A Classroom Full of Teachers: Leveraging Student Expertise

As part of reading workshop, I focus on conferring one on one with students, listening to their ideas and sharing teaching points as well as next steps they can take to improve their reading skills. One conference, in particular, taught me a lesson in empowering students to become teachers and push their own learning to the next level.

A student was reading a Japanese manga (English translation); on the spine I could see it said “Book 21.” I approached him for a conference and asked him some basic questions about the book and series. Then, I started to push deeper, asking about the plot structure:

Me: “So what would you say is the climax of this story? Have you made it that far?”

Student: “Yea, I’d say it’s _____________. But the whole collection of books has it’s own big story too.”

Me: “Great! Good job identifying that. You could almost call the plot of each book a subplot leading towards this overarching series plot.”

Student: “I don’t think they’ve gotten to the climax of the series plot yet though. I’ve already read all of them that have been translated to English.”

After some more discussion, I started fishing for a “next step” for this student. As of then, he couldn’t explore the series plot any further. I was wondering if I should talk to him about theme, or conflict, or dialogue, or something else we hadn’t yet discussed as a class. After what was probably an awkward amount of silence, I decided to put the onus on him:

Me: “It sounds like you really know these stories very well. Is there some next step you’d like to take with these books? Something you’d like to think more about, or learn about?”

Student: [A little surprised] “Actually, I’d really like to learn about the characters’ powers and see if I can figure out how they work.”

Me: “Awesome! So it sounds like you want to make some predictions/inferences and try to fill in some of the back story. Let’s talk about what you’ve been up to with that next time we conference.”

At this point, I was solidly outside my realm of expertise. Having not read the books, I couldn’t provide him any guidance in terms of how to explore these “powers,” but I could tell he knew these books well enough and was motivated by them enough to take his next step seriously. The next conference we have, I’ll be learning from him as he tells me about the thought processes and progress he’s been making. It takes away some of my ability to “play expert,” but centers the control of learning around the student, who can push his own learning through these books further than I could.

I was reminded through this interaction that students are experts in many areas I will never be (whether it be certain books, social media, various hobbies, etc.), and empowering students to utilize those areas of expertise and become teachers leads to a more productive, meaningful, and student-centered classroom.

 

Here are three steps I’m going to try to take more often to put my students in the teacher’s chair:

  1. Find out about their interests and strengths.
  2. Ask them how they would like to deepen their skills and knowledge (framing it in a way that relates to your content area).
  3. Facilitate their progress with applicable skill development. Listen to them and ask them questions you don’t already have the answer to.

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