Why not leave it up to them

IMG_4127-2Yesterday was the start of the 3rd high school semester here in Japan.  That means all the students came to school for a one and a half hour “School Opening Ceremony.”  There were speeches about how important it is to study and prepare for university entrance examinations, why learning Japanese history is a key component to finding your place in the international community, and a final speech on how Japanese culture has a tradition of the ‘fresh start’ so this semester was everyone’s chance to change and become a better student.  And once all of these very serious (and very long) speeches about change and the importance of studying were finished, we had 20 minutes scheduled for homeroom, were supposed to say ‘sayonara’, and send the students back home…without holding classes.  Which got me thinking about how cavalier schools are about students’ time.  We tell them when to come, how long to be there, if they can stay late or not.  And especially high school teachers (and certainly I am accusing myself of this as well) are constantly trying to impress on students the importance of using their time effectively.  And yet, in a traditional school environment, students are actually given very little control over how they spend their time aside from whether they pay attention to the teacher or not.

After the School Opening Ceremony yesterday, as I was about to start my 20 minute homeroom, I stood up at the front of the classroom with a folder of flyers, standard test result reports, study abroad applications, and even an advertisement for a lecture by the architect Ando Tadao sponsored by my school.  I looked at the students.  Most were happily talking about what they did during winter vacation.  They were animated and smiling and listening intently to one another.  One student had a book, Key Words to Mastering English, open on his lap and seemed to be having a wonderful time studying vocabulary.  And not a few students were busily trying to finish their winter homework assignments.  I looked at them and decided that all of the things I had to say, pass out, or return to them could probably be done on a one-to-one basis.  I walked from table to table and gave the students the flyers and chatted a bit about some of the buildings Ando Tadao had designed and why it would be an interesting lecture to attend.  I laid standard test results upside down on the desk in front of students without interrupting their conversations (they new what they were and how to read them).  I handed each student a study abroad application and spent a bit of time with students who had expressed an interest in going to Australia in the second semester.  And 30 minutes later everything was passed out.  It took 10 more minutes than usually.  But when I stood up in front of the class  and made eye contact with a few students, saying, “I missed you,” to each one in turn, it got quiet pretty quickly.  And then I told the entire class, “I really missed you all,” and ended the homeroom.

Which got me thinking.  How often do I demand an entire classes’ attention?  Does everyone really have to be listening to me when I talk about what is going to happen next in class?  When I talk about the average score of a test?  When I introduce a group work assignment?  There are plenty of students in my school who can figure out an activity by themselves after a few seconds of watching without any directions from me at all.  And if those students can be using that time more effectively (and want to use it to do something else), what kind of message does it send when I demand they stop whatever their doing to do whatever it is I want them to do?  When we talk about a student-centered classroom, shouldn’t some control of how students use their time in the classroom be at the heart of that idea?  So here’s a few other ways teachers can allow students a bit more choice in how they use their classroom time:

Don’t give oral instructions for written work:  Give simple written instructions of how to do a written assignment and then walk around class and check in with students who seem to be having difficulty.  Students who read and understand the instructions can start the assignment when they are ready.  Or if they want, they can help explain it to students who are a little lost.

Don’t start with the class, start with a student:  teach what you want to teach to 1 or 2 or 3 students who are ready to learn.  Take a small white board to class, sit down next to the students and start teaching,  If another student shows interest, invite them over to join you.  Show the students that when you start teaching, it is actually worth listening.  If the students really believe this, they will be much more willing to stop what they are doing to listen to you.

Don’t collect homework:  I’m not a huge fan of homework on the very best of days.  But I do give it to students.  Often times I just want them to have a bit more practice working with the language we used in class.  If my main purpose is (forcing) providing students with practice time out of class, why would I collect and mark the homework?  And why would I stop the entire class and use everyone’s time to collect homework whose main purpose was to provide individual practice and review time?  Instead, let students know that if they want feedback on homework, they can turn it in to you and you’ll be happy to let them know their areas of strength or weakness.

Don’t assign classwide listening tasks: while listening, we often give students a task such as ‘write down every verb you hear,’  or ‘while listening circle the stressed/key words on the transcript.’   But this both ends up using time for instructions and assumes students need similar listening practice.  Instead, give students a weekly (or bi-weekly, or even monthly) task which is more suited to their individual needs.  So if you like to start of your lesson with a listening activity, everyone in the class is primed, ready to go, and knows why they are doing what they are doing. After the activity, what should you do with the stuff they have just written down on looseleaf paper or in their notebook?  See: don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect tests:  See don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect anything: see homework and tests (caveat: you need to explain the system of how you give feedback at the beginning of the year.  And you need to hope and pray that there are at least a few students are going to give you something so that when they get the most excellent feedback you have to give them, other students realise that it is a pretty groovy thing to voluntarily hand in assignments, tests, etc.)

Don’t wait for activities to end: If students are doing individual work and 1 student  seems to be finishing up, then grab her or him and start the next activity with that student, alone.  And when another student finishes, well the first student already knows how to do it, so just pair them up and let them go.

Don’t officially end your class:  If you follow most (or even some) of these ideas, there’s a very good chance that when class time is winding down there will be a lot of students doing a lot of different things.  What’s the point in stopping them all and making them look at you?  Really, what’s the point of officially ending class in general? Instead, with a minute left in class, just walk around to the students and let them know you are leaving the class to get ready for your next lesson.  And let the the students keep doing what they want to do.  Trust that they will leave the class in time for the next class of students to come on in.  And you know what, they might just keep learning right up to the very last second. I’ve even had pairs or small groups of students head off to a nearby cafe to continue their lesson sans teacher.

There’s this term, ‘classroom management.’  Whenever I hear it, I kind of get itchy all over. Why would I want to manage my classroom?  I think I’d rather spend my time creating an environment where students can, as much as possible, manage their own learning.   Luckily, as a teacher, how I spend my time during a lesson is mostly up to me. I wonder how classrooms might look if students, whenever possible, were provided with that same opportunity.