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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