What's your focus? Teaching or Learning?

When someone asks you what's going on in your classroom, how do you respond?  Do you tell them what you are teaching, or do you tell them what students are learning? The wording of your answer actually matters quite a lot.  It affects just about everything from how you plan lessons and units to how you reflect on the success or failure of any task in your room.

I'm in Minneapolis right now at the AVID Summer Institute.  One of the activities that struck me most was watching a TED Talk called The Child-Driven Education and practicing Cornell Notes.  The video is about an education researcher named Sugata Mitra and his experiments with putting computers in places where children have no experience with technology, and seeing what happens.  Amazingly (or not), the children teach themselves!  It highlighted the idea that when a teacher sets up a compelling learning situation and then gets out of kids' way, learning will happen.  There's a lot more in the video, but this idea resonated with me.

I began my summer with the quest to read, study and find ways to revive and energize my own students' natural curiosity and desire to learn.  I refuse to believe that I have to lose them to their phones.  What I've run into over and over again is the idea that when children drive their own education, authentic learning and energy happen in classrooms.  But the more teachers control and direct every aspect of students' learning, the more education become an act of conformity, not discovery.  I encountered this idea in the creativity books I stumbled upon in the library.  I wrote about it here.  The books made me think deeply about ways to let students' interests, noticings, and wonderings fill our classroom outside independent reading time.

Then I went to ILA last week and saw Peter Johnston.  He began his session with two things we should do:

1.  Teach students to be noticers.
2.  Teach students to be teachers.

I tell you, the Universe pretty much hammers me on the head when I ask it a question.  Again, the idea that I needed to step back and encourage students to be the ones not only exploring the world, but teaching each others, hit me again.  And this is not something new to me - I taught middle school for 15 years and used a workshop always.  What had happened to me in the world of high school? Why do so many teachers believe they have to TELL high school students?  Why can we trust them to explore, discover and follow their own curiosity?

You know what?  WE CAN!

So back to my initial question:  when asked what's happening in your classroom, do you share what you're teaching or do you describe what your students are learning?  Is your classroom focused on students' becoming stronger readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, listeners, human beings?  Or is your classroom focused on teaching [fill in the blank]... narrative writing?  argument?  The Great Gatsby? Fahrenheit 451?  We do, after all, teach students, not books or writing or anything else.

My question this year is:  What happens when you not only encourage students choose their own books in your high school language arts classroom, but also encourage them to find and follow their own curiosity?  What kind of learning and growth happens when the teacher steps aside to encourage the students to lead?

Have you made shifts in your own teaching? Do you have resources that have helped you?  I'd love to hear your ideas!


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