Who’s Doing the Work?

This post originally appeared on my professional blog and is reprinted here. Enjoy!



a moment of sudden revelation or insight

January 6th marks Epiphany as the Christian tradition marks the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus and serves as the official end of the twelve days of Christmas. The word “epiphany” takes root from this tradition and marks “a moment of sudden revelation or insight” thus making one wiser. This is the perfect time to think about an insight or revelation in our life or practice, and thus the yearly epiphany post.

One teaching revelation or insight centers around who’s doing the heavy lifting – me, the teacher, or my students. For years, I did most of the heavy lifting in my classroom. I planned elaborate lessons, researched background information and historical context for reading, prepared lectures about themes, spent hours upon hours correcting grammar and writing comments on paper – you get the idea – while my students were basically consumers taking advantage of the work and thinking that had already been done for them by completing questions, graphic organizers, or walking through watered-down lessons that taught to a test. Don’t get me wrong – my lessons were creative, students were engaged, and learning occurred – but I was doing most of the work.

In the past few years, I have shifted from doing the work for my students and coaching them to do the heavy lifting themselves. Instead of seeing myself as the person in the classroom with the answers on a mission to impart my knowledge to students and then quiz them on how well they regurgitate what I know, I now stand to the side like a trainer (look for an upcoming post about my personal training journey) and encourage them to do the work.

So what exactly does this shift look like in the classroom?

1 – Teaching students to self-assess instead of handing back papers with excessive corrections and comments

For years I was under the false assumption that if I marked every grammar error on a paper and wrote comments throughout on stylistic choices, organizational methods, and whatever else felt important, students would study my notes, glean wisdom, and apply this knowledge to future writing. What happened instead was students got back papers with tons of comments, felt overwhelmed, looked at the grade, and either put the paper in their binder never to be seen again or more often threw it away on the way out of class.

Now that students are doing the heavy lifting, they often submit papers with a paragraph assessing their writing. Students must reflect on what they felt was good, where they struggled, and what area(s) they specifically would like feedback from me. Sometimes they may fill out a rubric and score themselves explaining why they gave themselves that score. Students often are required to read their papers out loud before submitting to catch errors on their own. I will write a glow (what was particularly good so they can keep doing this) and a grow (this is an area that needs improvement) comment on each paper. I also do far more conferring than before creating a two-way conversation about the process and the product as opposed to just me providing feedback. Students now have more ownership of their writing and do not have to rely on me throughout the process.

2 – Allowing students to generate questions and ideas to explore instead of creating questions to help students draw conclusions about a text

When I was in school, the paradigm was students read and answered teacher questions. I learned a lot this way but always felt like my learning was limited. What if there were other ideas we wanted to explore not on the agenda for the day? What if the teacher had overlooked a major part or different interpretation of the text? What if my particular area of interest or experience caused me to interact with the text in a way that led me to have unique insights? Honestly, there was no room for this type of exploration of ideas in the classroom in past decades.

When students do the heavy lifting, they are generating the questions to be asked and ideas to be explored. Sometimes they may need help getting started, which can be done through brainstorming important concepts and ideas then grouping and narrowing to focus. I often rely on the TQE method by Marisa Thompson which offers structure when students need extra support but allows them to do the thinking. What I’ve realized over the last few years of doing this is that students are much smarter than I originally gave them credit for and I don’t have to be in charge of the direction of every conversation for learning to occur.

3 – Teaching students to break down passages on their own instead of summarizing difficult passages for them

For years I would interpret or paraphrase difficult passages for students instead of letting them struggle through the text and make meaning on their own. I honestly thought this was the mark of a good teacher – explaining poetry or intricate prose line by line – but what I realize now is that I was robbing students of the opportunity to struggle and grown in their thinking. Even when I posed leading questions to students so they could “get the right answer,” students quickly learned that if they didn’t answer (whether they could or not), I would jump in and explain. The reality, however, is students will never learn how to read more difficult texts if they are only reading texts at or below grade level.

When students are doing the heavy lifting, they use strategies in their tool box to make meaning of a text on their own. Students now look for independent clauses and get a grasp on those few words before adding in dependent clauses one at a time. This chunking of sentences gives students control over lengthy or particularly difficult passages. Sometimes students may need to go ever smaller and identify the subject then verb and build meaning from there. If a longer text is particularly dense, students will break the text into smaller sections, annotate, and work through those one at a time. Students pull out dictionaries, use context clues, and discuss with one another possible meanings.

I was reminded how important this was at the Folger Shakespeare Academy this past summer when Corinne Vigliett told of teaching Shakespeare at a school with only the No Fear editions (gasp). She told her students to cover up the paraphrased side with sticky notes because they would and COULD do the hard work – and through chunking, reading aloud, and playing with the text – her students who had been deemed not able to read the “hard” version successfully tackled Shakespeare. One of the primary tenets of the Folger method is “students deserve the read thing.”

Allowing students to do the heavy lifting can be frustrating, time consuming, and just as much a test for the teacher who desire to impart knowledge as it is for the students. However, allowing the students to do the heavy lifting also provides for personal ownership of learning, growth in skills, and a high sense of personal accomplishment.

What is a teaching epiphany you’ve experienced?


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