Student Led Teaching: First Year Teachers and Their Students

Dane Butts

High School: Grades 9-12

Advanced ENL

Border Conflicts/Immigration/U.S.-Mexico Border

15-20 Students depending on the class period

            Guided participation is something that I have been using in my classes since I began teaching.  I believe wholeheartedly in group discussion and really having the students lead the discussion.  I have covered some fairly deep issues so far in my ENL classes, and my unit on border conflicts and immigration was no different.

            Rather than lecturing on these topics at the beginning of the unit, I decided to see what the students knew already about border conflicts and immigration.  The majority of them being either immigrants or relatives of immigrants, there was needless to say, lots of differing and strong opinions related to these topics.  However, the students did a remarkable job staying on task and subject.  Because I have conducted multiple discussions in the past, the students knew what was expected of them.  I would interject every once in a while simply to provoke some new thoughts or put a new idea into their heads.  I had some base questions that I wanted to make sure got answered, like “what is a border?” and “why do conflicts happen along borders?” and “where are some border conflicts?”  Not only was I looking to see that students came up accurate, critical, and intelligent responses to their peers, when discussing these questions.  However, I was also looking to see in what direction they would take the discussion.  I really enjoyed hearing what students thought about certain topics.  These issues hit close to home to the vast majority of all my classes, and I really appreciated the students who were able to bring personal stories and experiences into the discussion.

              Although I allowed them to provide any thoughts as long as they were on topic, I wanted to make sure that they knew exactly what we were discussing.  For instance, it did not take long for our conversation to lead talk of the U.S. – Mexico Border.  Some students began to liken the border to the wall and talk about the two interchangeably.  I don’t think all of the students agreed with this, but I was forced to step in and clarify what exactly a border is.  I mentioned that there are borders between all countries and even borders between the States in the U.S.  Some students were actually surprised to find out that there is no fence between virtually all international borders. 

            The student led discussion laid the groundwork for the remainder of the unit.  Students were then required to make a short film related to international border conflicts.  Videos clips were compiled for them and the students cut these clips, added their own text, and recreated their own film using windows movie maker.  Along with other project requirements, the students had to have a clear message and a stated intended audience.  We viewed these short films as a class, and students had to comment on the effectiveness of the messages in relation to the selected video clips.  This portion of the unit took one week.

            The following week, we looked more in depth at the history of and controversial issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border.  I facilitated another student guided discussion in which the students were focused solely on the topic of the U.S.-Mexico border.  Students once again were able to stay on task and discuss this topic critically.  The students discussed current issues and conflicts facing people from both sides of the border.  With a little help from me, the students also brainstormed possible solutions for these problems.  Following this discussion, the students were given the guidelines for another project, which would be presented to the class.  Each student had to focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexico border and U.S.-Mexico relations of a specific set of years.  Some students had overlapping years, but for the most part each student was researching information exclusive to their project.  Using this research, the students then had to create an interactive timeline using the online presentation software Prezi.  The students were to include written information for ten events that occurred during their set of years, pictures related to these events, and videos if applicable.  After roughly one week of work on this project, the students presented their information to the class.  During the presentations, those students not presenting were being taught about different periods in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border by their peers.  After the presentations were complete, each student then had a comprehensive list of the history of the border dating back to the 1400s. 

            Overall, the students responded very well to all portions of this unit.  I give my students ample opportunities to express their opinions and beliefs about a wide range of topics; however, we have not had many full lessons devoted to this.  I could tell that they really enjoyed discussing these issues when we were doing that.  Whenever you can incorporate a students’ life or background into a lesson, the chances for them to grasp and engage the material is elevated.  It was evident that this was occurring because most of the students had something personal to say about one of the topics we were covering, and with a little bit of help from me, I was able to make sure the students did fully understand the information that was being discussed. 

            It was not difficult for me to give up the power in the classroom.  Overall, these classes are pretty well behaved, minus a few students.  By addressing our main classroom rule of respecting everyone and everything and citing specific things that I did not want to hear or see at the beginning of this unit, there were virtually no inappropriate comments.  Everyone was very respectful and it seemed interested in what their fellow classmates had to say.  Taking all of this into consideration, this is something that I will continue to use in all of my classes.  The benefits of student guided participation, especially when the information being discussed is relevant to the students, outweigh any preconceived challenge. 

Scott DeArmond

EDU 505


Guided Participation

                In my Resource class, I began class last week by asking the class the question “What is it you want to learn?”  They looked at me, somewhat puzzled, and did not respond.  I asked again, “What do you want to learn about?  What do you think you should be getting out of this class?”  One student asked sheepishly- “What about the Holocaust?”  It started slowly, but one my one my students began giving ideas and contributing to the list we had started on the board.  After a few minutes, I could not write fast enough as they were excited to have the opportunity to contribute to their own learning by picking topics of interest.

                What I discovered, when starting out class this way, is that students are so used to coming to school, sitting down, and just taking in whatever somebody else deems necessary for their success.  They don’t have a voice have come to accept that their opinion doesn’t matter.  There is a bunch of stuff they need to learn, and there is not much time for things they want to learn.  Basically, sit there and shut up.  This type of forced learning allows for students, who often times are not the least bit interested in the subject matter they are being subjected to, to become disengaged and push back on teachers.  I believe that this contributes a large part to the problem of lack of student engagement in our schools.

                Back to my Resource class, the class, with my guidance, chose to do research on the Holocaust.  They decided what the project should entail (a PowerPoint presentation and a short paper) and even helped to develop a rubric for how they should be graded.  They split themselves into pairs to focus on different aspects of the Holocaust such as what a concentration camp actually was, people involved, etc.  I had already blocked the media center off for the week for our project, so we went down and they were off.  I would check in on their progress and be there as a resource if they had questions, but I encouraged them to use each other if they got stuck or had questions.  They were also responsible for making sure each other stayed on tasked and focused, as they had until the end of the week before their projects were due and they would be giving their presentations.

                It was a strange feeling giving them an assignment that they created and were self-monitoring.  There was definitely a feeling of absence of control over the whole situation, which was unsettling at times.  But it was really neat to see how invested the students got in this project.  It was almost like a game to them to see how they could get around asking for my help; instead asking each other or the Media Specialist or some other creative way to solve their problem.  They were truly taking ownership of their learning.

                This is not to say that everyone was initially on board.  There was one student in particular who was very uncomfortable with her perception of lack of structure.  She repeatedly asked for clarifications and help on getting started and would get visibly nervous because this was not the way class normally was run.  I would encourage her to ask her fellow students for help, but this was unusual for her and she had a hard time doing so initially.  As the week went on, there was some improvement, however.

                It was very exciting to see the change in student attitude and self-worth over this week-long project.  As I indicated initially, my students had a hard time even volunteering what subjects they would be interested in studying, let alone developing rubrics and taking control of the class.  They did not believe that they would have a chance to learn about their interests, so they did not even know what to say when initially asked.  They were, in a way, second-class citizens at our school whose opinions did not matter and whose preferences were not valued.

                By the second day of this project, it was easy to see the change in student behavior and attitudes.  They were having fun and having a lot of fun doing research and learning about a major part of world history.  I almost had to laugh at times because when doing projects before, when they had simply been given a topic and told to do it, there would be moaning and groaning and complaining, even if I gave them a topic that I thought they would be interested in.  The difference now was that they felt responsible for their learning because they chose the topic and how they would be graded so they were accountable to making sure it was done right.

                By the middle to end of this week, the students realized that they might need more time to finish than originally thought, because they wanted to take the time to do it right.  So, they proposed that the class work through Friday and present on Monday.  I gave them the extension because in truth I was just excited that they were taking so much ownership of the quality of their work.  It was very refreshing to see how much they wanted to impress me and their fellow classmates and how seriously they were taking this project.

                Monday came and it was time for presentations.  The students took turns and one by one taught the students about the research they had done.  They had PowerPoints with pictures and graphics and videos and all sorts of great information.  After each presentation, the class would have a chance to ask questions to the group about their topic.  The students were obviously having fun being the experts on their topics and then decided that we should watch a movie about the Holocaust.  They suggested a couple, including “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, which I am currently waiting for permission to show to my class as a reward for their hard work and focus on this project.  Overall, this was a very refreshing project in that it forced them to be accountable to themselves and each other and take charge of their own learning.  There will definitely be another one like this soon.

Erika Fox

Second Grade


Art From Around The World (Matryoshka dolls)/Standard 2.1: Understand Art in relation to history and past and contemporary culture

24 students

            Second grade students learned about art from various parts of the world. One week we studied Matryoshka dolls from Russia and eventually created our own set of five dolls to be displayed in the school. I began the unit by placing a colorful Matryoshka on a table while they sat on the carpet. I did not tell them what it was. I allowed them to inquire about what it possibly could be. The students were extremely curious about the beautiful doll and wanted to take a good look at it. They were able to pass it around the group. One student suggested that there was something inside the doll. I then asked them what they thought was inside.  The idea of something being inside the doll really aroused their imaginations. Several hands shot up in the air to have their chance of guessing what was hiding inside the intricately designed doll. Some student predictions were candy, money, rocks, and a bouncy ball. I chose one student who was following the classroom carpet expectations to open the doll and reveal what was inside. The class was in total awe when the student opened the doll and pulled out a smaller, beautiful doll. I then chose three students to take a turn opening the next dolls. Every time a student pulled out another doll, the class became so excited. We then described the formal qualities of the dolls and pointed out the similarities and differences between the dolls when they were lined up next to each other.

            Prior to the lesson, I spoke with the second grade classroom teacher and decided on a student to read a book based on their reading ability. I explained to the student (Amya) and parent about the assignment and allowed the student to take home the book, “The Littlest Matryoshka,” to practice reading with expression and fluency over the weekend. The day after the students observed the Matryoshka, Amya read “The Littlest Matryoshka” to the class. Before she began reading, she asked the class to make a prediction about what the story is about. She read with wonderful expression and the children were extremely engaged with the novelty of a student reader. Amya was very proud to be playing the role of the teacher and took her responsibilities very seriously. She made sure to stop and show the illustrations to the entire class after each page. Amya even paused her reading when a couple students were being disruptive, the same way I do.  She asked for student predictions at pivotal parts of the book and the students were more than willing to share their guesses about the reading. Amya selectively chose students who were raising a “nice, quiet hand.”

            The next day, I chose a student to teach the class how to pronounce the Russian word “Matryoshka.” The students practiced aloud, whole group. They absolutely loved learning a word from a different language and constantly used the word to describe their drawing of the dolls. I also taught the student to say hello and goodbye in Russian, who then taught the entire class. The following days, the students greeted me in Russian when entering the classroom!

            The students had their first experience with colored pencils this year. I chose the strongest artists at each table to demonstrate to their table group the value difference between using light and hard pressure with their pencils. The students then practiced on a scrap paper and the table leader helped guide students in creating different value shades. Grouping students of different abilities proved to be very beneficial. They were able to help each other instead of depending on me alone.

            Each day we worked on our drawings, I chose a student who was further ahead to help circulate the room with me. They went around to each table and complimented student work. They also offered advice on way to make improvements and made sure students were following directions.

            Once the project was complete, each student had the opportunity to present his or her dolls to the class. They each came up with different names for their dolls and told a story about where the dolls were from. They were so imaginative and proud of their creation. The other students really enjoyed seeing the work made by their classmates and gave “bucket filling” compliments. The work was displayed in the hallway, highlighting the student’s accomplishment.

            The students responded very well to their involvement in teaching the lessons. The students are very hands on in their creation of art but this allowed them to have some control in the learning process. I could sense that there was some jealousy of the students in the teacher role. I will be implementing more student led teaching in future lessons, to allow all students this amazing opportunity.

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