When Kids Teach

Screenshot 2017-12-03 at 10.19.21 AM                                            A Fifth Grade Student Teaching Classmates = Love

When kids lead their learning amazing things happen. How is it that after 30 years of teaching I can lose sight of that? While I hate to put the blame on others, because the ultimate blame is all mine, I blame our educational system.

At the close of last year I wrote about how I lost my way.  After working through the beginning of this school year which has been like no other I have experienced, I have come to realize that I did not lose my way. We, as an educational system, have lost our way.

This year began with my promise to myself that I would follow our curriculum tooth and nail. Nothing was going to get in the way of us staying on task per our curriculum calendar. There’s only one problem with this grand idea, the kids can get lost in the shuffle. When we follow the guiding belief that no matter what, we stay on target with our calendar, our kids lose something precious. An example of what they lose will become clear with this story.

The stresses this created both in my kids and myself can’t be underestimated or unexamined. For the first time in all my teaching career I put the blame on my class. “They aren’t coming together as a community. They don’t seem to care about each other or their work. They don’t demonstrate inner motivation to learn. They lack any semblance of self control.” The list of all this class “can’t do” goes on and on. But then something unexpected happened. The kids finally earned some free time. They chose to watch a movie and work on some posters they were makin. It was Friday, I was tired and I too needed some down time. What I didn’t realize was how much they needed it too. I worried that they would fall apart with the change in routine. So far every single little change in routine this year has caused them to fall apart. The lack of self control with this group is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sure, some kids each year struggle with it, but a whole class?

Not wanting to fall behind, I had planned to weave the movie between reading, writing, and math. I was greeted with many sincere,”That’s not what we want to do,” comments. Sensing a mutiny, I asked one boy, who is respectful, hard working, and who demonstrates enough self control for the entire class, what he would like. “We just want to have some fun. We don’t want to work today. Can’t we just do fun stuff like you said we would?” I found myself listening to his genuine plea. “Sure,” was all I could come up with. So I erased our daily schedule and let them help me build our day. Part of the day would be one young boy teaching his classmates how to make origami paper cranes. This boy is bright and curious but has demonstrated a total lack of self control all year. He has been one of my most challenging kids this year.

That’s when the magic started.  As others got what they wanted on their desks for the movie, a black and white original Helen Keller movie, (Yes, you read that right! That’s the movie they wanted. And they LOVED it. Go figure.) this young boy set up his origami station. I watched as he demonstrated a focus like I have not witnessed this year. He cleared off the entire table, putting its contents exactly where they needed to go to be put away properly. He got the spray and wiped down the table. He got the origami paper, the name sticks, and a piece of paper and pencil. As his classmates watched the movie and worked on finishing up some posters they started the day before, he called them back to his table one at a time and successfully taught each one to a make a paper crane. He did that for over an hour, nonstop. He was kind. He was patient. He was encouraging. He smiled often. He taught kids who can barely write legibly to fold sophisticated paper cranes. Then when he was done he said he wanted to donate the cranes he made along side each child to the cause we are making them for. He said if he did this then each of them could keep their first crane. He felt that was important.

I nearly cried at the beauty of what I witnessed and then nearly cried again as I realized all that I had taken from them this year by focusing on a rigid timeline and expectations. The problem was that I fell into the dreaded trap of teaching content and not teaching kids. How could I let myself fall into that? Fear. Fear of not having kids “perform” well enough on tests. Yes, I allowed myself to fall into that fear. Even with all my experience and conviction to never to do that, I did just that.

It is vital that we stop sometimes and allow our kids opportunities to shine in ways they want to shine. To give them opportunities to stop and get to know each other on levels that are different than through traditional academics. I have no doubts that the lack of community in my classroom falls squarely on my shoulders, not theirs. We will continue to find time for opportunities that encourage joy and creative expression.  I will meet them where they are instead of insisting they jump to where I want them to be and slowly we will cross that gap together so each and every one of them remains spiritually intact.

As we approach our shortest day of the year and the many wonderful winter holidays, may you remember that teaching the whole child includes their soul. Break away from some of the strict demands our educational system puts on all of us at all levels of education and have some fun with your kids. Sew things, create things, sing, make cards for the less fortunate, laugh, show love, and drink some hot chocolate together.



2 thoughts on “When Kids Teach

  1. Mary, this is such a valuable reminder we all need to remember especially in the hustle and bustle of the holiday and assessment season. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story!

  2. We need more of this. More of that. Reminders that this is where the learning can really happen. It doesn’t diminish our roles as teachers, of course. But knowing how to guide and how to find and make those spaces for student-led learning … that’s powerful.
    It’s never good when “kids can get lost in the shuffle.”

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