, I would still use bubble sheets. (Don’t judge me yet!) Unfortunately, our society still uses them to assess skills! I’m sure you know someone who’s taken the ACT lately. However, I would use them much less. I want to understand the reasoning behind the answers my kids choose. As their teacher, how will I know if they blindly guessed or actually mastered a specific skill? So, how do we change this? Ask them questions that make them write. Student-centered learning is all about those open-ended assessments.
Students who are not asked to think--really think--get bored. Even the students who struggle with basic concepts are bored because many times they are not asked to think deeply about those basic concepts. If your students have to ask, “How does this apply to my life?” then maybe they are bored and haven’t made the connection. Student-centered teachers use student interests to guide their lessons--and even their content, when appropriate.
After teaching for several years, I finally had glimpses of student-centered learning in my own classroom, and I have memories that I will never forget--and neither will they! In my eighth grade classroom, we studied the book Flowers for Algernon. After analyzing the characters and discussing motives, my students began talking about the influence of bullies in their own lives. They researched it. They wrote about it. Then they decided to do something about it. I hate to admit that none of that was my idea, and that this next part they did completely on their own--outside of class. They collaborated with the Assistant Principal and the social worker and formed an Anti-Bullying Campaign at the middle school. They held meetings, created t-shirts, and led an assembly in front of the entire student body. By themselves. Some of those students were the “misfits” and some of them were the “popular “kids. That group of students took the entire literature unit to the next level. And they will never forget it.
10) A dead end
Student-centered classrooms are inspiring and motivating. A piece of text is where it all begins. Where the kids take it is up to you. It can become a campaign, a debate, a cause, a motive, a passion, or a life-long dream. Remember the powerful influence you possess.
She received a perfect score on her observation--my teaching partner in year 33. You may say, “Well, she’s had a lot of time to learn.” That’s true. But, teaching has drastically changed in the last 10 years, and she’s changed with it. She learned how to make her rows of desks become collaboration tables. She learned the art of questioning and discussion with middle school kids. She learned how to get eighth graders to love to read. (And I’m talking about the never-read-before, not-a-book-in-the-home type of kids.) I’m still inspired by her today. So, no matter what year you are in--even if you’ve done it the same way for 30 years, it’s not impossible!
We will write subsequent posts concerning student-centered learning. Any questions, concerns, or ideas, please contact us! We want to hear from you!
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A couple of my friends (now in their 30s) have considered teaching as a temporary career. I am unashamedly vocal about the value of public schools and how we need passionate teachers, so I find myself trying to recruit those who have a charisma about them. Unfortunately, charisma will only take you so far.
Teaching takes grit. That double-down, white knuckle, determination mixed with passion. That’s what teaching kids requires.
Susan recently read an article that summarized a study about grit. The author defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studied Ivy League undergrads, spelling bee champions, and cadets at West Point, and she found that grit was the best predictor for success--more than talent! (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007).
But then I started thinking: Teaching demands even more than that!
Teaching requires selfless grit.
Those Ivy League-ers had long-term goals for themselves.
I have a hunch that grit becomes grittier when it’s not for your own success.
We teachers are very passionate people--those who aren’t passionate don’t last long--and we tend to vocally criticize policy changes and poor administrators, which is probably not always good.
But in the end, it’s always about someone else. The kids.
Few jobs in this world require you to spend large amounts of time outside of work planning, grading, going to sporting events, and decorating, while all the while creating relationships with kids, who quite often break your heart with the bad decisions they make or with the obstacles they are forced to overcome. I’ve cried many tears with students and for students. That’s grit.
Think about the people, excluding family members, in your life who made the most impact on who you are. Most likely, those people are teachers, coaches, directors, or professors. They had grit. For you.
.Should you choose to enter the most incredible profession in the world... Susan and I came up with several undeniable attributes of what “teacher grit” might look like in your classroom:
As we return to our classrooms from a wonderful holiday break to embark upon the spring semester, thoughts of testing loom. The first half of the year is over, and very soon, our hard work will be measured through a single spring assessment.
Since we LOVE sports (ok, so mainly Susan does, ha!), we thought about the parallels between preparing for spring testing and competitive sports. We believe that preparing for spring testing is akin to preparing for the big game, requiring lots of practice and conditioning. With several months to go, there is ample time to recruit your students to take part in your very own “spring training program.”
1. Focus on the fundamentals - End of year assessments are intended to measure how well students know and understand learning standards. The best path to victory is teaching all grade level standards throughout the year in ways that engage and inspire learning.
2. Practice how you play - Coaches require players to practice like they play the game. When students are provided opportunities to practice as they will be tested, their chances of success are drastically improved.
Practice suggestions include:
Susan Dewees, Ed.D. is an administrator at a large middle school. She also served as a Turnaround Team Coordinator for a public school district in Louisiana. She has 20 years of experience in public school education, and special education is one of her specialties.
Erin Stokes, Ed.D. is a Title I Instructional Coordinator for a public school district in Louisiana. She has over 10 years of experience as a teacher and instructional coach. She is also an adjuct professor at Louisiana College. She loves students, teachers, and most of all--learning.
Becky Pippen, Ed.D. is currently serving as principal of a large middle school in Louisiana. She has over 20 years experience in educational leadership. She is passionate about improving the teacher workforce so that all students have the quality of instruction they deserve.