Friday, July 1, 2011

Who's doing the work?

I am in the process of planning a course for GVSU's experimental program involving W. K. Kellogg Foundation - Woodrow Wilson Michigan Teaching Fellows. The course is called Facilitating Learning EnvironmentsOne of the assigned texts is Harry Wong's The First Days of School.

I received a signed copy of this book from my mother early in my teaching career and read it over a summer. I still remember the impact the following passage had on my career:
But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 o'clock when the students leave? "Yea, yea, yea!" Why are they so full of energy? Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher is doing all the work.
The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning! (page 205)
One way I related to this passage was my habit of taking students' pencils when they encountered a problem. There, I admitted it. I was a serial pencil grabber. A student would raise his or her hand and say, "I don't get it." Like a trained dog, I would grab the pencil, do the work, and ask if they got it now. After the obligatory nod by the student, I would walk away feeling like I was the best teacher in the world. Actually, I was psuedoteaching but I was unaware of it until I began to reflect on who was doing the work.

I vowed that I would never grab another pencil. When circling the classroom, I would have my hands in my pockets or clasped behind my back in order to resist the urge to do the students' work for them. I got better at guiding them through problems using questions.

Last year, I shared this story with a pair of teacher assistants after observing them grab students' pencils. They made a good point that these students were completely lost and required a demonstration not merely guidance. (The gradual release of responsibility strikes again.) We discussed how this might look.

The demonstration would start with the teacher saying, "Watch what I do, listen to what I say, and keep a record of it so we can talk about it later." Next, the teacher would model solving the problem, using his or her own pencil, being sure to think aloud while working through the process. Once the problem was solved, the teacher would ask the learner for a recount of the process. This could serve as an assessment - did the learner attend to the important details of the process? If the learner was ready, the teacher would ask the learner to apply the process to another problem as the teacher now served as a guide. If all went well, the teacher would move on taking the work done during the demonstration. After all, it was the teacher's not the learner's work.

I appreciated that these teacher assistants were able to question my "wisdom" (and authority) regarding this issue. It reminds me that I have a lot to learn from my learners - as long as I am willing to let them do the work.


  1. This is something that I struggle with as a HS English teacher as well. I find that my "modeling" of a process extends to their independent work time. You ever think of having your students write step by step directions after you've modeled a procedure?

  2. This is something that I've found myself doing in many ways. Even when I'm at the board delivering new content it was me learning, not them. I found that I talked for TOO LONG. But, I reflected, just like you said, and by the end of the school year I spoke directly to the class as a whole no more than 10-15 minutes in a class period. That freed them up to do THEIR work, instead of me doing mine. I was of course there to help along the way as needed. It was liberating for all of us.

  3. Erika,
    Having learners write a recount is a great idea. I am more likely to do this after a whole class demonstration than a one-on-one conference, but it is certainly doable - especially since the learners are keeping a record as the teacher thinks aloud. Thanks for raising this important point.

    Thanks for sharing your teaching journey with us. Reflection is a necessary element for improving our practice, as your story demonstrates. And it is a great feeling when learning becomes more natural.