The Passenger Seat

At the start of my Modern World class today I began by explaining the plan for the day. I was not standing at the board. A student raised his hand and asked me where in the room I would generally be standing, since to him that seemed like the back of the room and he sat so he was facing the front. I answered by telling him that I would not stay in one place and that I might be anywhere in the room. I see this exchange as a part of the larger issue. What is the role of the teacher in an inquiry-driven classroom?

Several years ago, I had moved into what I thought was student-centered learning. I prepared a learning task for students, and they did it. They complained that I was not teaching them. In reality, I was not reaching them. They thought they were teaching themselves, which was largely true, but that was not the problem. What I failed to do was to stay present in the learning, so that I could provide feedback, challenge them, assess them, support them. I stepped back from my traditional role, but I did not take on a new one.

I took a step back and inserted my voice more often in the classroom. I managed to strike a balance that we were all comfortable with. I was sometimes the voice of authority and other times a bystander. I would walk around and check in with groups. Then I would sit and wait for students to finish so we could all have a discussion. It worked reasonably well, although I had a hard time keeping off of email and Facebook while my students were working.

So, now we are at the start of a new year and I am committed as my goal to create an inquiry-driven student-centered classroom. I want to go beyond inquiry lessons and units to the point where inquiry is our SOP. To make this work in the way I intend, I need to take on a different role than I have in the past. First, I need to be present, for all seventy minutes of class. Second, I have to spend my time and energy listening and assessing. If I am going to hold students accountable for the work they do in questioning, researching, analyzing, comparing, and synthesizing, I need to provide them with feedback as they are working. Third, I need to engage each student in dialogue and conversation about ideas, questions, insights. So much important work goes on in the classroom, that I cannot wait until after class to begin to assess student learning. Formative assessment needs to be ongoing.

The workload is shifting. I am not spending hours on lesson plans, but I am spending time reading and reflecting. I need to use my time outside of class to provide written feedback and think about the progress of individuals and the class as a whole. I already do that. It is the time in class where I really need to be mindful this year. I cannot be driving the bus, but I should not be in the back of the bus, just along for the ride, paying no attention to where we are going. I am thinking I need to ride shotgun or navigate from the passenger seat once class starts. My job is to stay awake, pay attention, help navigate around obstacles, and sometimes just keep my mouth shut. Knowing when to chime in and when to pipe down will always be a challenge. In my mind, that is the art of teaching.

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2 thoughts on “The Passenger Seat

  1. I’m doing more of this now. I seem to enjoy it, but I’m getting more and more of the “Why aren’t you teaching us like you used to?” every single day. I’m also having a difficult time keeping a lot of the students on task. When I am not “teaching”, a lot of the kids have a difficult time keeping their mouth shut (when they should be reading something) and talking about the content (when they are supposed to be synthesizing, charting, and ranking the material as a group). They want to talk about everything but the American Revolution or Reconstruction.

    • Thanks for your comment. You have definitely identified some of the challenges involved with student-centered learning. The kids do have to buy in. Some days are more challenging than others. Last year, when I put students in groups to use Edsitement lessons to craft their own lessons to teach the class, we had a discussion about what worked and what did not. It was clear they did not want to be lectured to. Just having them realize that was a big deal. I have also found that when I can craft a prompt that involves something that affects them, it is more effective. “Could the Great Depression happen again?” worked really well. I have had kids ask why I am not “teaching” them. I tell them it is not teaching them to stand in front of them and know stuff. Turning the classroom culture is the biggest challenge. It did not happen overnight for me. That’s for sure.

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