Teacher to teacher

It might get loud: Student-centered learning

During a recent government class, my 9th-graders were yelling and screaming so loudly that the principal came down to my room to make sure everything was under control.

Ten minutes later, one of the hallway staff also appeared at my door to make sure that everything was OK. Each time these people peeked into my room that day they saw 30 kids yelling and screaming at each other.

They also saw a smiling teacher.

Recently, the students in my government class participated in a three-day simulation of the original Constitutional Convention. Each day, we used James Madison’s diary to guide our debates, focusing on the major issues that divided the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787. The debates got progressively better, with the final one on representation in Congress being the best by far.

After a not-so-exciting beginning, in which almost every student thought each state should have the same number of votes, I pulled a student aside and asked him to make the case for “big” states that representation in Congress should be based on population. What followed was a 20-minute, student-led debate over not only how states should be represented in Congress, but also the legitimacy of counting slaves toward population.

I did jump in twice to represent the voice of the Southern slave owner in order to shake things up even more, but the large majority of this debate was student-run. While this did lead to the class being loud and even a little chaotic, it allowed my students to learn the important content I wanted them to learn on their own terms.

I had an absolutely amazing experience with my students that day because of two realizations that I have come to over the past few years: 1. It’s great when students are running the class instead of the teacher; and 2. Yelling and screaming kids are not always a bad thing.

I truly believe that one of the most difficult things a teacher can do is relinquish control of the class because it goes against everything that we learn in our training. However, letting go of that control can lead to wonderful results.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a time for a teacher to be in the front of the room and for students to be silent. But it doesn't have to always be that way. In fact it should never be restricted to only that way.

Student-centered learning empowers students in their educational experience while also improving the teacher/student relationship. Additionally, when teaching adolescent students, taking advantage of their desire to talk and argue with each other makes classroom management that much easier.

During class that day, instead of my students talking and yelling about the Call of Duty video game or the fight that almost happened in the hallway, they were talking and yelling about the issues surrounding the creation of our Constitution. As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

If this approach appeals to you, you can take to implement (and enjoy!) student-centered learning in your classroom:

Don’t be scared! Just like jumping off the high diving board for the first time, the most important thing you can do is trust yourself to take that leap. Always remember that you are a professional who has spent time building strong relationships with your students. Student-centered learning offers a chance to utilize those relationships by investing students in the learning process.

Choose a topic that will have high student interest. While the Constitutional Convention is not the first thing topping the interests of teenagers, debating and arguing usually rate high on that list. Find a subject or format that will interest students to avoid having the class fall flat.

Prepare your students for the assignment and the process. Make sure that the students have a solid base of knowledge on the topic of the class. A reading or assignment for homework the night before should do the trick. And make sure they know and abide by certain guidelines you establish for student-led instruction.

Be ready to get involved (at least a little). What made my lesson even better was my jumping in and moving the conversation in a direction that would lead to more student engagement. It’s even better if you can pull a particularly strong student aside and have her or him make your point to the class. This will help keep the class as student-centered as possible.

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