Block one, College Composition II, Thursday morning was the best class period of the year.
And I wasn’t even there.
Last April, I received an invitation to chaperone a trip to UMC’s career day for our entire junior class. Though I hate to miss class, I signed up to help out. There was something intriguing about seeing a number of students outside of the classroom and being there to help guide them in researching possible careers. I’m happy to say that I had half a dozen juniors who attended the education presentation for prospective teachers!
The trip was going to keep me out of school for the first two blocks of the day. The first block, College Comp 2, featured student generated lesson plans for the book we were studying, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist.
The book is a student-favorite, mostly because it’s short and quite visually creative; thus, it’s a quick, fun read. To drive home the book’s main point I asked students to sign up for the one chapter they liked the most. Once this was done, I had two students for every chapter. I tasked each group of students to teach the main idea of the chapter to the class. I shared with them the lesson plan template our principal has all teachers use to craft their lessons (state the learning target; list the classroom activities; list the homework; and then state the evidence of learning).
Finally, I advised them to be as creative as possible in generating their lessons. Many students were hesitant and unsure, for they have rarely ever been asked to teach their peers anything! I wanted to change that. So I reminded them that they were all experts on lesson planning. They’ve been suffering through “lessons” since they were five years old! They had well over the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell states in Outliers it takes to become a “master” at something.
When that relieved their fears only a little, I said simply, “think back to the lesson or lessons you enjoyed the most. It doesn’t matter if it was in elementary or middle school or even here. Steal from that lesson and apply it to your chapter.”
When that made them feel a little more confident, I offered them one last bit of advice: “You sure as hell know what boring lessons are, right?” I saw heads nod and eyes roll. “So no lame Powerpoints where you just read the text on the slide. So no lame cross word puzzles that have nothing to do with your lesson.”
A student smirked and added, “God, I hate busy work.”
“Exactly,” I said. “No freaking busy work. Only include work that matters.” I saw more heads nodding and relief washed over more faces. “Just be creative with it.”
Uh – oh. I should have said the dreaded “C” word. The fear returned.
“Don’t give me those looks,” I said. “Remember, Pinterest is your friend.”
Instantly, faces lit up and the laptops popped open. They went to work brainstorming their lessons.
That morning before I got on the bus to head to career day at UMC, I typed up my sub notes and wrote that two students, Blake and Brandon, would be presenting on the chapter “Be Nice (the world is a small town).” I left my laptop there in case they had a slideshow or video they wanted to show as part of their lesson.
Luckily, my sub was going to be Helen, a beloved health/phy ed teacher who retired several years ago. She loves kids. I knew my class was in good hands and that she’d have a blast with the lesson.
Then I was off to the career day.
When we returned four hours later, I hurried from the bus back to my classroom to see how things went. As soon as I walked in the room, Helen was beaming. That’s always a good sign when you have a sub.
“That was awesome,” she said. “Please be gone more often. I could sub for your classes all the time!”
“Great,” I said. “I’m glad things went well . . . right?”
That was when Helen told me about Blake and Brandon’s lesson on “Be Nice (the world is a small town.”
“It was so much fun,” Helen said. “They made my husband cry.”
What? I stopped dead and just stared at her.
“It was an amazing lesson,” she said, relieving my shock. Then Helen explained in detail.
Blake and Brandon tasked each member of the class, including the sub, to think for a minute about someone who had a great impact on them.
When the students (and sub) had their person in mind, Blake and Brandon instructed them to take ten minutes and write that person a letter telling the person about the impact they had on them.
Helen said the class was silent and totally engaged as everyone went about writing or typing their letters.
After the ten minutes, Blake and Brandon then hit the class with the real kicker of the assignment: they wanted the students (and sub) to call the person and read the letter to them!
Helen said students were hesitant. Why couldn’t they just email them or text them instead?
Blake and Brandon were firm. They had to read the letter. It was important for the person to hear their voice read the words. That was the most important part.
Reluctantly, students began to disperse to corners of the room or head out to the hallway to make the call.
Blake and Brandon even had Helen do it.
At this point, Helen looked me in the eyes and said in a hushed voice that she had written a letter to her husband, Rory. She wrote about how they had met decades ago during sno-fest week. She was so happy when he finally asked her to the big dance at the end of the week. Then she wrote about their wedding day, when their kids were born, how proud she was of Rory as a husband and father.
Helen said that she went out in the hallway to call Rory, who was subbing in Goodridge. She didn’t know if he would be able to answer, but he did. He was on his prep hour. Helen said that she had to read him something and went right into her letter.
Helen said that after a few minutes, Rory’s breathing slowed. She could tell he was sobbing. She said that it was all she could do to keep it together so she didn’t start crying out there in the hallway. She said she didn’t want to walk back into the classroom with mascara running down her cheeks.
She did hold it together, finished reading the letter, told Rory she loved him, hung up, and walked back into the class.
Helen then began asking students to share their letters – or at least the people they wrote about. Since she was a remarkable teacher, Helen didn’t shy from sharing her letter with the class when it came her turn!
I was in awe. These students had given their peers – and the people they had read their letters to – an amazing gift. I couldn’t have asked for anything more out of a class.
I quickly texted Blake’s mom how proud I was of her son. Then I explained their lesson to her.
A few moments later, Blake’s mother texted me back saying that she had to run to the bathroom at work because she was in tears! She was so proud of her son and their lesson.
And the best part of all, it had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t have thought of that assignment (though you can be sure I’ll be stealing it from now on). I simply gave the students freedom to learn and create on their own. I gave them a few loose parameters with which to work. Then I got out of their way (quite literally).
Teaching is a balancing act. Sometimes I’m the sage on the stage. More often I’m the guide on the side. And when possible, I get to be a student in my very own room. And I think that’s the best kind of teaching possible.
The next day when I spoke with Blake and Brandon, they were so full of pride about their lesson and the reactions it generated. I told them to appreciate what they had done because they gave not only the students gifts, but they also gave gifts to people the students called.
When I said that, William, who was sitting at the same table as Blake and Brandon, joined the conversation by adding, “When I got home from school, Mom told me that when she listened to my message, she started crying. She gave me a big hug and teared up again.”
Blake grinned at Brandon, and Brandon couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s awesome,” he said, clearly proud of himself, their work, and their lesson.
Real learning can’t be inspired by a state generated standard or measured by a high-stakes, multiple-choice test. Real learning occurs when one person cares enough to take a risk to make an on another person.
I’m still letting the lesson of that lesson sink in.
Dave Burgess talks about how PIRATE teaching is an intersection of standards, methods, and presentation.
I learned that sometimes (maybe quite often, actually) students are ahead of me when it comes to presentation. There is so much I can learn from them.
That's why I always answer the question - and I believe this comes from George Couros' The Innovator's Mindset - "Would you want to be a student in your classroom" with this simple statement: "I am."