When Students Take Charge

Sometimes teachers need to just step aside and allow students to take charge of their learning experiences.  I know it is hard.  When teachers ask questions they expect to see student hands begin popping up. Scanning the classroom, the hardest part should be deciding who among the eager faces you should call on, right?  In our teaching utopias, this is the way our classes run each day.  We know, however, utopian moments are just that…moments.  They come and go and even if we try to replicate them in the very next class period, we don’t always succeed.  So what do we do when no one has a hand up?  We do what they taught us in our credential programs—we wait.  Braving that awkward silence and those blank stares can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.  Wait time is just one of the ways teachers can get out of the way and let their students take control of their own learning.  There are other ways as well.  Join me as we sneak a peek into Steve Neale’s AP World History class and Mariah Rios’s 9th grade English class. They both designed activities around this idea of moving out of the way and letting their students take charge of their learning experiences (with some gentle guidance, of course).  


Steve Neale is Hart High’s beloved social studies teacher and swim coach.  He even has his own signature emoji! Check out this little swimmer that Steve drew himself!



Before winter break I was invited to see Steve try something new.  First of all, yay for trying something new!  He discovered that the lesson he had planned for a day or so quickly became a few days, but that is okay!  If the students are benefitting from the activity, it is worth it.  And next year, Steve can refine his activities and plan accordingly based on this first go around.  The new activity Steve tried was a group essay that allowed the students to become more familiar with the requirements of the College Board’s AP World History essay. Steve could have simply lectured and then had each student write his/her own essay.  But Steve is smart!  He knows that collaborating is a 21st century skill and one that helps students come to their own ah-ha moments.

Of course, Steve also set the students up for success.  He created an outline on the board highlighting the various aspects of the essay and what the College Board expects for each part.  Additionally, he provided detailed instructions and a rubric so that students knew exactly what was needed.  Students were then placed into groups and assigned tasks that coincided with the various sections of the essay.  As the students discussed their parts and began writing, Steve circulated the room listening to conversations and asking questions.  Viewing what had been written so far, he prompted them to delve deeper.  Students then each typed their portion into a PowerPoint slide that the whole class shared.  

The next day Steve passed out the essay as the class had typed it. Below each section was a “rewrite” area. Students now had the opportunity to revise the entire essay (where needed) to create one cohesive essay. They were allowed to continue collaborating with others and discuss the writing, but they each synthesized the information and improved upon it individually.  I loved this last activity because all too often students only see their own writing.  Yet, comparing multiple examples of writing allows students to begin to distinguish between what is well written and what needs revision.  Seeing the writing of others also shows them possibilities in both content and form they may not have considered.  

Thank you for sharing with us, Steve!



Mariah Rios is one of the newer members of the English Department.  She teaches English 9 and the 9th grade LTELs.  When I was invited to her English 9 class to watch a Socratic Seminar, I was excited to see her students in action.  Her room was set up in two circles.  I have never tried running two separate Socratic Seminars at the same time, but now I just might!  Mariah allowed her students to run their own discussions while she simply moved back and forth between the two groups.  Only towards the end did she interrupt and ask those who hadn’t yet spoken if they had anything to add.  

Of course, much like Steve, Mariah gently guided the students prior to the discussion so they would be set up for success.  Each student had created a list of questions relating to the texts that were being discussed.  Mariah provided students with a Depth of Knowledge (DOK) chart and taught them the difference between the levels so that students wouldn’t simply write recall questions.  The students also were able to refer to their overall essential question and sub questions for the semester.

Using To Kill a Mockingbird and many other texts, students synthesized information, made connections, and explored various themes.  Each student had a chance to pose at least one question to the group. One of the great conversation starters I heard a student pose was, “Predict what American society would have been like today without Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his ‘I have a Dream’ speech.”  Everyone would write the question down and then discuss.  They jotted down responses they heard and added their own ideas as well.  One student made a connection between the treatment of one of the characters and the treatment of a dog in the novel.  His connection was exactly what a teacher would hope the students would recognize on their own.  The other students in the group talked about this connection for awhile and then started exploring similarities between other characters.  All this without any teacher prompting!  The English classrooms of the past would have included the teacher lecturing to the students about the book, pointing out a connection, and possibly asking the students to explain the connection.  However, these students were able to discover the connection on their own through close reading and through conversation with their peers.

Day two of this lesson included an online reflection where students were able to look back on the notes they took during the discussion, consider how they and others performed, and reflect on how their own understanding of the texts grew as a result of their seminar.  Mariah can quickly review these online reflections and see who seems to have understood the texts and who is still struggling before they write their essay.  This activity allows her to intervene as needed and differentiate as needed moving forward.  

Great work, Mariah!  Thank you for a peek inside your class!  

As Steve and Mariah both demonstrated, allowing students time to collaborate and explore topics before they write about them or test on them will help them succeed. Sometimes you are not able to provide them with the exact topic beforehand, but you can definitely have mock activities that will help them to practice the skills. (Which is exactly how Common Core is designed!)   The students may just surprise you with the level of insight they are able to achieve during these discussions.  All you have to do is give them the tools and then move out of their way.  Gone are the days of fill-in-the-blank worksheets and multiple choice tests!  Certainly the ability of our students to hold meaningful discussions about topics is more valuable than any old school worksheets or sit and get lectures.  I always try to plan my lessons around the type of learning experience I would want to have myself.  Many times I just wanted my teacher or professor to stop talking so that I could start exploring or applying what I had learned.  Want more utopian teaching moments?  Learn to move aside, let go, and get out of the way…the students will do the rest.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s