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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Letting Go of the Reins to Allow for Student Self-Advocacy

By Starr Sackstein — December 31, 2013 5 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

Control, the false sense of knowing the outcome as the plan is put into action. Tightly holding the reins, manipulating the space to achieve a perceived understanding of success, all to maintain the illusion.

Does this sound familiar?

This is how I’d characterize my early teaching experience and I thought it worked pretty well. Whether it was determining learning objectives for the whole or developing assignments that allotted for the greatest student achievement, there was a determination to stick to the plan.

After 12 years of teaching, and a loosening of my grip over time, this year I landed on gold. Turns out, that control isn’t necessarily the best way to approach teaching. Students need to be taught to control their own destinies and who better to teach them than us?

The best gift we can offer students is the ability to know what they need, to articulate what they know and how best to ask for help. As they acquire these skills, a careful coupling with the standards (communicating them in a way that makes sense to them) can really empower students to chart and create a path for their own learning in the future.

As we begin to teach students to be the masters of their own learning, teachers need to understand that kids may not be so willing to want to control. They have become very accustomed to being told what to do and how to do it and the change can be jarring at first. Many kids enjoy not having this responsibility; they want a clear outline with specifics that show them the way to success in each space. Ironically, they willingly follow because they haven’t learned any other way... so be prepared for a struggle at first.

If they don’t come willingly, give them a nudge.

Students will need a lot of support through this process, be the training wheels they need knowing that they will ride alone soon enough. The first step is transparency. Explain and demonstrate for students (more than once) the power of knowing their learning strengths and challenges will provide for them in their lives, not just their education. Provide them with real world examples from your own life or movies or literature where this kind of knowledge will ensure them future success.

Once students have bought into the idea of self-advocacy (even if still reluctant to take the first step), it’s time to get them reflecting. Reflection is a tremendous tool, where students can really think about a specific assignment and their journey through it.

Again, it is easy to assume students know how to reflect, but it would be an unfortunate misstep if we don’t take the time to walk them through it. If I’ve learned anything over the last 12 years, it’s that we shouldn’t assume anything; everyone can benefit from a modeled example. Provide students with samples of what good standards based reflections look like and encourage them not to talk only about whether they liked the assignment or not. Although that can provide valuable information for the teacher, this reflection is about their learning, not the assignment. (That’s a story for another time).

Ask them to assess themselves based on the success criteria of the assignment. Explain that they should discuss their learning like they would support a point in a persuasive piece of writing; make an assertion based on the standards (teacher provides them with a list of appropriate standards the first few times and later they choose on their own.), then use evidence from their own work to show how they are meeting them.

Once students can write about their learning, they have a firmer understanding of what they know. The next step is helping them identify where they struggle and put words to articulating it in order to ask for help. Although, “I don’t get it,” is a cry for help, imagine how much more useful it would be if a student could tell us exactly what they don’t get and maybe even why they don’t get it.

At this point, it may be a good idea to create a google form that asks students specific questions that gets them thinking about their challenges and the added bonus of using a google form is the amazing way it collates the data students provide for you. Once they submit the form, we have an amazing amount of data to begin to inform how we teach them as a class and individually.

Imagine how easy it would be to plan lessons once you have specific data about what kids think they need. If a large enough percentage say they are having challenges in one area, then it needs to be retaught in a different way. If only a few kids are struggling, then the teacher can do small group directed instruction, or if only an individual, the teacher can set up an individual conference during or after class.

From here we need to impress upon kids the need for them to track their own progress. The old model has it setup for teachers to do all of the tracking. In fact, we keep it locked away in our grade books out of reach from anyone who actually needs it. Never really understood how that helped, but it’s how it was done. Now, we need to encourage students to have a section of their notebook that keeps all of the feedback they get from the teacher or their peers in a variety of settings: informal brief conversations, written feedback on work, general feedback after a test/project or peer feedback during review sessions.

Once students start tracking their own progress, teachers can make time in class periodically to conference with kids to make sure the data they are keeping matches the data we are keeping. If students see us using class time for these conferences, they will understand the importance of this experience.

The best gift we can offer our students isn’t that of the content we teach, it’s the honest awareness of what they know, what they need to know and how to obtain it and show it in a way that demonstrates real synthesis and depth of understanding. Once they can apply the information and skills we’ve taught them, then we can ensure future predictable success.

As we learn through the process with the students, we all become more reflective and engaged; we know each other better and grow as a community exponentially. In what ways have you tried to help your students self-advocate?

Connect with Starr on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.