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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Paula White on Letting Kids Lead

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Paula White, a grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Teacher, NETS*T certified, and lover of learning.

I teach in a relatively small (a little over 300 students), fairly rural school where student numbers do not fall in nice neat little patterns of 40 or 60 kids per grade level for 2 or 3 teachers. Because of that, our Kindergarten classes this year are larger than they have been in many years -- we have classes of about 24 each, when they are usually below 20 students.

In November, we decided to revamp our Kindergarten schedule to make somewhat smaller groups during some instructional times, and as the Gifted Resource Teacher, with 17 years experience as a K teacher, I volunteered to take a group once a week to help out. It has been an interesting ride, to say the very least. The group was set up so that I have the kids who may, at some point, need gifted services, but it was also a heterogenous group overall. It contained kids from both of our Kindergarten classes, so part of my role was to help them become a community of learners as the "third group."

My Initial Plans

The first week, my plans were to read a book, and then have them go to tables and do a follow up activity with manipulatives, so I could see how they worked. These kids knew me, as I had worked some in their classrooms earlier in the year, but that work was done in their classrooms--this was the first time they had visited me in mine. (See my post Incidental Learning in Cooperative Catalyst for a beginning story of me working in K this year, and the last sentence of that post has yet another.)

I began reading and about three pages into the book, one of the kids suddenly stood up and began looking around my classroom. At the end of the page, I stopped and said something like, "Johnny, standing up in the middle of the book reading could disturb other people. Please sit down, or move to a table where you can squirm and look without bothering others." He sat down and I continued to read.

The Popcorn Game: How to Respond?

Within 5 seconds, another child stood up. I glanced at her and decided to finish the page before I said anything. She stood for a moment, watching me intently and then sat down. "Phew" I thought to myself. "Averted that potential power struggle." But as soon as she sat, another kid stood up -- then another and the first sat down. Then it was like they were playing a game of popcorn -- as soon as one sat down, another would stand up -- and, of course, they all began giggling. I simply put the book down in my lap and watched quizzically. They popped up and down, giggling crazily for almost five minutes, with me just watching. When they began to tire of playing this crazy game of popcorn, one brave soul started to leave the rug, so I quickly intervened. I asked, "Are you guys ready to hear the story now, or would you like to have some time to explore my classroom?"

Well, of course they wanted to explore . . . so I quickly gave the rules in my classroom -- be safe, be considerate, be thinking, and we quickly mentioned what each of those entailed -- then I let them go. It was awesome -- I learned more about them in that 20 minutes than I would have with the activity I had planned, quickly seeing which children were frozen by that quick release to freedom, and which were released to their own interests by it. I had a ball interacting with them, seeing which toys, games and centers they gravitated to, which objects generated questions, which games some children immediately tried to organize, who worked together, who worked alone, and I was simply amazed at their independence and self-motivation.

I was also reminded that even at 5 and 6, kids often know exactly what kind of learning they need. As it was the first time they had been in my classroom -- a classroom full of games, books, independent stations, toys, museum -like artifacts and tables for group interaction -- they knew they wanted to get their hands on that stuff -- to explore, to question, to try, to experiment, to play, to think, to engage, to learn about what was there.

And I needed to let them do just that.

The Many Benefits of Trust

Scrapping my lesson and letting them lead gave me the opportunity to say -- without words -- that I honored them, I respected their needs, they had thoughts and feelings that would be heard and I was flexible. They walked out happy, I was filled with reflections and thoughts, and we were all looking forward to our next Thursday class. Not bad for a first time meeting with a group I am supposed to help build a sense of learning community with, hm?

What are some of the strategies you use when your students are wanting to explore outside of what you've got planned?

As one of the founding members of the collaborative blog, Cooperative Catalyst, Paula White leads conversations on educational transformation and has helped to organize and collect links for the recent Blog 4 Reform initiatives. Paula is an innovative teacher, having been recognized as a lifelong learner and leader by Apple, Google, Discovery Education, PDK, NTTI, and she is a Smithsonian Laureate, a Golden Apple Recipient and was a VA finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science.

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Donna DeGroat's picture
Donna DeGroat
Special Education and Intervention

Great blog post Paula--and it so reminds me of visiting your K classroom eons ago. As I recall you asked a group of K students to go in the hallway and decide who would do specific tasks. One of the tasks was going to the hardware store in the center of town to get materials for a project. Thinking that everyone would want to go into town to shop, I envisioned a mini-brawl occurring in the hallway. In a matter of minutes, you invited the group back in and a spokesperson for the group informed you of who was doing what. It was magical. No whining, no tears, no three-inch lower lip--empowered to make their own decisions, the students were ready to move on to the next phase of the project. Though I think I know how important it is to let the students lead, I need constant reminders to let it happen. Thank you.

Jason Kornoely's picture
Jason Kornoely
Elementary Teacher

Why is it so hard to trust and let go? You let those little ones do what comes naturally. I'm sure it was a blast watching them work.

I recently blogged (http://bit.ly/dmdduk)about a time when I let my fourth graders go with a data collecting activity. It was such an anxiety filled couple of moments...that is until the kids started to perform brilliantly. As you found, it was a blast watching them take the lead.

Thank you for your post.

Jason

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Hi Paula,
Great blog post. Really brought home to me one of the most important messages of teaching and learning: that is, it's a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. In other words, learning is something that is done together with the teacher and student, not done to the student by the teacher.

I've had similar experiences, but with older students. I remember teaching shortly after the terrible events of the Boxing Day Tsunami. Originally, I'd planned the lesson to look at earthquakes (it was a geography unit), but I'd underestimated the students' interest in the events of the tsunami, so very quickly the lesson moved from earthquakes in and of themselves to their relation to tsunamis, and suddenly, students were engaged and challenged.

Great stuff.

Veronica's picture

This is a great article blog Paula. Teachers around the world experience this in the beginning of every year. There can be strict teachers that would like things done their way and only their way. Then there are more easy going teachers who let children explore. Teaching is not only about teaching but about making relationships with your students too. Students need to be able to have a sense of trust with anybody who has a relationship with them. When you trust people you open up to them more and makes learning more easier.

B Lemaster's picture
B Lemaster
Fifth Grade Teacher

Paula,

Having been a kindergarten paraprofessional for many years prior to obtaining my certification and becoming a fifth grade teacher, I remember the excitement of the littlest learners. The beginning of the school year was not unlike herding cats, but by the end of the year they were working together in cooperative groups and utilizing problem-solving strategies.

I've previously let my fifth graders take the lead in lessons being presented, following the direction in which they take their learning, and guiding them back if they veer too far off track. However, I haven't done so nearly as often as I would like and your post on the power of continuing this practice is a timely and much-needed reminder. Lately, we have been utilizing the Document Based Graphic Organizer as a method of combining, organizing, and focusing their thoughts and ideas. This has been a recent introduction into my classroom, but I definitely plan to utilize it from the beginning of the next school year.

Again, remembering to let the students guide and lead their own learning allows them to be active participants in, take accountability for, and be excited about the material, concepts and skills they are required to master. Thank you for a terrific post!

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