Lose the Harness, Use the Lever

Student energy is too often harnessed and too rarely leveraged.

Recently, I arranged one group of students in a circle for a discussion. I shared the standards for participating: hand raising was unnecessary; however, speakers should refrain from interrupting others, and they should wait for others to finish before adding questions or comments in response to a student.

The students were excited and full of energy.  After all, they were discussing self-selected research topics, which included the people, activities and ideas they valued, and they were in a new formation where they could see each of their classmates simultaneously.

This excitement translated into little following of my aforementioned standards. Comments flew from each side of the room as I dutifully prompted students to take turns. I then reacted by switching to a facilitator roll, requiring students to raise their hands to respond to an initial student comment. This stopped some of  the talking over talking, but much of it persisted.  By the end of the period, I felt my frustration mounting, but the students were still energetically talking about the topics.  In terms of following of my rules, the activity had failed.

After that class, I considered:

  1. What did I want students to be able to do for that lesson?
  2. What prevented students from being able to what I planned for them to do?

These were my initial answers:

  1. I wanted discussion to occur between students about their research topics, and I thought it was especially important for students who don’t often interact to be aware of each others topics.
  2. I thought that the students talkativeness was preventing the conversation from running smoothly.

My answer to #2 was conventional thinking.  Students must follow rules.  As the teacher, I establish the routines and procedures, and the students following of these habits helps the class run smoothly and effectively.

I believe those ideas. But in this case, my imposed structure of the conversation was an inefficient waste of student energy. I was trying to harness the energy, when I should’ve been leveraging it.

The next day students walked into the classroom: “Mr. Dawson, are we going to do a discussion again?” “Are we going to put the desks like that again?” “Can we make a big circle again? That was fun.”

Notice the disconnect between students’ reaction to the activity, and my perceived failure of the activity.

That second day, I had a new plan.

After much reflection, some ego-denying, and a little acceptance of failure, I change the discussion format.  This wasn’t anything revolutionary; we did “speed dating,” where students speak in pairs for a short period of time, before one group of students rotate, and a new conversation begins.

As I walked around listening to the many conversations, almost all of them were on topic.  Students listened to the person sitting across the desk.  These were conversations between students that would not occur in a social setting.

The same energy that had caused a perceived failure in the previous day’s lesson was now leveraged into a productive, active situation, allowing students to practice speaking, listening, and refining their ideas.

For other classes, a different conversation structure would work better. Each class has its own personality and energy.  Attempting to harness energy is bound to incite dissonance, but leveraging the energy brings productivity and harmony.

One example does not make a case, but for me it often leads to a realization.  In this case it was that the more that I am able to step back from my teaching, along with any other part of my life, and view it objectively without ego or fear of failure, the more I’ll be able to revise and make adjustments. Less dissonance, more harmony.





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