Saturday, January 8, 2011

Let Them Speak - Notes from my RSCON#11 Presentation

Just a disclaimer with these; they were written late one night as I was brainstorming what i would present on.  They are not polished but just free thoughts as I went through my slides.

Hi, my name is Pernille Ripp and I am not an expert.  I am a 4th grade teacher in a school with around 450 students and I am on a journey.  A journey into questioning everything I was taught in school, a journey that has led me here today opening up about why my classroom is changing, and hoping to inspire others to question their classroom as well.

Many articles have been written about student centered classrooms, there are many people that know more than me, use them, connect with them on twitter or through the internet.  I am only here to tell you my story, so let's begin.

Last year I had fantastic students, I felt more confident,  and I had a great team, and yet at the end of the year I was deflated.  I was spent.  I questioned what I was doing as a teacher, why did I teach the way I did and why did the method I had been taught just not seem to work? I shared this with my husband and he asked me, “What can you change?”

So I joined Twitter and started thinking about who I was as a person and how I wanted to be as a teacher.  I also started blogging and doing most of my thinking aloud.  I knew a big problem for me was the amount of control I had in the classroom, it seemed to be a dictatorship at times, and yet, I didn’t know how to change it or whether I could do it at all.

Control - a huge word in education.  In college we are taught tricks on how to control our classroom, or classroom management strategies.  But the control doesn't stop there, we not only have to control the room, but also the learning.  There are many books written on how to control the learning in your room and we eagerly read them as new teachers, desperate and afraid of not having it.  So if you walk by most traditional classroom settings what you will see is the teacher at the front of the room, talking at the students that are sitting in neat rows all facing the teacher, or at least that was my room. Questions are answered when students raise their hand, or not at all.   It is evident who is in charge.

Some people think the opposite of control must be assumed chaos.  Because if there is not a clear power structure in the room then no one will know how to act, behave or learn.

This was almost my classroom last year, I had pods but still it was all about me.  I was always in control,  carefully planning out every lesson, every step.  There is a beginning point, a middle, a finished  product that then gets graded and handed back.  Once it is handed back to the students that journey is finished.  Students are participants in the stalest form of the word.  They are participating in what the teacher allows them to participate in.  There is no shared control.

So what happens when we give up that control to the students and create a student centered classroom?  Well, most people assume that chaos reigns supreme.  I was one of those people.  I was petrified of the little things, of noise, of clutter, of not being in control at all times.  I thought my classroom would be wild and crazy filled with screaming kids that refused to work.  Instead this is what happened, this is from a regular day doing writing in my classroom.

Student  centered means putting the focus on the students rather than the teacher.  Think of how powerful that statement is.  We think as teachers that that is what we do at all times, but is is not true.  It is often a show put on by the teacher where the students get to watch and do some work, but every step of the way has been predetermined.  The path has been chosen and we are in a hurry to get to our destination.  So when the focus is shifted back to the students we have to ask ourselves how will my students learn this?  How will they explore and get to our goal?  The how becomes just as important as the what.

The first step is to realize that you as the teacher no longer is the only authority on learning.  Students are given control as well and you step back from your big brother role.  To do this you have to realize first what you can let go of and what you cannot.  I knew there were certain things such as interrupting others that I would never be ok with, but many other things such as sitting in desks, rubrics, grades, homework, I could let go of.

So in the truest sense of the words, it is elementary.  We must unlearn some of the lessons from college and our experience and stop hogging the limelight.  And this is much easier than it sounds.

So baby steps becomes the way to first do it.  Many students are not prepared for student centered learning.  Their voice has been hushed or diminished for so many years that we first have to help them find it again.  This can be accomplished through activities already in the first week.  Some things I did was have them create classroom rules, and also have them help me set up the room.  This way they already started taking ownership of our learning environment.  

I also spoke to them about my choices and the why's behind my decision to get rid of grades and most homework.  For more information on that you can see my blog.  I also kept quiet a lot of the time.  Now I am a talker, but they needed to see that it wasn't all about me from the very first day.  This is huge.  Set the tone from the very first moment you meet them.  Explain to them the journey you are going on and how you will be challenging them, it was incredible to see the kids get excited about all of my crazy ideas and it was a great way to field any questions right away both from students and parents.

Then began the actual learning and the real challenge begins.  We are so used to being the bringers of learning that we forget what it means to let students explore.  This was and is my biggest challenge.  I still have to stop myself from just talking at students.  So instead, for everything I continuously ask myself what is the goal of this lesson?  If I know the goal, then I can backtrack from there.  An example could be a unit on crayfish, I have a set curriculum I am supposed to guide the students through.  I chose to instead ask the students what they wanted to learn and do with these animals.  I knew the overall goal of the unit was to teach them respect for life and animals.  Well, you can certainly get there in many ways.  By giving the students ownership of the unit, they became much more invested.

so ask yourself what the goal is of your lesson.  Can it be accomplished through an exploration rather than a teacher led discussion?  Most of the time it can.  Another huge lesson for me was to actually inform the students of our goal.  How many of you teach without telling the students what the goal of the lesson is?  I used to until I realized it is like putting someone in a car every day without telling them their destination or purpose of the trip.  It doesn't make any sense.  Once students know the destination or goal you will be surprised at their methods for getting there.  In fact, students are usually way more creative than I will ever be in coming up with project ideas.

It doesn't always go perfect though, so then what do you do?  Well, you ask the students what went wrong.  In a recent exploration of Native Americans, my students asked to pick their own research projects and choose their own finished products.  I was scared and excited since this would prove to be my biggest letting go of the year.  I did meet with the kids to hear their project ideas and help them if needed.  It was amazing to watch kids do their thing.  Almost all of the kids were deeply engaged and very, very excited about the project.  When it came time to present their finished project one pair of boys came up and told me they were not done.  In fact, for two weeks there weren't quite sure what they were really supposed to be doing.  Instead of asking me for help they just made it look like they were busy and when I walked by they were always working on something, or so it seemed.  So what did we learn?  Well all of us learned to ask more questions!  Also for me to tune in even more.  While most kids were ready to do this free of a project, some were not.

This is a major point of student-centered learning; not all students are ready for the same level of freedom.  Some benefit from working with a teacher as facilitator and others can do it on their own.  It also completely depends on the project and can change all of the time.  My students whom others may consider to be struggling did really well in this project.  So make yourself available to all of the students and don't  be surprised by who asks for help.

Another important aspect of  this type of learning is to really give students an outlet for their voice.  I accomplished this through student  blogging.  I use, which is a free blogging websites particularly for teachers and students.  Greta Sandler did an incredible presentation on the how and why of student blogging, which I have linked in my presentation.  Every week my students have a blogging challenge where I get to either reinforce something we have discussed in class such as protagonist and antagonist, or I pick their brains.  I ask my students questions about the classroom, about me as a teacher, about what they would change, what they like or dislike.  And they are honest!  If you give kids a chance to tell you they will.  We worked hard on how to comment and blog and now it has become one of our biggest tools for communicating.  Never mind all of the people we have connected with throughout the world.  Now when my students talk about projects they try to bring the world in rather than just focusing on their own little world.  This shift in perception could not have been done without student blogging.

So what all of this means to me is really just focusing on the students.  My goal is to make sure that these kids still love going to school when they are done with fourth grade and student-centered learning helps me do that.
ask yourself, what can you let go of?  What do you not need to be in control of?  When can you be quiet?  And continue to question yourself!  I certainly do not have all of the answers and yes some times I have to talk to the students and be the  bringer of knowledge but if you balance that with student led explorations, you will see it becomes less and less you and more them.  And ask the students what and how they want to learn something, they bring quite a bit of knowledge in as well.  As teachers we cannot be the only people with the knowledge, we have to give that power back to the students.  Student-centered learning is the tool to do that.

I thought I would end with letting my students speak for me, because in the end, it is truly all about them.


Debbie said...

I love your heartfelt, passionate and honest thoughts. There's nothing better than students who are in charge of their learning. They are learning to take risks and think for themselves.

carla said...

My goal for 2011 too-thanks for such an honest , thoughtful post.

cheryl lynn said...

Pernille - I find your writing to be so thoughtful, with the right balance of introspection and challenge. Thank you for your FANTASTIC presentation this afternoon... great to hear you "in person." Keep on doing what you're doing. You're making a HUGE difference, not just in your classroom, but in classrooms around the world! THANKS!

Juliejjv said...

Thanks for your honest remarks. Good luck to you on achieving all you hope to achieve. Anyone who thinks as you do has a great headstart! Keep on blogging!

rcantrell said...

Pernille, A terrific presentation! Refreshing, honest and from the heart. Thank you

Alia said...

Pernille, great ideas for classroom! I took a note of your terrific remarks. Thaks a lot!


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