Sunday, September 18, 2016

Activating Students as Instructional Resources for Each Other

Sometime in the spring last year, I sat in an evaluation meeting with my principal, talking about formative assessment strategies.  One thing she mentioned was activating students as instructional resources for each other.  While the concept sounded great, it honestly felt like too much to re-imagine my classroom and figure out how to apply this at that point in the year.  I tucked it away in my brain, thinking, "Maybe next year..."

Well, next year is here, and all of a sudden, I am seeing opportunities for this everywhere!  It's funny, how sometimes we just need time to process and mull ideas over before really owning them and incorporating them into our teaching.

As a teacher, I get asked many questions a day by students.  "How do you do this?"  "What does this mean?"  "Can you help me?"  "Where is _____?"  Sometimes they truly need an answer from me.  But, so often, the person sitting next to them knows the answer!  I know many teachers have implemented an "Ask 3 people before you ask me" rule.  While I think this does encourage them to ask other students, I wonder what happens when students actually ask the teacher.  If they are anything like me, they give a quick answer, and then get back to whatever was going on in class.  Efficiency, right?

This year, I've tried something different.  If it really is a question that only I can help with, I will answer.  But 80-90% of the questions are ones that another student can help with, so I turn them back to another student.  "Great question!  I bet _____ can help you out with that!"  Or, "I saw _____ figuring that out, why don't you go ask him!"  The biggest change in my practice is giving them a specific person to ask (someone who I know will be able to help them), and letting them figure it out together.  And if I don't know who might be able to help?  It's easy enough to say, "Who has figured out how to _____ and could help someone else?" and get a whole crew of "helpers" volunteering!  It takes a lot of discipline for me to not just give them the answer, but encourage them to search it out!  Does it take more time?  Yes.  But, I suspect that as the year goes on, it will actually save time as students learn to check with each other rather than peppering me with questions all day long.  And, regardless of the time, it is developing great habits of learning in their lives - and that is definitely worth it!

In just four weeks, I have begun to see the benefits of this strategy in our class culture.  No one is above asking for help, and no one is off-limits as a person to ask for help.  In my 6th grade class, especially, students are starting to take the initiative to give and receive feedback without any prompting.  As a result, they are catching things that I am not even catching in my teaching and fixing them!  It's a joy to see them develop the confidence to be both teachers and learners in the class.  Encouraging students to be instructional resources for each other increases ownership and elevates them, to create a culture of learning together rather than just taking input from the teacher.

Along with our in-class interactions, Google Classroom has been a great platform for students to share ideas and learn from each other!  More on that in another post...

One caution - we all have students who catch onto certain concepts more easily than others.  It is important to not always point students to the one girl who is ahead of the class or the boy who always seems to do well on tests.  Thinking about activating students as resources for each other has actually made me pay more attention to which students are mastering specific skills, giving me an even better idea of where each student is at and what their next step is!

I feel like I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg for how this strategy can increase student engagement and learning, and I look forward to learning more!  How do you activate students as instructional resources for each other?  What struggles have you had?  What successes have you had?

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