Getting Out of the Way of Student Learning

Week Two is done. This week I will be asking them to rough draft, read, proof, rewrite, edit and polish their essays. Most of them have been making enough progress to get to the point of writing. One really great benefit of the way I have been running the class is that I really feel like I have had a chance to interact with every student in every period, at least minimally. Some students don’t want and/or need my attention. So, me saying, “You doing okay?” and them nodding is enough.

As I have made my way around the classroom I have seen many of the students trying to jump into writing the essay without figuring out what they will write. They don’t have a thesis and they haven’t organized their arguments. So, I have been able to direct them back to those steps. Most students have been doing this and it has been effective in helping them get their Ideas in order.

Oh, in case I haven’t mentioned it, I teach writing primarily using the 6+1 Traits of Good Writing and the Jane Schaffer Writing Method. Unlike past years where I gave presentations/lectures to the whole class on these methods, this year I have been teaching them to the students that ask or indicate that they do not know how to construct an essay or a paragraph. I have Good Writing Traits posters on both sides of my room. I would prefer to formally teach them but I don’t know that all of my students need to know it, in fact, I think they may not.

What I notice is that the kids who ask are more willing to listen and learn. And, I can target my teaching directly to what they need right then. This, I think, leads to greater comprehension and absorption of the concepts. This is part of my goal.

I notice I still have a number of kids not working in each period. They sit and chat instead of work. At first, I was tempted to see this as a major failing of my strategy. But, ten years of teaching have given me the experience to know that this same thing occurs in a “traditional” classroom setting too. However, I think it’s important for me to note that in that “traditional” classroom, those kids not working would be a greater distraction to the students choosing to learn. They would be drawing a much greater proportion of my attention as I had to go deal with their off-task behavior. Instead, I will stop by their desks/tables and say, “You really should be using your time more wisely. It doesn’t look like you are getting much done. Do you need help?” If they ask for help, I give it. If not, I move on. This way, I can go see if someone else can benefit from my attention.

Some may disagree with my approach. However, I think that it amounts to a better outcome. I taught regular English and/or Drama classes for six years. Something that was similar to both, and part of my ASB experience as well, was that kids that don’t want to learn generally don’t learn. Learning is a choice. You can lead a horse to water and all of that. I, as the teacher, can work to motivate the student to choose to learn, either through disciplinary measures or by trying to make the lesson more relevant to them. I am doing these things. Students that don’t turn in evidence of progress toward the standards or whose progress is poor will be getting notices sent home both in writing and phone calls. I am also speaking with the students not working and trying to help them see how these lessons could benefit them.

But, in the end, it’s up to them to choose to do the work to learn.

A couple of success stories: Erick was on the computer during class looking up animal cruelty (the lessons ask them to write an essay on the subject of animal rights). I noticed this and thought about telling him that this wasn’t a research project and redirecting him to work on writing but I changed my mind and let him surf on the subject. I figured it was his choice and that at least it was on the subject. Later, on his student blog, he posted that he found information about bull fighting and in reading on it, he became very interested and convinced that bull fighting was wrong and unfair to bulls. He said that he now knew how he was going to start his essay!

This is a major win! A student found a personal connection to the subject and this will allow him to bring a much more interesting tone and Voice to his essay. It happened because I left him alone! Many students will rise to the standards we set for them… and above!

Update on Bob: I can tell that his reading level is below grade level. But, I talked with him on Friday and he had chosen to re-read the essay and was answering some comprehension questions, voluntarily, in the packet. He was stuck, though, trying to figure out what the main point of the author was. The question was asking what the author wanted the reader to do as a result of reading the editorial. It’s a tricky question because the author never comes out and direct exhorts the reader to do anything. Instead, the author hints at and suggests that animals deserve rights and protections. Bob and I talked for a minute or two and I was able to help him find this and say it aloud on his own. I told him, “That it! That’s what the author is saying and his thesis! You got it!” This kid, with the shaved head, piercings through both sides of his lower lip, worked hard to suppress the smile over his victory but he couldn’t hide it entirely. This was a supreme moment for him and, I hope, will encourage him to keep trying. He proved to himself that he could learn, something I think he may have forgotten because of all the “F’s” he got in other English classes.

All students can learn. Students learn at different times. Students learn in different ways. All students want to learn.

Another student had been frittering away his time this week. I had passed by many times during class and commented on it to him. On Friday, he finally asked for help. I showed him the exercises to work on in the packet after discussing with him where his confusions where. I told him he should work over the weekend since he wasted time in class during the week. At that moment, he agreed. Whether it turned into action this weekend, I don’t know. But, his face seemed to show that he realized I was right and that he needed to do this. By not confronting him and forcing him to work in a heavy-handed manner, I helped him to see on his own that he needed to work.

An important take-away for me is that when I get out of the way, students learn.

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