How I’m Trying to Do More With Less Part 3: Finding Places to Let the Students Lead

Early in his book Writing Unbound, Thomas Newkirk implores his readers to “[Not] Talk So Much” by saying the following:

“Deep in our DNA there must be some image of teaching where we are talking–instructing, giving directions, up front. Just walk past about any class. Studies of teacher lessons affirm that there is a deeply ingrained recitation script where the teacher takes two out of every three turns (Mehan 1979). Teacher asks question-student answers-teacher responds to answer.”

From Thomas Newkirk’s Writing Unbound, pg. 10.

This 2:1 ratio of teacher talk to student talk is something I know well. As I’ve discussed before, it can be second nature for me to settle into that recitation script time and again in my own classes, which can be a problem for the following reasons:

  • Like a thumb being pressed to an already unequal scale, when teachers talk first, it weights conversations heavily towards the teacher perspective–an action that when revisited enough times can neutralize any talk of partnership and agency.
  • When teachers always talk first, students can grow too dependent on teachers to solve all of their problems and chart the courses they should follow. To understand why this can be a major issue, see “The Curse of Helicopter Teaching” by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. 
  • Whoever leads is the one doing the preparation. Thus, if teachers are always leading, they will always be the ones doing the majority of the work–a dynamic that is not ideal in the best of times and is even less ideal in times where too much is already being asked of teachers.

These issues are why I’ve written more than a few times over the last few years about the places where students can potentially lead the conversation while the teacher acts as the responder. Much like not playing the role of editor in papers or engaging in retrieval practice, this approach is so often a win-win for teachers and students because it can take work off the teacher’s plate while feeding students more of what they need to grow into strong writers. Some places where I have made this shift in my classroom include my increased use of…

In each of these shifts, I have experienced a clear win-win for both the students and me. For example, when it comes to essay prompts, I don’t need to spend hours crafting the perfect prompt or slowly lose my mind as I read the same basic argument 150 times. Instead the students learn how to draw their own meaning from a text and are empowered to pursue topics that they are passionate about.

When it comes to final grades, I don’t need to spend a dozen hours or more largely justifying the scores I gave in final comments. Instead, I leave the justification to the students, who must look closely and metacognitively at their own skills. This helps them to better understand their own writing and frees me to respond to final papers in whatever way makes sense at the moment–ranging from celebrating student work to revisiting a key piece of feedback one more time. 

But there are also other little places where we can let students lead in a way where both parties will be better for it. For example…

  • Mentor Texts: A few weeks ago we were discussing how the first job of an author in any type of writing is to, in the words of Andrew Stanton, “Make a promise that this will be worth the [reader’s] time.” Students then got an opportunity via a Google Form to suggest a favorite story/movie, and the next day we looked at some of their suggestions and discussed how each attempted to make that promise. The result was one of the best mentor text studies of the year and really strong student engagement because we were talking about their favorite stories–all without me having to take a lot of my own time searching for the just-right mentor text.
  • The Writing Process: We discuss the writing process a great deal in my classroom. This discussion used to be just an acknowledgement that the most efficient and effective way to write is to engage in a process (as opposed to agonizing over one draft the night before and hitting spell-check before bed) followed a series of required steps: Pre-write using this notetaker, do peer response on this day, use this writing checklist at this time, etc. Of course, I still have plenty of required steps, especially early in the year when students are learning about the writing process, but I have also started to explore giving the students more and more choice about their own processes. On many drafting days, they now receive a menu of suggested revising options, but the course they take is ultimately up to them. These early experiments in students actively and consciously choosing how they want to approach their writing have been promising and have me thinking about how I would like to build students actively designing and vocalizing their own writing processes into my curriculum in future years.
  • Having Fun: I am teaching an academic support class for the first time this semester, and one of the students in it is one of the most inquisitive students I have ever had. Every few minutes he shouts out a new question for me on an seemingly infinite array of topics: “How did Alexander the Great die?” “Where did the myth of Bigfoot come from?” “What was that story with the guy who was buried in the floor?” While his curiosity is delightful, it can also be a distraction or derail the lesson, so when a couple weeks ago he suggested a short quiz game where the students try to best me in random knowledge, I jumped at the opportunity. The game, which takes place on Friday and is hosted by my Trivia Night champion student teacher, only takes five minutes, but it acts as an outlet for these questions and has brought the small class of historically struggling students together in a way that nothing else I planned has done. It also was a great reminder of the role that fun can and should play in our classes–it can’t all be business after all–and the best ideas about fun often come from the students. I would have never thought of a trivia game for this class, and yet it has been an unmitigated success!

In this era of increased usage of choice-based pedagogical tools like book clubs and project-based learning, the question of how much autonomy to give to students has become a sometimes fierce debate in the ELA community. It could easily be interpreted that I am jumping into this debate in favor of ceding large swaths of our decisions and curriculum over to students, but I want to make that clear though that this isn’t what I’m recommending here. I believe teacher chosen texts and mentor texts, teacher-required writing process steps, teacher-chosen essay prompts, and especially teacher feedback are all essential to maximizing student growth, and I use all of them sometimes.

At the same time though, teacher-chosen texts and activities aren’t the only catalysts for meaningful student growth. Instead, there are many times and places where the students we share a classroom with can contribute too and in a way that improves their learning and empowers them. Further, these moments where we share the planning load can also enable us to take a more of those essential nights and weekends away from work–an act which will potentially be more critical than ever in this final push through the last third of a year that for a great many has been one of the most taxing and tiring of their entire careers.

Yours in Teaching,


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