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The Student-Centered Classroom: Communicating What Matters

Pernille Ripp

Living a fantastic life being a 7th gr. teacher, mother to 4 fantastic monsters and soul mate to an incredible man. Creator of the Global Read Aloud and author.
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Two boys sitting in the hallway writing in their notebooks, talking, and smiling

I've often stressed how building community is one of the most important things we can do in our classrooms. It’s vital that we plant the seeds of student-centered classrooms on the very first day, and that our actions during that first week of school will speak louder than anything else during the rest of the year. Nowhere is that truer than in middle school. There are few second chances when it comes to this age group.

Most students are willing to give us a chance at the beginning of the year. In fact, many hope that we're the teacher who will see them for who they are or are trying to be. I knew this as I dreamt about my first week of seventh grade, yet student icebreakers or other projects that I'd implemented as an elementary teacher seemed disingenuous. I knew that with middle school and our 45-minute time limit, what we did in the first week of school had to really make an impact for them to accept this as our classroom, not just mine.

Genuine Community

It seems that whenever teachers get nervous, we plan big -- big projects, big events, big impact. But here I knew that instead of wowing them with my ingenuity in project creation, I needed to go basic and focus on the very core of what it would mean for them to be members of this community. As a classroom, we would discover each other through the books that we chose to read, the answers that we gave, and the things that we chose to share. And we'd have a voice to the world, using Twitter to communicate with authors whose books touched us, and blogging to make sure that we'd have ways of telling the world whatever we had to say. In our classroom, we'd have time to talk and explore throughout the year. And I made a vow to always share my own life, even the sometimes-ugly parts, so that they'd feel comfortable sharing theirs.

So, that first week I discovered:

  • True relationship building in middle school is not about gimmicks, but about sincerity.
  • Our students can see through us when we're only acting excited about yet another year.
  • I could not come in demanding community or trust.
  • I could not come in as the ultimate leader.

I therefore had to buckle down and focus on the most important thing: them. On that very first day, I did two things that I hoped would make them believe that they'd be part of something genuine this year.

Listening to Each Other

A Choice on the First Day

My students arrive with no seating plans. They sit wherever they like until I invite them to the carpet around my rocking chair. I ask them to get comfortable, and they pull up chairs, carpet squares, and beanbags, and then they wait for whatever comes next. I rock peacefully with a pile of carefully selected picture books at my feet. I show all the books, ask which I should read, and they decide as a class. After reading, I sit quietly waiting for a reaction, holding my words until someone speaks up to share their thoughts. It's important that they, not me, are the ones to speak first.

And so we start weaving the tapestry of our community. The students speak. I listen, interject when needed, and thank them at the end. Within those 20 minutes, I've already shown them what matters: what they feel, what they care about, and their opinions. The very act of recalling an elementary-style reading experience reconnects them with what reading used to be like -- fun, safe, and anticipated. It is my intention to mimic that with my older students as we try to reconnect with the magic of read-alouds.

Finally, we get up, return to our seats, and start on the next task.

Student-Created Rules

I ask them to discuss how they'd like our classroom to feel, sound, and function throughout the year. Then I step away, allowing them ten minutes of group discussion. As I ask for their suggestions and fill our whiteboard with them, it amazes me how many rules students think that schools need for them to behave. After I'm done scribing all of their words, I ask, "What do you notice? What are our themes?" Quickly students realize that they're all looking to be respected, heard, seen, and valued. So we decide as a class that these things matter to us. I ask if we need a visual reminder, and they always say no. So I erase the whiteboard and thank them for their time as they set off to the next class.

Trust and Communication

While some may shudder at the lack of curriculum or even preparation these two events provide on this very first day, I always marvel at the seeds planted. By letting them truly set their own rules without a teacher dictating, I've communicated that what they say matters and that I believe they'll do the best they can. That's not something that I take lightly, nor back down from. I'll repeat this exercise throughout the year as needed. Students will mold and shape the classroom to suit their needs, not mine. Slowly, I gain their trust by being fair, listening, and always allowing them to speak.

Middle school students watch for our indirect opinion of them. They watch us even when we think they don't care. They wait for our reaction so that they can react accordingly. What we say matters, but even more important is what we do.

I now eagerly await the arrival of my next batch of seventh grade students. I know they'll change me as a person. I know there will be days when I'll feel like the worst teacher. I know there will also be days when I'll feel that they've truly changed the world around them. My job as a teacher is not to lead them at all times, but to guide them, to help them stretch out and share their words with the world. But they won't change the world if we don't let them change our community.

If we want our middle school kids to believe that they matter, we have to set up opportunities from the beginning that support our message. We have to give them tools, such as blogs or other social media communities, that let their voices be heard outside of our walls and let others react to their thoughts. We must be the reason that they don't hate school. We must put them first, even if it's hard at times. Their future in school depends on it.

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The Student-Centered Classroom
This series offers tips and strategies for creating a student-centered classroom.

Pernille Ripp

Living a fantastic life being a 7th gr. teacher, mother to 4 fantastic monsters and soul mate to an incredible man. Creator of the Global Read Aloud and author.

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Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

I love this article. One of the first things I do with a new class is explain that what they think and have to say is just as important as what I'll bring to the class. The first activity we do is for them to identify some beliefs that are at the core of who they are and share them with each other. We talk about what type of community we'd like to create and what needs to be true (rules for both them and me) for that to happen. But to truly understand the power of youth voice you should check out what one of my mentors Paul Griffin has to say. He's been helping teens create original musicals inspired by their own lives for over 20 years:

Pernille Ripp's picture
Pernille Ripp
Living a fantastic life being a 7th gr. teacher, mother to 4 fantastic monsters and soul mate to an incredible man. Creator of the Global Read Aloud and author.

Thank you so much for the link, I am always amazed at the wonderful ideas seemingly floating out there for us all to use. I think it is one of the most powerful messages we can send to students on that very first day; your voice matters, this is your space as well as mine, and we shall learn together. I wonder what would happen if everyone in a school did that on the first day of school.

Maniac Snorkel Faerie's picture

Just about to start my 11th year of teaching at a new school, and I've been feeling at a loss. I'll be teaching ELD (my main jam) and U.S. History (new subject for me) and this article refreshed my busy mind that was scheming about how to show students what kind of history teacher I will be when I don't even know myself! Ha! You've affirmed me as a teacher that has a hard time planning lessons until I know a little by about my students. Thank you.

Pernille Ripp's picture
Pernille Ripp
Living a fantastic life being a 7th gr. teacher, mother to 4 fantastic monsters and soul mate to an incredible man. Creator of the Global Read Aloud and author.

I am so glad this was of use to you. I flounder myself every year feeling under-planned and unprepared and so I always write articles like these to remind myself to slow down, to focus on what matters most and to plant the seeds that we need for our further growth. All the best of luck to you.

Ellie Cowen's picture
Ellie Cowen
Educator and math specialist

Your classroom sounds like a lovely place to learn and grow. This post reminded me of a book by Rafe Esquith ("Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire") that changed my practice overnight by revealing the importance of building trust. After I read the book, my students and I made time for a big conversation about trust. We outlined what I could trust them to do, what they could trust me to do, how we could preserve that trust, and what we would do if it was ever broken. We revisited the conversation often throughout the year, and I always felt that our learning community was healthier and warmer after the booster discussions. Thank you for sharing!

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