How I Let Students Lead

by | 04.9.19

Jill Fletcher is an educator in Hawaii. Follow her on Twitter @TeachinginHI.

Students often love to share their ideas aloud. There was a time when I didn’t value this enthusiasm for engaging. I saw it as a trait to tamper – something that stood in the way of getting information to them. Then I realized their willingness to speak was one of their greatest assets. And in order to reach them, I needed to build upon their passion for discussion.

When there is something big going on in the news, my students often want to talk about it. That’s part of why, for me, it’s so important to teach discussion skills. I want my students to be productive when they disagree with someone – and to seek an understanding of someone else’s viewpoint and experiences.

We hold a lot of discussions in my class (we call them “Philosophical Chairs”), and I tell the students the most important thing is to have an open mind and listen to what other students are saying, instead of just waiting to make their own point.

We emphasize that the best thing a person can do in Philosophical Chairs is change your thinking a little bit. I encourage them to seek to understand 100% where another person is coming from, even if they don’t agree with that person. The mission is to understand and listen to each other.

Students don’t feel comfortable with this right away. It takes time to build the right sense of community. We start off the year by making an agreement for our space, and we all sign off on it. Our first discussions focus on simple topics and then we move on to more challenging ones. Finding topics that push them to expand their thinking comes naturally because of the way we decide on topics.

We always go with what they want to talk about and a topic on which students will disagree. I’ll ask, “How many people agree with this statement?” – and if nearly everyone raises their hand, we’ll usually move on to something else. I tell them, “If we just have a conversation, and everybody agrees, then we are not pushing ourselves.”

I tell my students that they are in charge of the conversation. Who speaks when. How long they talk. It’s all up to them. During these discussions, I’m not the facilitator. They run the conversation themselves. To ensure I don’t jump into their conversation I usually record how many times each student has spoken, or some data from the conversation that I may share with them later. This keeps me focused on the content of their conversation, and prevents me from adding my opinion.

There are only a few rules: (1) Let three people speak before speaking again. (2) One person speaks at a time. (3) Make eye contact with the speaker. (4) Use body language that shows you’re listening. (5) Keep an open mind. (6) Listen to understand.

I post the rules, and I’ll say, “If you see that someone is not following the rules, can you gently remind them without embarrassing them?” And then, I let them begin.

It is hard at first, though. When discussions don’t go the way I want them to early on, it is tempting to take control and guide them. But for the students to learn to lead, I have to believe in them.

It’s hard for them at first, too. They don’t fully believe that they are in control. They look to me to see if I like what they are saying. I tell them, “Don’t look at me. Address your peers. All of you are in charge of this discussion.” Part of why I take notes is to avoid eye contact. So if they do look at me, they don’t get any feedback on my opinion. If they don’t know how I feel about what they are saying, they begin to feel like this space is actually theirs.

When we let go of control, and we just trust them, they learn to lead. Depending on the group, it might take about four discussions before they believe this is their space. That they own it. Once they know that, they all find their voices. Students who rarely speak in whole-group, teacher-led discussions will make brilliant, thought-provoking statements. Over time, students grow a sense of camaraderie in these discussions.

In one conversation, we were discussing the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. One student, who is a Pacific Islander but not Native Hawaiian, was strongly arguing against the idea. Then, another student spoke up to explain why she would always believe in and advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty. She staked her claim and articulated her opinion, and the other student said, “You know, I have never thought about it from your viewpoint. I respect that.” And the whole class burst into applause – they were clapping for each other. They were celebrating open-mindedness.

In moments like this, I think, “Wow, who’s the teacher?”

That’s the thing they don’t always tell you when you’re studying to become a teacher. This profession is not just about what and how you teach students; it’s also about how much they are going to teach you about yourself, cause you to constantly reflect on your choices, evaluate your decisions, and even change the ways you choose to engage.

By respecting students and giving them space, voice and agency, we can support the growth of leaders. Any time we can empower them to own their learning, it’s worth it.

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