No More Cookie-Cutter Teaching

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 7.13.34 PMEvery Christmas we make the same five types of cookies.  Over the last few years, I’ve noticed our kitchen feels like a factory on baking day. Each member of our family has a job, so our cookie-making happens efficiently.  Even though we’ve tried new recipes here and there, we continue to make the same five cookie recipes.  It feels comfortable to do the same things year-after-year, right?

Well, this year, we felt as though our cookies were sub-par, lackluster, and downright BORING when we sat our cookie tray beside several others at a Christmas gathering. Theirs were impressive works of art, which made me realize we need to make some new recipes instead of baking the same cookies every year.

Like the cookie recipes, we have dependable lessons in our classrooms.  Lessons we have implemented year after year. We know what needs to be done, what needs to be prepared before we start, and how long the unit will take. We are comfortable with those lessons.  So when we try to bring in new experiences, pedagogies, or tools, it can be overwhelming. Some teachers dip their toes in the water, some turn their backs, and some dive right in and see where the new practices take them.

Let’s take a look at teaching about research for example.  Traditionally, classroom research projects I have taught, and seen others teach, look similar to this:

  • The student determines a topic (or picks one from the teacher-generated list).
  • The teacher determines questions students will answer about the topic.
  • The student visits the school or classroom library to find books to answer the predetermined questions.
  • The student searches student-friendly websites to answer the predetermined questions.
  • Students fill in the teachergenerated graphic organizers or take notes to answer the predetermined questions.
  • The student uses the information gathered to write a report or book as a way to share information.
  • Classmates gather and listen to each student share out what they have learned.

Research units looked much like this in my classroom for a few years, until I realized my students were not independent in the process.  I was left frazzled as students struggled to find the answer to the questions, record new learning in their own words, follow directions, and present their research in a way peers could understand and appreciate. It was clear; I was working harder than the students.  The students didn’t take ownership or choice in their learning. Things had to change.

This year I am working with a second-grade teacher who does research differently.  She and her class broke the mold of the traditional research project.

IMG_0414 (1)The teacher was guiding her class in a study of famous Americans and the impact they had on our country.  To help maintain focus on how the famous American impacted our country, she prompted them to use a familiar thinking routine: heart, head, hands, and feet. The teacher encouraged her students to think about how the individual touched our world with the passion in their heart, the information they studied (the head), the work they did with their hands, and the actions they took (the feet).

As the class read books and browsed internet sites, the teacher modeled how to record learning in the form of a question. This strategy supported the students as they learned to analyze and synthesize what they’d read.  For example, the class studied Jane Goodall. The students learned Jane dreamed to live with animals and help them. They asked: “Who dreamed of living with animals and helping them?

The students were inspired to continue this work.  Isn’t this what we want as teachers? We want to demonstrate work that encourages our students.  Teachers want to do work with the students that leave them asking if they can continue this work on their own?

Each student had ownership before they even began their research. The students chose a famous American and got to work.  They created a representation of their famous American containing the questions (appropriately placed) on the heart, head, hands, and feet of their famous American.  

IMG_0410 (1)This work is displayed proudly for others to see as you enter the room.  A quick read (QR) code is also available. A scan of the code leads you to a class Padlet where students share their work and leave comments for their peers.

This teacher admits, almost apologetically, that she goes with the flow. She plans with her kids in mind, and while she knows where they need to go, she follows her students’ lead. Following the lead of the students is the art of teaching.

As educators, we need to take ownership of our teaching.  If you think your tried and true lessons are lackluster, then change them.  Start by looking at your students and asking, what do my students need? What are their strengths? Next, look at the VERBS in your standards. Precisely what is it your students need to master in this unit?  Finally, embrace the art of teaching by following their lead.