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Be the Change: A Call to Teachers

Updated on April 14, 2013

part 2 in the "Be the Change" series

Teachers, I'm asking you to be brave and start a revolution of one. We can't wait for lawmakers, school administrators, and the union to fix the mess that public education has become. Between excessive student testing, harshly evaluating teachers, and other "bright" ideas, we have created a generation of zombie students who feel entitled to things (cell phones, video systems, etc.) to numb the pain of being zombies.

I've been in my revolution of one since I started teaching in 1988, and it has not been easy in terms of my career. I've never gotten tenure. But what I have done is made a difference in the lives of my students and I don't regret what I have done a single bit.

The current system wipes out curiosity, creativity, global thinking, exploration, analytical thinking, self-directed growth and more. These are the very things that drew me into education; I thrill at being able to facilitate true learning and growth. And equally important, it thrills the students. (That's an important side-concept: both teachers and students need to get something out of the classroom experience. Be honest. It is not just about the students, it is about us too.) Win-Win.

In my first two years as a teacher, 100% of my students passed the Regents exam, although one had to retake it. When the tests were reviewed by another teacher, he told me I had graded them harder than he would have. I started a drama club, a dance club, a literary magazine, and I hosted a weekly brown bag lunch with the school psychologist for students to come and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. I did not get tenured there because I put the student desks in a semi-circle instead of rows, often times my class got a little noisy and looked chaotic as students engaged in projects and activities, and, as the late Mr. K, the superintendent said to me, "You're a strong willed woman now. Imagine what you'd be like if you got tenure."

In between teaching gigs I had other jobs, which was actually pretty cool. I learned a lot and it gave me additional experiences to bring to the classroom. All told, I have about 15 - 20 years of teaching experience at various levels and settings. From that experience, I can share with you some concepts and strategies for starting your own revolution of one...if you dare to be the change.

1. View your classroom as a laboratory. Experiment. Take risks. Be willing to fail. Let your students know that it is okay to experiment, take risks, and fail. Talk about it. Process it together. Learn from it together.

2. Plan and then deviate from the plan. By saying that you should view your classroom as a laboratory, I'm not saying it should be a free for all. I start every semester with a well-organized, color coded outline. I have my topics, activities, and assignments all laid out. But then I pay attention to what is happening in each class and seize the opportunity to switch gears if something organic is happening that will allow real learning to happen. That outline is a mess by the time the semester is over and I'm very happy about that. As I spend more time with my students and read their reflective writings (see #4), I think about ways to take what I have learned about them and integrate that into my plans.

3. Create a partnership. I talk to my students about the idea that both the teacher and the students need to get something out of the classroom experience. To be honest, all relationships have this element. It does not mean I am giving up my authority; I still have the final say as to what goes on in my classroom. I let students know that I am going to be asking them to do a lot of thinking and coming up with ideas about projects, activities, and other things throughout our time together. I show them my clean, start of the semester outline and then I show them a messy one (from the end of previous class) and explain how we will make this “mess” together when we chose a better option.

It takes a while to build this partnership. Most students are not accustomed to this way of being in a classroom and it also takes time to learn about each other and build rapport. The first couple of weeks may be a bit awkward and scary, for both the teacher and the students.

Discussion is central to the way I teach and to my personality as an extravert. One semester I had a classroom full of introverts, which makes having discussions very difficult but not impossible. It took me a little while just to figure out that this was the issue. Once I did, I adjusted. I did two things for this situation. I gave them a topic or question to think about in class and then gave them five to ten minutes to jot down their thoughts and ideas during class. After the time was up, we would discuss their notes. Other times I would give them the topic or question at the end of class and ask them to be prepared to discuss it during the next class. Introverts need time to process inside their heads, so give them the opportunity. You will be amazed and rewarded by what they contribute to the discussion.

4. Don't give many tests or much homework. WHY? Because both are mainly a waste of time and don't really provide long-term learning results. My goal is to have students remember at least some of what they learn in my classes for years to come. Another reason not to give much homework is that many students go home to an environment where they won't be able to get it done, or they may have to work. If we really believe in equal opportunity, those students with a less than stellar home life suffer when we assign a lot of homework. A further reason to limit school work done outside the classroom is that most jobs don't require people to go home and then do another two to three hours worth of work that they have to turn in, so why should we have kids do that? They need to play and unwind. As a recovering workaholic and recovering perfectionist, I beg you not to instill those values in our children.

INSTEAD, I have students do reflective writing and projects (some of which they are able to work on during class time) as the primary means of assessment and grading.

For reflective writing, I have the students use a three step system.
1. WHAT? What did you learn? This might be learning from class, the textbook, or some other source. BRIEFLY summarize main ideas.
2. SO WHAT? So what is the significance of this information? So what about this is important? So what does this mean in terms of your life or life in general? I suggest to students that they look for ways to connect concepts and information they are learning to things they are currently observing in real time. This part of the process helps students make connections and internalize the information. I give my own examples when appropriate. I suggest or assign further research determined by the student to expand understanding.
3. NOW WHAT? Now what are you going to do? Now that you know the information and why it matters, what thinking or behavior in you has or will change?

Depending on the level of the students, they may do a midterm and final reflection in which they review their reflections and find a thread of commonality in order to identify what they have truly learned in more depth.

As for projects, I sometimes come up with the ideas myself. Sometimes I find ideas on the web or in a book. And other times I brainstorm with students to come up with the ideas.

Having students work in small groups on doable but challenging projects teaches them so many things including teamwork, time management, project planning and so forth. It also gives me a chance to work with them in smaller groups as I help facilitate their work.

5. Teach them to read a textbook. I hear teachers often complain that students don't read the textbook. The way I do this is I will divide the class into groups and give each group 2 - 3 pages out of the text. Each group is instructed to read the text together (taking turns). Then they need to agree on what are the 3 or 4 main ideas in that portion of the text. Sometimes I ask them to put together a reflective presentation on the material (What? So What? Now What?) Other times, I give them other parameters for a presentation. For example, I might tell them they need to find a way to convey the material to the other students as if they were aliens from another planet. Or I might ask them to pretend they are clowns, senior citizens, judges or some other group just to get them thinking outside of the box.

6. Check in with each other. At the start of class, I usually do a check in of some sort. It might be specific, where I ask each student to tell me something about a particular topic/concept. Or it might be broader; I might mention a current event or fun fact and ask them their opinion of it, or ask if there is something cool they have been hearing about. I also challenge them to make a connection between anything we share and what we are learning in class. This allows students to think more globally and it allows me to find out what things they are interested in to see if I can bring it into our academic discussions.
Sometimes I end check-ins with the typical, "Are there any other questions?" Other times I challenge them to think further about something or see if they can connect any of our check-in discussion with what we learn about in that days' class.

7. Play. Have fun. Mary Poppins tells us, "For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and make the job a snap." There is no reason we need to be super serious the majority of the time in the classroom. Playing and having fun helps you get more done. There is a well known FISH! philosophy that also encourages playfulness in work places. It is based on the very successful fish market in Seattle. (For more information go to Playfulness does not necessarily mean games; it is more an attitude of wonder and fun. Play with words and ideas and class time will fly. Where can the content of the class take you and your students? There is no limit.

8. Move. We are a culture that is way too sedentary. If you are not doing projects in class where students can move around, take a moment here and there to have everybody stretch or do some type of fun movement. Be creative - there are lots of ways to get students moving. You can do a physical poll or quiz where students move to a certain part of the room to choose their answer.

9. Empower them. Let them teach. The best way to learn anything is to teach it. Teach them about learning styles, introverts/extraverts, global thinkers/linear thinkers. Then challenge them to create little mini lessons that reach out to all the different styles and preferences. They will learn both the material and good communication skills.

10. Encourage other teachers to start a revolution. Let's change the paradigm so that students come to see that learning is fun and desirable and something they can do. Let's cultivate students who will think creatively and analytically, who will have great skills to use in the work place and at home, who have passion and fire, who are not zombies.

Do you dare to be the change and start a revolution of one? I know it is scary but it is well worth it. We have to be willing to stay true to our teaching spirit and not be ruled by tests and evaluations. Our students and the future of our country depend on your courage. The time is now.


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    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I can't imagine that a person would be denied tenure for having desks in a semi-circle. This is a common practice among teachers who, you know, teach. I think your ideas here are spot on for the most part. Students should learn to explore and love to learn. We should help fuel their curiosity. Of course! We all have expectations though, so it is important to teach them that as well. As teachers, we can take the out of the box approach, as long as we are teaching the standards, which do break down into skills our kids will need in their future. I suppose one could argue that if you are doing deep, meaningful work, then you will hit all the standards. It is always good to evaluate yourself on this though. We need to hold ourselves accountable for doing the right thing. Teaching should never really be about us, the teachers. Yes, we should love what we do, but the focus must always remain on the student and their needs.


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