When I first started teaching, it was me against the kids every day. We were on two separate teams. Sometimes, we drew battle lines over disciplinary issues: would I manage to get them to sit down, shut up, and do their work, or would they take over the classroom and derail learning completely? At other times, we were on opposing academic teams. I set traps, built walls for them to climb, threw obstacles in their way, and bombarded them with tricky questions and daunting challenges to see whether the students could master the content I was trying to teach them. Some of them managed to learn in spite of my efforts to frustrate and thwart them.
I thought I was doing the right thing, that it was the teacher’s job to present challenges for his students. I believed that making my class more rigorous--which I defined as being excruciatingly difficult and exhausting--was the hallmark of my excellence as an instructor. I reveled in my ability to find flaws in student work to justify bestowing a less-than-perfect grade. I told my students things like, “I don’t give 100s on essays because no piece of writing is ever perfect,” and I believed I was being motivational rather than kind of a jerk.
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In the world of education, we should be on the same team.
We all want the same things, right? Student success. Learning. Growth. Preparedness for the future, whatever that may entail. Those are lofty aspirations, and I think students deserve not to have to play on a team by themselves to reach them. Life certainly provides plenty of obstacles without teachers throwing more into the path. Why wouldn’t I want everyone to succeed? Why would I be delighted that only a few, if any, were able to rise to my high standards?
When I worked on abandoning the adversarial approach, I found that the result was a classroom where inquiry was at the center. I strove to cultivate a curiosity along with my students--to wonder, to ponder, to explore, to examine, to dissect, to question, and to try things out. I stopped being the guy with all the answers and started trying to be the one who guided students to ask questions instead.
My approach became a bit conspiratorial. There was a mission to be accomplished, and we were going to work together to figure out how to do it. No longer was I the enemy. I was inviting my students to join me as we tried to escape the wiles of others: John Donne, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, the guy who wrote the AP World History textbook, the creators of the AP test, the many ancestors who cobbled together the insanely tricky English language, artists who created works of art without telling us what they mean, and the State Board of Education. This shift in attitude--from opponent to teammate-- changed the entire tone of my classroom, turning it from a hive of agitated bees to a learning community working together cooperatively to succeed. We developed a true growth mindset.
Often, we even learned for the sake of learning, rather than for a grade. Here’s an example to clarify this shift:
- ADVERSARIAL CRAIG: We’re about to have a graded discussion over the novel we have finished. I am going to be grading each time you speak. I will rate the quality of each response, and write your score on my chart. You’ll earn points each time you speak. If it’s an insightful response accompanied by a specific quotation and page reference from this 416-page book, you will receive more points than if you offer an answer with no support. If you don’t speak at all, you’ll receive a zero for this major assignment. Any questions? No? Begin! (maniacal laughter like a cartoon villain)
- REFORMING CRAIG: Since we are going to be writing some interpretive essays later over this novel. I thought it would be a good idea for us to talk about our different interpretations of the text. I often find that I understand things better when I talk about them with other people. You came up with some questions about the novel yesterday in groups, and I want to use those questions as the basis for the discussion. You may find that the questions you prepared lead to other questions as you begin to explore the answers. I encourage you to go back into the text whenever possible because that’s the only place where we can get an idea of what the author was thinking, and unsupported opinions are like untested hypotheses in science. They need more investigation. You’re going to want to take notes in your Writer’s Notebook about what people say because you’ll probably find some ideas that will help you when it comes time to write the essay later. Make sure you listen more than you speak and that you make others comfortable sharing their ideas.
My reforming view of what a classroom should look like involves the teacher in the role of a coach or mentor. Sometimes, I break from an activity to have a huddle to discuss strategy. We debrief often. We review past performance. And we set future goals.
I wish I could tell you that this was an easy shift to make. Unfortunately, many years of schooling and my natural pickiness and perfectionism (some would blame it on my being a Virgo) have made it hard to unlearn my hard-nosed teaching practices. I have had to be intentional about my team realignment, but noticing the change in my students’ dispositions has helped me in my struggle.
When I work with teachers on AVID’s WICOR strategies, I find that the I, inquiry, is a little different than the other four letters of the acronym. While we might “do” writing, collaboration, organization, and reading, inquiry is more of a philosophy than a strategy. We don’t “do” inquiry; it’s how we do everything.
Abandoning the me vs. them approach helped establish a culture of inquiry in my classroom. The students and I are on the same team, and we are always questioning ourselves, the thoughts of others, the ideas, and the world around us to make sense of things.
Class should be a pep rally, and we should all look forward to a winning season where we can celebrate our many victories together.
ELA Instructional Specialist