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Time to Fly

What if I fall?
Oh, but my darling. What if you fly?
- Erin Hanson

By this point we all know that "effective" teaching involves less of the teacher teaching and more of the students doing. But letting go of control in the classroom can be scary. This is a tale of how I faced my fear of loosing the reins, how it paid off in spades and how you can do the same.

My educational experience growing up was chalk and talk. I learned everything I was supposed to pretty well. So did my friends (likely because they were just like me). So, why change something if it isn't broken? In my first several years of teaching, chalk and talk was my default mode. When in doubt, just deliver the content. But, I knew all the research. This isn't really the way it should be done. Kids learn better when they do, when they are more engaged in the lesson, when they have more ownership, blah blah blah. But chalk and talk was working. So, why change the system? And what if I let go a little, try something new and the kids go nuts? What if I get observed? What if all hell breaks loose? What if they don't learn anything? What if???

Well, it took about 10 years for me to finally build up the courage and confidence in my ability, to move past the "What ifs" and embrace the blah, blah, blahs. And, it turns out it's the best thing I've ever done for my classroom, students and career.

First off, realize that your students will learn from you. Unless you are truly awful (and if you are taking the time to read this, I doubt you are), your students will learn the content. How they learn the content is really what's important. Our job is not to teach content (especially in elementary and middle school), it's to teach students how to learn our content. If you want to grow learners, you have to give them some control of their learning so that they learn how to educate themselves and make the choices that will push their learning forward. Let go a little bit and let them lead their learning. They will still learn the content, I promise.

Second, if letting go and giving kids too much choice scares you, you can give kids the illusion of choice. Even a little choice goes a long way with helping students feel more responsible for their learning and more engaged in the work. My students recently completed an earth science project where they got to choose a location to research from a list of places. They all had to complete a Google Slides presentation with the same rubric (though I let them define excellence for their own work). How they reported the information and how they formatted the final product was up to them.  I had outlined the standards to be addressed, the rest was up to them. They were engaged and interested in what they were doing. A little bit of freedom went a long way.

A lab I did where I gave the students the question I wanted them to answer and they designed their own experiment.


And third, the dreaded observation. What if you get observed when you are trying something new? If you have a reasonable administrator, and most are, explain what you are doing. You are trying something new, taking a chance that will better your practice. In fact, invite your administrators in. Maybe they can help you make it even better next time. Maybe it will be awesome and you've just nailed your observation. Or maybe it doesn't work out so well. Don't panic! Ask your admins if  they can not write it up since you were trying something new and invite them in the next time you try it having worked out some of the kinks. Most administrators want to see that you are trying to become better. That is the point of observations. Make them work in your favor. Take the chance and give the kids more control. The rewards far outweigh the risks.

Oh, and as for all hell breaking loose...well that's up to you and the culture you build in your space. I wouldn't try too much choice in the beginning of the year when you are building culture and establishing norms. But, once you have that all set up and the students know the expectations of your space, they will do just fine. They will know what you expect and how to behave. And, for the most part, they will deliver in the behavior department.

So try it. Make it your #onesmallthing. Make it your New Year's Resolution. Lean on other teachers for support and ideas. Lean on me! But give it a try. Loose the reins and give the students more control of what they are learning, how they are learning and how they show you they have learned. In the end, it will make your classroom a more enjoyable place for you and for your students (and let me know how it goes!). Worst case, you fall.  You try something new, it doesn't' work and you learn from your mistakes. Best case....oh but my darling, what if you FLY?


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