I have never thought of myself as a control-freak. One look at my desk will tell you I am not neat and tidy, I believe that letting my own personal children figure things out on their own is the best path, and I am usually pretty laid back about life.
But over the last year, I have come to realize that I have control issues in regards to some big things in life. I want to make things happen, but get frustrated when I cannot.
I can start to relate to our students in this, and to a degree, I can relate to the struggles teachers have with the concept of student-centered instruction. At a training, I heard a teacher express this concern "Teachers have so little control in the decisions from outside their classroom, that they have difficulty letting go of control of the things inside their classroom."
I have control issues, sure, but not about surrendering control in the classroom. That being said, I completely understand and relate to the concerns of this and other teachers. Can we trust students to do the right thing when we give them power in the classroom? The short answer is not always, but the longer answer involves understanding that that is ok. There are a few steps and places where we can give our students ownership in class and also give them "structured freedom" to explore their ideas.
Every year, my students will ask some variation of "What is the rubric?" They have been conditioned to expect a rubric, and while there is nothing wrong with a rubric, I have begun to wonder if how we do them is limiting student creativity. What that means is this: are we teaching students to think, or think like us?
When a student asks for a rubric, what they mean is; What do I have to do to get the grade I want? They are looking for the quick path to an A. Students absolutely need to know the expectations, but do the expectations have to be so linear? I fear that traditional rubrics become more about getting students to align with our plan (and sometimes perspectives) than discover their own.
The issue is one of conformity. Now, when there is a right and a wrong way, we must teach the right. But more often than we want to admit, a student may be able to get to the right answer by a way other than the one we have used. Should we not encourage this creative thinking and problem solving? So I propose a method called the Balloon Rubric. We give a clear start and end point, and give some parameters to keep some focus, but we give a lot of room for students to explore and create.
What I have found is that students initially balk at this. They have truly come to need the strict guidelines of the traditional rubric. So, to get them thinking more in the Balloon style, I start by having them design their own rubric. It gives them the structure they have come to need, but one that they develop. And you have created ownership.
My classes have just finished their first round of blogs. What has impressed me is how quickly some have latched onto this method of reflection. Some blogs have been short and to the point, but others have had depth AND creativity. Some have made connections I was not expecting, and it is only the first attempt!
The first issue, however, relates back to the rubric question. Students immediately wanted to know what it needed to have. What lengh? What content? And I responded with a traditional style of rubric.
Then I realized that by given too much structure, I was actually limiting the range and depth of reflection. When I told them to include four specific things, I immediately cut down the possible insight they could have. Moving forward, it will simply be a completion grade where they can engage in higher order thinking without the limitations of a traditional rubric. I will still read them all, and comment on their blogs, of course. In fact, what I have read so far has thoroughly impressed- and impacted- me more than I had hoped or expected.
I may sound like a broken record to long time readers, but voice is the best way to student-center your classroom. Students want to talk. Letting them take a lead role in the class discussions - and even in instruction is incredibly empowering. It is also an excellent way to check student understanding. Much like the blogs, when students begin to engage each other in conversations about content, amazing things happen.
Not sure where to start? Have a student develop a question of the day. It can be done at the beginning of class as a review time, or at the end as a closer. I like the beginning, because it acts as a warm up for class discussion. Let your students develop a class problem, or give a literature review. But empower them to have opinions, and to express them. If you fear topics that might get risky, set some boundaries, have a "balloon rubric" in place to keep things on track.
For me, it really is like the Beatles sing- Let It Be. The hardest part about surrendering control is letting go. I hear teachers say all the time how much they believe in their students- it is the most common thing teachers say they wish their students knew.
So, let them know by giving them a chance to express themselves, and take ownership of their learning.
Let it be.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.