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Teaching Secrets: Ask the Kids!

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It was the middle of my second year of teaching in a high-needs New York City public school. I was finally planning successful lessons, and my class of 8th grade transitional English-language learners had become enthusiastic readers of whole novels in English.

So it took me by surprise when, around February, I noticed these same students yawning, poking one another, throwing paper balls, and complaining during class. I bristled at their displays of frustration and heard myself snapping back at them. I was becoming that cranky teacher I vowed never to be.

As part of a partnership, publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

After weeks of such behavior, I began to get nervous every time this class would enter my room. I tried to make the work more exciting, but nothing seemed to change. Finally, one afternoon, I couldn’t take it any longer. My students entered my room and sat down as usual in the U-shaped configuration of benches called the meeting area. Our agenda was on the board, and I was about to run through it. I had gotten in the habit of doing this as quickly as possible, in my most energetic tone, while I still had the illusion of my students’ attention.

But that day I thought to myself, Why do I keep pretending this is working? Something is wrong.

“You know what?” I said to the class. “I’m really stressed out. I don’t even want to go through the agenda today. Is anyone else feeling stressed?”

My students responded with a resounding, “Yeesssss!” For the first time in weeks, I had everyone’s attention.

“Wow,” I said. “Let’s go around and hear from everyone. Say anything you want. How are you feeling today about school, life—anything?”

I was amazed when one of our school’s most academically motivated students, Ana, started us off. “I feel that school is so boring now," she said. "All we want is to talk with our friends.”

“Yeah,” added Litzabet. “We are so stressed, because of all the tests. One test finishes and you have a test or a project due the next day. We don’t get a break! We are, like, oppressed people.” ("Oppression" was a literary theme we’d been discussing.)

José said, straight-faced, “Sometimes we just want to have fun.”

Suddenly, the whole class was talking at once. I had to remind them to take turns and let everyone be heard. They did, because they really wanted to hear what others thought.

Comments I might have laughed off as adolescent whining on another day, I decided to take seriously. “You never give us popcorn anymore” and “We never watch movies” took on new meaning. The students’ pleas for more time to socialize struck me as particularly important in a school that offered no recess, no advisory, and gym and art only once a week. The students’ developmental needs were not being met by the school. I would have to do something differently if I expected any real change in my classroom.

We began negotiating. I wrote on the board, “Social time, popcorn, movies, fun.” I thanked the students for being honest with me and told them I was willing to make changes to satisfy each one of these requests.

I offered to give them the first five minutes of class for social time. There would be rules, but this would be strictly free time. They could walk around, talk with one another, play cards, etc. But they were not permitted to run, throw, play-fight, use cell phones, or allow the volume in the room to get so loud that they couldn’t hear the Tibetan meditation bell that always signals the end of break. They had to come immediately to the meeting area at the sound of the bell. We would then assess how the break went before moving into our agenda for the day.

I never knew so much relief could come from five minutes of freedom! We also decided that if the class worked well Monday through Thursday, we would have popcorn and fun on Friday. We watched movies that related to our literature studies, or we played games. Other times, we needed Fridays to finish work. I found that, when I opened it up for negotiation, the students were surprisingly responsible about their use of time.

Despite some difficult conditions, the rest of the year was a joy. My students and I battled burnout through honest dialogue, and they worked more productively than I had imagined possible. I’ll never forget that class for helping me to develop routines I still use—and for showing me what students are capable of when we take time to listen and include them in the decisions of our classrooms.

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