Student Teaching

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During the past few years, all of the 185 teachers in my school district have been involved in peer coaching. We have invented many variations on the traditional approach, but on the day before Christmas vacation last year, I learned a lesson about peer teaching from a very surprising source.

I had just taught a 1st grade class how to make two very simple origami forms: a Christmas tree and a dove. As the children were decorating their creations, one little boy named Stephen showed a friend how to make a much more complicated form, a fox-head puppet. Everyone in the room was impressed, including me. When the children began calling on Stephen to “make me one,” he quieted them by saying, “If you want to learn how, come over to this table.”

Everyone ran over. I positioned myself diagonally opposite Stephen, thinking he might need help. But he didn't. In fact, when one of the tips I offered proved wrong, he corrected me in a gentle and supportive way and repaired the damage I had caused my neighbors' projects.

I decided to study his teaching techniques, since he was able to keep his classmates focused on a task that was much more difficult than anything I would have attempted. It never occurred to Stephen that it might be too hard for his classmates. If he could do it, so could they. He was enormously patient, answering the same questions over and over.

A few students immediately grasped what to do, and they, in turn, spontaneously helped three or four students near them. Stephen would demonstrate each step and then monitor and supervise the naturally cooperative process that followed. As the group stumbled over the most difficult fold, he lamented, “Why am I such a bad teacher?” A classmate replied, “We just didn't get it. You need to show us again.”

The 1st graders all left my class that day with a tree, a dove, and a fox-head puppet. Watching Stephen, I had learned a great deal about patience, kindness, high expectations, and the value of learning from one's peers.

Until that day, I thought cooperative learning was a strategy professional educators had invented to teach students. Thanks to a masterful teacher who happened to be 7 years old and group of 1st graders who spontaneously helped each other, I'm beginning to think it's the way students naturally learn.

Vol. 03, Issue 01, Page 10

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