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Letting Go in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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When we consider constructivist teaching, or a constructivist approach to learning, what comes to mind? For me, I see Socrates standing not in the center, but to the side of his students.

I imagine him pondering their comments and questions, and carefully crafting questions of his own, which he contributes -- selectively. Most importantly, he doesn't lead, but follows the line of questioning of the students.

That's really what it's all about: being an questioner, an investigator side-by-side with your students. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a solid lesson plan ready to go each day, but we should be ready -- and willing -- for the students to take the class into unchartered waters.

Let me give you an example from my own teaching experience. In an American Literature class I taught a while back, we had made our way through transcendentalism, stopping off at Henry Thoreau. Here, I had a few lessons on civil disobedience planned.

Day one, we watched a video excerpt on Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, and read a passage from the play, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." We created a class definition for civil disobedience and then we began to brainstorm times in history when people had defied a law -- or should have -- for the sake of what was right and fair. My plan was for all this to lead to group projects and individual papers on specific historical acts of civil disobedience in the U.S.

Then, the students began talking about racial profiling and wouldn't move on. I asked questions to clarify. I asked more questions. At this point, I abandoned the list I had assumed students would brainstorm (the right answers), and jumped on board with the direction they were heading.

Mostly African-American and Latino, my students began sharing stories of racial profiling from their own lives, and the lives of their families and friends. My eleventh grade class, the one right before lunch, made it very clear that day that they wanted to learn more about their rights and protecting themselves the next time the police pulled them over for questioning for no clear reason.

Constructivist teaching relies on the learners bringing prior knowledge, or schema, to the table. I could have stopped the conversation and said, "Let's move on," (code for, "Let's keep going where I think we should go") but then I would have lost them. Every time I have white-knuckled it and pushed my agenda, the students respond like this: a heavy, collective sigh, and slumping of the shoulders. In essence, they give up and give in. Can you relate?

Teaching students in urban schools has an added challenge. Many students from families struggling economically have few college grads in their neighborhoods and families to represent the benefits of education. So, they often are hungry to know why exactly they are learning something and how it is relevant to their own lives.

Let's go back to that class before lunch. After we cleared away all the misnomers around what the police can and cannot do, we read, analyzed, and discussed the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus, looked at national statistics on racial profiling, and turned to the ACLU for their expertise.

We ended those couple of weeks with a culminating project where students grouped themselves according to interest. One group made a brochure titled, "How to Protect Yourself When DWB (Driving While Black/Brown)." Another group created a presentation poster on the history and statistics of racial profiling. My favorite project was an instructional video for police officers on how to build trust with the community.

Need I say it? I was a learner along with my students during those weeks. The students schooled me. When was time when you let go and let the students guide the learning? Please teach us!

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Jennifer Grames's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Jennifer Grames. I am a grad student at Walden University. I have been teaching for 5 years in California. My school is amongst they first to be taken into SAIT status (closely monitored by the state). I have always thought of myself as a constructivist. I try to relate everything to the prior knowledge of my students. It makes for a more highly engaged class and it keeps me on my toes.
Unfortunately with the shift that we're experiencing at my school, teachers are being told to move away from this method of teaching. We are told to follow a minute by minute script and to not stray from it. I'm sure all of you have experience with the scripted language arts programs and the teacher modeled read alouds that we are required to do. "So, what do you think? Did we improve the sentences on the board? I am constantly amazed at how creative you are in thinking of strong verbs. I hope you are keeeping track of verbs in your Writer's Notebook you like to experiment with." Do you know how foolish I feel and how bored 6th grade students are when you teach like this? It really is doing a diservice to our students who no longer get the chance to think on their own. There is no more opportunity to to guide their education based on their interests. This would be considered off topic, and heaven forbid someone walks in whie you are trying to sneak something fun in!
I would really like to hear that there is good constructivist taching going on even if I'm not allowed. I still remember lessons from my middle school and high school years today that were guided by the students and molded into teachable moments by the teachers. The lesson for the day was taught and learned, just not always in the way it was meant to be. This is why teachers are highly qualified, so that we are prepared to make good choices for our students. We are not just well trained monkeys who read from a script--or are we?

Justin Wieman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Great post. I'm going to university right now and I can't help but notice the similarities between your thoughts and some of the strong ideas that are being taught through my class readings. Breaking away from the traditional classroom sense of learning takes courage and confidence. I like that you did this while teaching a lesson on civil disobedience. Gandhi would be proud. Pink Floyd said it years ago, "Hey teacher, leave those kids alone." I agree that teaching students to think on their own should be the highest level of priority. We do not need students to be just, "another brick in the wall."
Ownership in the experience of learning creates confidence and intrigue at all levels of the learning curve. In my opinion all people learn better through inspiration than force. So again I agree with you, why force the direction of the class, when if done correctly, you can be their tour guide. Way to be.

Justin Wieman
Hononegah H.S.
Rockton, IL

Amanda Eineker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Amanda Eineker and I am a graduate student at Walden University. I teach fifth grade and this is my first blog. I just read about building relationships in my course text and Rebecca Alber's blog "Letting Go in the Classroom". Kottler states that teachers need to be "relationship experts" (Kottler,Zehm,&Kottler,2005).I think Rebecca's method of letting the students' questions guide her lessons allows for her to build trusting relationships with them. I think there is a connection between student's self-esteem and learning. Therefore, if the student feels valued then greater learning takes place.

Kottler,J.A., Zehm,S., & Kottler,E. (2005). On being a teacher the human dimension. Thousands Oaks, CA:Corwin Press

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