• Brent Kaneft

"Step Away from the Classroom"

Last week, I spent almost four class periods just watching my kids work. I didn't feel guilty or lazy or insignificant. In fact, I was proud. Three of my AP Language sections are working on their podcasts for our "Humans of Altamont" project (inspired by the Humans of New York). We've spent the entire year on this project; each quarter we created a little space to plan, execute, and reflect. And now the end of the year is here, and we decided — based on time and resources — that each section will create a podcast that is unique to their class.

Students prototyping ideas for our final product.

A Block: A podcast of flash fiction and poetry inspired by the interviews we collected from people in Asheville.

D Block: A podcast of spliced interviews ( a mosaic) that will construct a composite character of Asheville.

H Block: A podcast of reflection and student interviews about the their experience during this process.

We are going to send these podcasts out into the world and see which one accrues the most "likes," which we agreed will determine our winner. If you can get more than 200 "likes" for your podcast, then you will receive a significant bonus. For my American Literature section, they are tasked with creating a product that will articulate the ethical lessons from each author we've read this year. Since it's only one section, there isn't the "competitive" aspect to it, but they do have to share whatever they create with the school.

But this isn't a blog about the projects per se. It's about stepping out of the way and letting students work. It was my job to create the space, to set a few parameters, and then to let the kids take it from there. While they worked collaboratively last week, I answered any questions they had, but with the exception of one or two questions I posed to catalyze the conversation, I said nothing. And here's what I discovered: I don't shut up enough! I was also reminded about the power PURPOSE has in engaging students. When there is a clear purpose, a new audience, and the freedom to create, students can achieve things that will astound you. My students worked like dogs, and guess what? The project is not even graded.

In the case of my American Literature class, on Tuesday I walked out of the classroom altogether, gave them four questions and left. I sat on a bench and watched through the glass pane on my door. And what happened? They worked harder and accomplished more in that period than any other period I remember all year. They did exactly what I asked them to do, they had fun, they were sprawled all over the classroom, they probably checked their phones a couple of times, they listened to music on my Google Home Mini, and (to repeat) they had fun.

Some of the work from my American Literature students.

Like I said, I was proud of them. On Friday, I happened to talk to a colleague about teaching automatically, doing what you've always done because that's "the way Math/Science/English" is taught. When teachers teach automatically, they don't question their practice; they check the boxes of teaching:

  • Cover content.

  • Assign homework.

  • Review homework.

  • Add content.

  • Discipline students when they don't comply.

Teaching automatically keeps teachers in a central role, and it can feel like students are engaged and learning (and ok, maybe sometimes they are). But checking boxes takes a toll, on students and teachers. Both parties stop caring about actual learning. Teachers can forget to be surprised by students, like I was last week. It was a powerful reminder that my role is to create an environment where learning happens, even if I'm not there.

There was another reminder, too: without PURPOSE, content cannot be applied. And without application, content is more difficult to retain. For my American Literature class, for example, they've decided to apply the ethical lessons from Emerson and Thoreau and Dickinson (etc.) to the student experience at my school, to remind students that literature can be applied and that applying it can improve their lives. But doing projects like these requires teachers doing something they struggle with — getting out of the way.

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