Learning From Students

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

Small comments from students can cause large shifts in my understanding of learners, curriculum, and classroom dynamics. The other day, I overheard a student speaking to a friend. His comment changed my perception of him as a learner. “I wish I could do this semester over,” he said with remorse. This student, whom I’ll call James, had frequently frustrated me with his behavior. Every time I spoke with him about his work, it was clear that he was engaged and intellectually capable of producing high-quality product, yet whenever I gave students time to work, he spent that time talking to friends or looking at websites that had no connection to impending deadlines.

James’ comment and his tone of despair helped me begin to see him as someone who wants to succeed. I realized that the behaviors I was observing actually represented his inability to regularly make choices that reflected his long-term values and desires. My frustration with his behavior began to transform into sympathy for his plight. Now, instead of approaching him with frustration, I am able to see that he needs help and guidance developing skills and self-discipline that will transform his behavior and work. Now I am more of an ally, trying to assist him to focus and succeed.

Making Space for Student Voices

Insight from students is invaluable for teachers looking to deepen and refine their practice. Sometimes these insights arise from unplanned interactions or observation (also known as eavesdropping!), and other times activities can be structured so that students are able to think deeply and share insights about their own learning. It’s possible to avoid gripe sessions while providing opportunities for feedback and reflection that are strategically integrated into classroom routines. The ideas below can be insightful for students andteachers.

Reflection Assignments at the End of Units

Reflection can take place in writing or be shared with a group. Students can record their learning, generate final thoughts, ask questions, or think about how they would approach work differently in the future. It’s valuable to hear what parts of a unit stood out and why, and what parts were less meaningful and why.

Goal Setting and Self-Evaluations

All of us, including our students, can benefit from conscious goal setting and then evaluating our success in meeting our goals. I have students record their goals at the beginning and mid-points of the school year, and then have them revisit these goals and their progress.

Have Students Provide Feedback for Themselves

When I write narratives for my students, I also write a narrative for myself that I share with them before asking them to write versions of their own narratives. This fall, I wrote about my feeling of success with designing engaging curriculum and my desire to do a better job of giving feedback to students during the project creation phase.

Provide Students With Choice

As I wrote in an earlier post, opportunities for student voice and student choice assist learners in finding passion, voice, and revelation through their work. By giving students voice, we can learn from them and develop deeper connections with them.

Valuing Student Voices

Hearing from students in formal and informal ways is validating, challenging, and insightful. After a recent project, student reflections reminded me of the power, the challenges, and the potential of the work we do. The student comments both validated the project design and nudged me to think more deeply about how to more fully meet the expectations of different students. Here are a few:

  • “It was gratifying to see ideas flesh out. Everything is connected and my voice matters.” – Amani
  • “I struggled with having a good structure to my chapter because I have so much to say but didn’t know how to say it effectively.” – Amy
  • “This project taught me how to use my voice in this world. I was taught that people can actually hear what you’re saying.” – Ron
  • “The project also taught me how to be an even better writer, how to convince people that what I’m talking about matters.” – Liza
  • “What are we going to do with all of these unfair and injust situations? I need to find a way to continue on this work I did and get other people to care as well.” – Symone
  • “I wanted to be unique and create something that no one else was doing.” – Adam

Student voices matter. Hearing from and paying attention to students matters. Learning from students is a way for teachers to deepen their practice, recharge themselves, and negotiate the complexity of teaching and learning.

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