Facilitate and get out of the way

Two weeks ago, I walked into my seventh grade language arts a few minutes after the bell. My students were tossing around a whiteboard eraser and talking.

I was thrilled. I’m not kidding.

All year, we’ve been working on having a discussion without raising our hands because it’s, well, ridiculous. And yet, there were still lots of times in my room that I not only responded to kids raising their hands, but also encouraged it — sometimes through my words, and sometimes just through my actions. But these bad habits paired with our new strategies in discussion were actually all good things: My kids saw the benefit of realistic discussion techniques compared to the constraints of the hand-raise. And they came up with a way to organize their discussion without me.

You see, my kids weren’t throwing around an eraser to be silly or to cause mischief. They were starting the lesson without me. We had a list of discussion questions from the novel we had finished that we had started the day before, and we didn’t have time to finish in the previous class. They decided that they didn’t want to wait for me, and that they would talk to each other and ask for the next turn (and the eraser) to speak if they had something to say to build on the previous speaker. If they had something unrelated, they would wait until that thread was exhausted and then make a comment or ask a new question.

When I walked in, it was clear they didn’t need me. So I sat and listened. And I was amazed at all the connections they had made and the questions they were asking and answering of each other. Everyone in the class spoke without any prompting from me, and the depth of their analyses and evaluations of the novel and the author’s writing blew me away.

What I’m about to say kills me a little bit, but it’s true: Sometimes I am the biggest barrier to my students’ independence without even realizing it. Sometimes I spend all year giving them strategies and then I forget to let go and trust that they’ll figure it out when I’m not right there. Sometimes I keep the training wheels on so long that they don’t see the purpose in trying out two wheels on their own. Sometimes, in trying to give extra support, I provide something they don’t want or need, and it hinders their individual growth.

I know that throwing the eraser doesn’t look exactly like a real-life conversation, but it was closer than my directing hands in the air. More importantly, they came up with a plan to meet their goal, they executed the plan well, adjusting when needed, and they had the best discussion they’d experienced all year.

As teachers, we need to be facilitators. And then we need to get out of the way and let our students soar.

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The school year is not over yet.

My seventh graders have been reading Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt. If you’re in education and have never read it, you should. It’s about a slightly dramatic seventh grade boy named Holling who ends up spending Wednesday afternoons with his language arts teacher, Mrs. Baker, reading the plays of Shakespeare. At first, neither one seems thrilled about the arrangement, but soon they come to realize that, in many ways, they need each other. Set during the Vietnam War, this book take readers from laughing to crying and back again, especially if you grew up diagramming sentences.

My kids have been spending a lot of time analyzing character interactions so that we can discover how authors develop strong plots and themes, and through their analyses, I’ve seen just how much they understand about the world, life, and relationships. While the author does a nice job of showing readers what’s happening, my kids are digging even deeper to understand what each character might have been feeling during every interaction.

And even though I’ve read this book with a few different classes over the years, I am reminded every time I read it that there is always more to discover in a favorite text. While I’ve always felt that strong relationships between teachers and their students are vital to a successful learning environment, after participating in #IMMOOC in the fall and spring, I was able to understand that even more through Holling and Mrs. Baker this time around; my experiences changed the way I read and what I noticed in the text.

At this time of year, it’s easy to feel defeated if we let ourselves. The kids can feel summer creeping into their bones. They start doing things and acting in ways that are completely out of character because they are full of anticipation — for freedom, for time, for warmth. And what I noticed this read-through of Wednesday Wars is that Mrs. Baker gave Holling exactly those things. She gave him the freedom to be himself when it seemed that everyone else had already determined his future for him. She gave him time, not just on Wednesday afternoons, but also by going to his play and making sure that he received guidance and support when he didn’t get it at home. Her warmth changed his perspective about school and life and even the writings of Shakespeare.

I don’t need to wait for summer for my students to receive those things from me. Like Mrs. Baker, I can give them freedom, and time, and warmth right now. Today.