The One Simple Way To Improve Your Classes

In early March my kids and I moved into a new house. We loved the layout  and the quiet, wood-filled backyard. Once we moved in, we began personalizing the inside with a few updates and paint.  And as soon as we had a nice day outside, I got a can of bright turquoise semi-gloss and painted the front door. For a minute I wondered if this color was a little too much for my neutral neighborhood.  But that quickly passed. No more almost driving into our neighbor's driveway for me.  The house had been stamped with my personal style.

There have been times in my career where I've graded assignments that made me die a little inside.  Paper after paper that read almost like duplicates of each other. No variety. No personality. No life.  Either the topic hadn't engaged many of my students, they didn't understand it, or it was just bad timing - not the right writing for these kids right now.

As I thought about my new house, I thought about how it must feel to be a student constantly doing work that someone else has chosen.  Would it feel like moving into a new house but being forced to keep the old owner's paint colors, decorating and furniture, even though it didn't fit with your lifestyle or taste?  What about when students are given choice within a broader topic? Does that feel like being able to bring your own furniture, but having to leave that old wallpaper in the kitchen?  Kind of yours, but not really.

This week we finished our poetry unit with identity poems, which had the simple instruction "Show yourself through a poem."  I was worried when we started that I hadn't provided enough guidance.  I didn't have a detailed assignment sheet, and my scoring guide seemed a bit vague.  What if the kids just sat there?  What if chaos broke out?  Yes, we had read a lot of poems, studied poetic elements, and imitated a lot of styles in our notebooks. Still, I was nervous.

I decided to just go for it. I stopped talking and let them figure out what to write. And you know what happened?  The room was completely silent. I stood in the middle turning slowly around. There was my energizer bunny class, bent over notebooks and iPads, furiously writing.  It was like that feeling you get when your baby has been fussy for hours and finally falls asleep in your arms.  You almost don't dare breath or you'll break the spell.  So I just stood and watched.  After about 10 minutes I was quietly beckoned by a tentative finger and firm directions NOT to read it out loud, but would I please look at this poem and see if it was OK?

It was.  Actually, it was more than OK.  It was a risk, vulnerable, soft and real.  We had a short, whispery conference with some suggestions about white space and vivid words, and soon I was called to another student. And another.  For the first time all year, someone yelled, "The bells gonna ring!" We had completely lost track of time (ALL. OF. US.) because the kids had found their voices.

Kids love the freedom to express themselves.  Whether it's with aqua green hair or entering  a science competition, students need to be able to explore who they are and what they want to be, not just for a career, but as humans. When we allow students true ownership over their writing, we acknowledge that their voices matter, that they matter.

The same goes for books.  It's not just trendy to create a classroom environment where the students read more self-selected books than whole class texts. It's good teaching. Our students are hungry for ways to be individuals who make decisions and to show that they can think for themselves.  They're shedding childhood and need to figure out what's next.  In the pages of books, students discover themselves and realize they matter.  They discover different ways of living and realize they can choose to be more than what they are right now.  Choosing their own books is such a simple way to give kids power.

At my school we have one month left before summer.  The year has gone too quickly, and I'm sure I haven't accomplished everything I wanted to.  But the one thing that I did do right this year was offer choice as often as I could. As we head into May, I know the kids will read at least one more choice book, and they'll write, well, something. To be honest, I don't know what they'll write because that's up to each individual student. But I hope it turns out to be something that feels like home, even if it does shake up the neighborhood a bit.


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