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Four Steps to Letting Your Students Surprise You

By Wendi Pillars — July 16, 2013 4 min read
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Very few of my students—or even my colleagues—knew about my long-planned three-week trip to Nepal, where I would teach and train teachers. But about a month before the big journey, I decided it was time to share with students what I was planning.

I wanted to learn what questions they had, so that I could take their curiosity (along with notes and postcards) along with me. But they had a lot to teach me before I set off for Nepal.

When I showed students a photo of the school I’d be visiting in rural Bageshwori, Nepal, several were enthralled. They had lots of questions. After learning there was no electricity or running water, and seeing the differences between our physical learning environment and the Nepali students’, two of my girls decided they wanted to help.

By lunchtime, these two students had recruited two more girls to help. They asked if they could collect donations from the 3rd grade classes, and I said yes, they could try. They gathered and decorated small boxes for students to put change in.

Here came the first lesson I learned before my journey:

1) Nurture the best in your students.

I’ve worked in Title I schools for 13 of my 16 years of teaching. I know what kids are capable of and that surprises abound. Yet I still approached this whole project with ideas founded in deficit-model thinking. “They are students who receive free lunch, I can’t ask them to raise money … .” Yet they had the idea and will within themselves. Burning brightly. My support was all they needed.

It made me wonder, “How many other missed chances have there been for me to nurture the best of who my kids are?”

We need to spend as much time trying to strengthen our students’ passions as we do helping them overcome challenges and weaknesses. This necessitates taking time to learn what those passions are.

2) Provide emotional and material support.

A couple days later—emboldened by some success—the students asked if they could go to their former 2nd grade teachers to spread news of the project, and I said yes. But, worried about where this might go, I asked, “Do you know how to explain what you’re doing?” The teachers were unaware of my travel plans, so the entire context would need to be explained. Were the students up to the challenge?

Apparently, they decided they were not yet ready. They made a poster with the picture of the Nepalese school and their fundraising goal. They visited the first classroom, but realized they needed to add a map to the presentation after a teacher questioned them about the location of Nepal.

On and on it went, and I looked on as their initial shyness and hesitation turned into a well-rehearsed plea for donations that spread throughout our school. But it wasn’t just “practice makes perfect.” Their appeals were buoyed by their growing knowledge about Nepal, including Skype sessions with the principal of the Nepalese school (who did not know of their plans).

Sure, I asked questions from time to time. And I helped connect them with the resources to learn more about their project. But all of that was just scaffolding.

3) Step back and let students take charge.

They will amaze you. “Wait time” is not just a strategy for responses to questions in class—give them the tools, maybe some guiding questions or redirection, but not the answers. In this case, the girls’ ideas were far more innovative and in-depth than I could have imagined.

One student decided to set up a table at our school’s “cultural-awareness night,” asking me if it would be OK before doing so. I said it probably would—then she proceeded to inform me that she should ask the assistant principal. I agreed, nearly as a dare. Go ahead, ask him. And of course, she did.

The week before I departed, the students collaborated with a group of 5th graders who filmed them for the school’s morning news show. One of the girls had scripted a skit for the four of them to encourage peers to save money for the school in Nepal rather than spending it on snacks or needless items. Each had a role to play, highlighted on the script in a certain color—astounding evidence of these 3rd graders’ knack for foresight.

Keep in mind that all of this happened during lunchtime and in the mornings before school began. Students brainstormed while they ate, and worked as soon as they were done. It was completely their deal.

4) Most importantly, hush your inner skeptic.

Often, during the three weeks of this project, I wanted desperately to caution my students that they might not achieve their goal of raising $200, or that “x” might not be a great idea. I am so glad I didn’t. I was nervous—this was risk-taking for me—but oh, the rewards of shunning deficit-model thinking and releasing control.

My students raised $248. Enough to sponsor the Nepali school’s entire prekindergarten program for the year, giving a priceless head start to students who could truly benefit. Their money was also enough to purchase supplies for hands-on learning for kindergartners.

And they sent more than money: Nepalese children were transfixed by a poster covered with labeled photos and messages of friendship from their American peers.

I exhort you to seek out what brings your students joy. Ask yourself what you are doing to nurture those passions. Be willing to risk shifting instruction toward your students’ strengths at least as much as toward their weaknesses. Chances are, there will be a lot of change. Far more than $248 worth!

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