Every student has a talent that we can uncover if we keep our eyes and mind open. If we teachers were able to harness a fraction of the talents our students possess, we’d find enough creative energy to power our classroom for the entire school year. I learned this the hard way. I spent my first 10 years thinking that my job was to fill my students with information, and I measured kids’ talents by how well they were able to sit quietly, follow instructions, and regurgitate the information back to me in a manner and time of my choosing.
My students aced the tests and everything went smoothly, but inside, the repetition was stifling me. Things changed when a new principal arrived. She observed my class and challenged me to change my teaching style. She brought up some mumbo-jumbo about multiple teaching modalities, student engagement, collaborative learning centers and catering my instruction to the interests and needs of my students. Huh?
I was flabbergasted. I’d spent 10 years crafting a finely tuned information delivery system, and my students’ scores were consistently among the school’s highest. I felt like she was telling me to give the reigns of the class over to a bunch of info-starved kids who needed to be spoon fed. To boot, this was her first year as principal; I’d been teaching for a decade. How dare she suggest I change!
Partly in an effort to prove her wrong, I opened up the floodgates. I set up student-run learning centers. They failed at first, until I realized I needed to first teach the material to the whole class with direct and explicit instruction, and model for the students how to facilitate the centers. And I needed to differentiate the instruction. When I relinquished a measure of control and started listening to my students teach, question and explain their understanding of the material in smaller peer groups, I realized I’d been missing out on the greatest resource we had: the kids themselves!
All these years, I’d been dominating the conversation. It was if I was being introduced to these students for the first time. The authentic peer-to-peer conversations I witnessed in student groups allowed me to pick on up on a host of academic and personal skills I never new the kids had. The children’s level of engagement soared. Their discussions were often rich and meaningful, and they yielded data that no test had been able to find or measure.
I wanted every student to get a chance to run a center, but not every child was ready to deal with the math, spelling or reading involved. One student kept volunteering, but she didn’t know enough to help other students with the material. I wanted everyone to have the experience of leading a group, and of course I felt badly they couldn’t — or could they?
Looking in her notebook, I noticed this student was a prolific and capable artist beyond her years. The state science standards required students to understand the sequential life stages for butterflies, and the art standards required that “students apply artistic processes and skills, using a variety of media to communicate meaning and intent in original works of art.”
She may not have been the best reader, but her renditions of a chrysalis were stunning, and when I teamed her up with a shy but high academic-functioning student to run the “Read About the Chrysalis and Draw It!” center, the rest of the class buzzed with excitement, and two completely new students emerged that day. The class doodler transformed into a fantastic peer art coach, and the shy bookworm morphed into a reading tutor par excellence.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed locating and utilizing the unique gifts of my students. They all have something to offer, and given the right amount of support and guidance, they’re eager to share and develop their talents. I still use direct and explicit instruction, but I also let go of the reigns and let my students digest and share the material in a way that makes use of the class’s greatest resource: themselves.
Jon Schwartz has taught grades 1-6 in California public schools since 1997. His work integrating music, the visual and performing arts and technology in the classroom has been featured by the U.S. Department of Education, the California Association for the Gifted, and the California State Senate. Schwartz recently formed a nonprofit to develop the Rockademix curriculum that will enable teachers — even those without training in the arts — to use visual and performing arts, tech and music to teach kids academics.