In response to observations of our Socratic Seminar during innovate, many people asked me how I get students to be so independent. I thought it was worth doing a quick post on how teachers can create and maintain a classroom that is student-driven.
My current class is made up of sixth graders at a private, international school. However, I want to preface this by explaining that I have taught first graders and ninth graders as well, and I have taught in inner-city, public schools with students at a variety of levels. I use the same routines, protocols and culture builders for all my classes, although I adapt specific activities to fit the age and personalities of the particular class in front of me.
From many wonderful role models and teaching coaches, I have learned that there are four vital things that will make a classroom function efficiently.
1. Make everything routine
Make as much of your classroom as you can routine. When things like passing papers, taking out laptops, moving the desks to a new formation, and starting class are routines, then the expectations are clear and students will do these activities independently and correctly. I have routines for all of the following activities: starting class, ending class, passing paper, working independently, working with a partner, gallery walks, socratic seminars, literature circles, what to do if you are finished early, class scribe, what to do if you were absent, and probably some others that I’m forgetting. Routines don’t make class boring, they take care of the boring stuff (i.e. passing paper) quickly, so that those things don’t take time away from the fun stuff (i.e. learning). Teach students these routines early in the year, explain to them why they are important, practice them, and give students feedback on how they are doing. If you take the time early in the year to get students into their routines, you will be able to hand more responsibility off to them.
2. Give students responsibility and choice
Giving students the responsibility to move throughout the room in a gallery walk, take part in a group discussion, talk to their partner, etc shows them that you expect them to be able to do these things independently and responsibly. I choose strategic moments to let students introduce the learning targets for the day, lead socratic seminars, present content, and choose partners. I let students choose readings by level and interest or videos for further research. A great majority of the time students respect the responsibility that comes with this freedom because they want to show they deserve it. They also usually enjoy these learning activities more because they are engaging and student-driven. Additionally, if a group begins to get off track the natural consequence would be to give them less responsibility. I explain to students that are struggling with the greater responsibility that it is my job is to teach them and if they can show they can learn with freedom it is better, but if they can’t I’m still have to do my job so I have to take away their freedom for now.
3. Purposefully build culture
Many of my lessons early in the year are built around creating a positive class culture where students feel safe to take risks and fail. I want students to be learners. I want my students to develop a growth mindset. But, this won’t just happen on its own. I have to teach this to students, model this for students, and then revisit these ideas explicitly and implicitly all year long. I design lessons around developing a growth mindset and what sorts of things learners say to themselves. I teach students how to accept feedback and process it for growth. I give self-assessments on how our mindsets are developing throughout the year and I provide time for reflection about this.
4. Plan strategically (no busy work, only meaningful work)
Finally, you can set up your classroom for success with culture building and routines, but if it is not followed with authentic instruction that is relevant for the specific students you are working with, it will all fall flat pretty quickly. Planning engaging, project-based units around real-world problems and making sure that every second of every day is relevant to your learning goals for that unit is key. If students understand the purpose of what you do and how it connects to their success and their learning, then they will understand that it is urgent that they do their best at every learning activity in your class.
The only time in the year that I actually script my lesson plans is the first week. The language I use when I am teaching protocols and developing our class culture is incredibly important and I do not want to leave it up to chance.