How kids’ voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

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5 thoughts on “How kids’ voices can spark teacher learning

  1. As a pre-service teacher, I read “Fires in the Mind,” which raised some interesting questions for me. First, I appreciated aptly it was pointed out that part of “catching the spark” occurs when young people believe that an activity has high value. As teachers, we will encounter a diverse set of learners who are not likely to implicitly recognize a subject or task as valuable. After sending Kathleen an e-mail about this, she suggested looking at her “12 Building Blocks of Motivation and Mastery” for some ideas.

    I especially enjoyed the section from Ch. 7 entitled “Coaching Us Through Deliberate Practice.” In that section, kids mentioned that it is helpful for them to see examples of “best work,” and this could be done by showing students’ own work as exemplars. I understand that this would appeal to the competitive nature in some students, however I am initially reluctant to show other students’ work as examples. Knowing that students have a range of abilities, is it better to show exemplars from peers or from an outside source? Kathleen wrote, “the good work of peers gave them [students] more confidence that they could rise to the same level.” Does this practice not make other students feel inferior or like they “failed”? I am concerned with discouraging some students for the sake of igniting the competitive nature in others. Furthermore, in keeping with the idea of teacher as more of a “coach,” how would a teacher initially set up this teaching style? For example–it is the first day of school: how does the teacher establish this type of relationship?

    In answer to my questions, Kathleen wrote, “There’s no reason you need to identify the creator of exemplary student work, if you’re worried about the question of competition or favoritism. You can present it anonymously, or call on exemplars from outside sources as well. However, using exemplars is a very effective way of drawing students into a discussion of what it looks like when it’s done well. Through looking at excellent work, students can then participate in creating a list of attributes to strive for in their work — and that can become the basis of an assessment rubric you create together. That habit of reflecting on what good work looks like, and striving for it, can be established starting on the very first day of school. It is inherently collaborative, not competitive, and “getting good at getting good” becomes a source of pride among all students.”

    Additionally, I was especially intrigued by the idea of tailoring homework to fit the needs of each individual student. I agree that this would be what is best for the student and would work great as a form of differentiation—but practically, how would you see this working in a classroom? As an English teacher, I need all students to read the same material in order to assess their understanding of the text. One student complained that homework is always predetermined and written in the white board when she arrives to class (Ch.7, p. 119)—this is especially true of what occurs in my own placement setting. How can this be avoided? How can a teacher truly tailor homework assignments to fit each individual without spending hours individualizing homework? Furthermore, how does a teacher give out these individualized assignments in a way that doesn’t cause students to begin ranking their peers based on who got what assignment?

    Again Kathleen wrote back, “The teacher’s challenge is to know just what each student needs to practice. Students themselves can help, if you make it routine for them to know what they are striving for (see my comments above) and look critically at their own work to see where they can make it better. You can use the list they generated of “what it looks like when it’s done well” to involve them in coming up with their homework — they might make their own simple list of “work on this” tasks whose goal is to make their work better. (You might enjoy reading Ron Berger’s book “An Ethic of Excellence” with respect to this.)”

    Just wanted to share some of my questions and correspondence–and also see if anyone had their own responses to these issues.

  2. It is interesting that students answer the question of “when teachers look at you, what do they see, and when you look at teachers what do you see?” that they respond with teacher-student relationships. Student see the world around them with a relational lens as that is a huge part of their world at the moment.

    I think your discussion of “the stretch experiences” is superb! The fact that so many students responded to the prompt,“Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” with a stretch experience shows that students are not inherently un-stretchable! What Fires of the Mind has been for me is an empowering book directly relating to my time as a pre-service teacher. Not only should I be getting to know my students in a personal capacity, each student brings so much potential and capacity for learning, however without the initiative of teachers in getting to know their students it is highly unlikely that these “stretch experiences” would be achieved. It is through activities such as page 29-30 in an environment where the students are encouraged to respond truthfully and allow me better understand the students’ passions and things that they are good at.

    It is only after this effort is made that a teacher can impact students in terms of “stretch experiences”. With the information about their passions, one can better identify specific situations, struggles, and interests that students have and are better equipped to leverage that in their teaching practice and influencing the students’ lives!

  3. In reading “Fires in the Mind”, the idea of teacher encouragement as an integral part of student “stick-to-itiveness” really struck me. We have all had experiences when we want to give up on something because it is difficult; nobody wants to do something that they cannot do well. However, as teachers, part of our job is making sure that students do not give up, even when they have difficulty with the material we are teaching. Kathleen points out in chapter 3 that a teacher’s “lack of anxiety about whether a student could do it also raised the young person’s own expectation of success” (p. 47). Similarly, research on the effects of teacher expectations on student achievement has shown that higher expectations from a teacher result in higher levels of performance and achievement.

    Having just started my own student teaching experience, encouragement and expectations are both topics I have thought a lot about. I understand the importance of encouraging and holding high-expectations for all of my students, but in the past few days I have become particularly attuned to the effects of encouragement on my special education and 504 students. Many of them struggle with Latin, but what I really admire is that despite these struggles they are persisting and have decided to take another semester. I really want to praise these students for their effort, and convey to them that I have faith in their ability to succeed; I do not want these students to leave Latin because they find it difficult. On the flip side of that, though, I am worried that if I make a big deal out of encouraging them or praising their success, I might inadvertently draw attention to their difficulties, thereby making them more self-conscious. I’m wondering how I might go about encouraging students with exceptionalities without making them feel even more self-conscious.

  4. Interesting post, David! Here’s a thought for us to chew on: Not every student has a “passion” (unless we mean a secret or not-so-secret crush!) so in many ways, we teachers need to keep an eye open for their strengths and assets in more mundane settings. I think the culture in general tends to romanticize “passions” and those of us ordinary mortals may feel left behind. But in fact we all have strengths that we apply in various ways and various settings from day to day , and which can be built on in school settings as well. That’s one reason I ask kids what they are “good at” (outside of school, not just in school) — I’m hoping their answers will be more mundane (things like taking care of their siblings). Those too can be the basis for building school-type competences (planning, for example, or organization). What do the rest of you think?

  5. You know, Kathleen, I was just thinking about the “mundane” responses I received. I am a new student teacher in a high school history class. At the start of the new semester, I asked students to fill out the “Many Interests, Many Strengths” prompt (pg. 29) – along with some other questions I thought would help me get to know them a bit better. Having scripted my explanation of the assignment ahead of time, I went into it trying to get them to understand why taking some time to reflect and respond to the questions would be important. After giving it to my first class, I was pleasantly surprised by what the students were willing to share with me. I learned I had poets, musicians, athletes, computer enthusiasts, ….the list goes on.

    Immediately I began to think of ways that I could try to incorporate these interests within my units. Perhaps a mini-project of choice where students could design a poster or cartoon? Write a poem? Research a figure in popular culture of the time period being studied (from a field the students were interested in)? I, myself, fell into this romantic notion about interests and “passions.” But, then I looked at some of my other responses – students saying they were good at writing letters to their family or organizing, communicating, working in groups….and I thought about how these answers are equally illuminating and important. I, like you, hoped that I might see more answers that were “mundane” from my other classes where I gave out this survey. These “school-type” competencies and life skills can be a good place to start with these students and you can use this knowledge strategically in the classroom (designing an array of activities that tap into these student strengths, building upon these skills within lessons or putting together group members, for example)

    But I accept both types of responses with open arms. Especially as a new student teacher, anyway that I can get to know these students a little bit better makes all the difference. Certainly, I will take what I have learned to help enhance or guide my planning. However, I also found that by simply reading these surveys, I can strike up a conversation with a student that much more easily. It’s a way to start that relationship with students, which as you pointed out in Chapter 7 drew many of the students you worked with into those interest activities. Both students Kristian and Erika (pg. 98-99) provided great examples of how their teachers fostered those relationships with students and created a community within their classroom where students were not simply expected to show up to class, but be part of the experience.

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