Talking Back to the Teacher

Although, I blog primarily about my Language Arts classes, I also teach two sections of 6th grade History (World Cultures). We’re studying the Middle East right now and going through some pretty complicated material. Today students were reading a summary of the World War I peace settlement. I’d asked them to highlight the important information in preparation for looking at a picture that their text described as a visual metaphor, which we would label.

As I walked around the room, I saw highlighting bleeding indiscriminately across the page. This was actually one of the better examples…

It’s in these moments that I’m tempted to resign myself to total despair. Students were clearly frustrated and I was, too. I’ve learned that if I don’t try something quickly, the thoughts spin out of control (in my head), and I spend a week in a funk convinced I should have been a lawyer.

K piped up, “Ms. Stewart, How do we know what’s important? Isn’t it all important if it’s written down?”

This felt manageable. “Ok, imagine you’re leaving your house in the morning. There are certain items of clothing that are essential. There are some items that are still important but not essential. When you’re underlining or highlighting, look for the essential parts. Look for the pants.” (Sixth graders are still innocent enough for this kind of metaphor to be silly but not out of control.)

K again. “But Ms. Stewart, what if we don’t know what the pants are? If you gave me a paragraph describing [our school], I would know to highlight information about the Middle School and the Fine Arts building, but not the information about the fish bowl (our name for the small windowless meeting rooms). But I don’t know anything about the World War I peace settlement, so how am I supposed to know what to highlight?”

Hello! Earth to clueless teacher!

I said, “Wow. That was really thoughtful, K. Someone explain to me what K just said.” Another student, “She meant it’s hard to decide what’s important when you don’t know what the thing is about.”

“Ok,” I said. “We’ve got two choices. Never read about anything we haven’t personally experienced or figure out ways to determine what’s essential without maybe totally understanding what we’re reading, at least not in the way you understand the school. I can tell you that first option probably isn’t going to work for you or me in the rest of school or life, so let’s see if we can read this together and find ways to identify the essential parts.”

I projected my copy of the text. We worked through it together stopping to rephrase what we just read, noting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking at the relationships between words, and realizing that we could just draw a line from the picture instead of having to underline entire sentences. About half-way through, I thought Cool! We’re doing a close reading. This was not anything like what I had planned for today. 

Today’s class reaffirmed my commitment to a classroom where kids can talk back without fearing that I’m going to get angry. I don’t allow disrespectful comments, but I also don’t assume I’m the only authority in the room. If the lesson you need isn’t the lesson I’ve prepared, we’ll chuck it. If the lesson you need is one I don’t feel as prepared to teach, I’ll do what I can today and prepare so I’ll be ready next time.

It would have been easy just to restate my original directions and then tell students to be quiet. Honoring K’s comment and reorienting the class to address it meant admitting that I did not know what was best for the class that day. It also means I need to spend some time reading up on teaching annotating and note-taking strategies, especially as a way to help students construct meaning.

The learning never stops. Thank you for teaching your teacher today, K.

10 thoughts on “Talking Back to the Teacher

  1. Wow. What a great reflection here–and how wonderful that your student found the voice and the words to ask those questions. It makes you wonder how many times students feel this way and don’t know how to ask the question, even if we make it “safe” to ask.

    I was hoping this post was about students who *really* talk back, and I was going to offer one who told me I can’t tell him what to do and to shut up today. 🙂

  2. Hi,

    As I read your post, I realized I do not give my students many chances to talk back. It is hard in a high school science class to do so when lab protocols must be followed strictly to insure safety. I was listening to some wonderful student teacher presentations tonight from the University of Regina and how they have learned that technology can give students that voice, so I am going to try it. thanks for the reminder :-0)

  3. Thankyou for this post. As a brand new teacher I am constantly looking for advice and tips that I can use to help me with my teaching. I’m always concerned about classroom management issues and I often try to be the ‘authoritative’ leader. You helped me to realise that I need to relax and let my students show me what they need, be adaptable, and go with the flow.

  4. This is an amazing piece of advice for all teachers, young and old. I wish more of us would consider flexibility and risk taking a necessary part of teaching. Why must the learning experience be so scripted?


  5. Excellent post! I had a somewhat similar situation this week where a student felt boxed in by the (9) options I was offering. He kept asking if he could do x or y but none of them really met any of my (flexible) objectives. After shooting him down for the third time, I stopped him and asked what his concern was about this assignment (warm and smiling) and he said none of the options appealed to him and that he felt as though he had “played the game” of school all semester. Fair enough, I’m feeling pretty open about this last project of the semester anyway. So I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he’d think about it and present something next class (tomorrow). I’m really excited to see what he comes up with now that he very clearly understands my objectives.

    I think it’s wonderful that you have created such a comfortable environment! I feel like I still have a long way to go, but you are such an inspiration! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  6. LOVED this piece. i teach a lot of life-skills and leadership stuff for both students and teachers and frequently find that people have been “programmed to receive”. Challenging them to challenge themselves, each other and ME is a blast. I constantly hear myself urging them to “be brave!”.

    Your students have drawn a lucky card landing in your class! Your reinforcing them for speaking up will give them the practice they need to assert themselves in less supportive environments, and that’s huge. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Great piece. I often tell my students that I want them to challenge me. As an art teacher sometimes my assignments can be pretty focused and I love it when a student breaks the rules I set and is successful. My only caveat is that they have to be able to defend the “why” of breaking the rule. It can’t just be because they like to break rules. It has been students like that that have changed the way I teach.

    Nice post.

  8. I love this stuff! These real-life interactions can teach as much as any professional book out there (even when the rest of us experience them vicariously). I know that at times I begin to just fly on auto-pilot, and forget that there’s an awful lot of task analysis and metacognition that needs to go into learning. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

  9. I’ve been considering teaching annotation as well. I’m halfway through Tovani’s “I Read It but I Don’t Get It” (been half way for a while now), and the technique sounds good, but just haven’t implemented. I love your example of how you used it. I know your kids think the same way mine do. Perhaps something to try for this new semester.

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