Trust the Kids

All murmuring in the stands now hushed, I placed the white soccer ball down onto the penalty spot.  My team, unable to break a 3-3 tie in a playoff overtime, now found itself in a shootout.  Best of five penalty kicks would decide our fate.  Moments before, my coach had handed me the ball and simply stated in his Hungarian accent, “Go get ’em, Lanny.”  Now, here I stood, ready to take this shot. With bright stadium lights illuminating a tattered field, I took four steps backward and faced the waiting goalkeeper.  Yes, I had practiced this twelve-yard free kick many, many times.  But my coach– my team– now trusted me to keep our season alive.  And although this moment was many years ago, I still remember how good it felt… to be trusted.

Great trust was placed in me that day, those many years ago.  But trusting our writers can sometimes feel tricky.  In middle school, where stakes begin to rise and student days become segmented into 45 or even 41-minute increments, we have all likely experienced a tendency to tightly schedule that precious short time we are afforded to teach writing.  And what is supposed to be communicated as, “Here is one strategy I am teaching you today,…” in writing workshop can sometimes become, “Here are the directions I am giving you today; now go follow them and I’m going to make sure you do.”  Although this is perhaps not the most egregious pedagogical move we can make as teachers, I would like to take a moment to contrast the more traditional “giving directions” approach to one that allows for more trust in learners.

Finding ways to trust kids, it might be said, creates more space for learning.  As a veteran middle school teacher, I would argue that sometimes the more control we attempt to exert over the kids, the more we sew seeds of robotic compliance or even rebellion.  And worse yet, the more we remove meaningful choice and trust from students’ learning paths, the more we might contribute to disengagement, or what is now being labeled “student apathy.”  Chris Holmes, the 2015 Missouri State Teacher of the Year, wrote a startling article last year about problems associated with student motivation in school (click here to read his article).  In talking with high school kids in multiple states across the country, Chris discovered a few common themes related to a lack of motivation. Students consistently reported versions of the following complaints: “I have no voice in the classroom;” and, “No one cares what I think.”

But in writing workshop, this just shouldn’t be the case!  In setting up to teach in a workshop format, we as teachers are able to (and ought to) work diligently to provide multiple opportunities for students to experience having their voices heard.  In writing workshop, we are able to empower writers to have some voice in their learning paths by inviting and encouraging them to make at least a few meaningful choices across their time with us, and then trusting them with those choices.  But specifically, how might we do that?  Across a day’s workshop, here are just a few ways we can trust our kids:

During whole-class instruction (minilesson):

During turn and talk time— Typically in our minilessons, we attempt to teach writers an explicit, transferable strategy.  After (or sometimes even during) a demonstration of the strategy, typically using our own teacher writing, we invite students to turn and talk to their partners.  We often ask them to “write in the air” how they might utilize the strategy we just demonstrated.  This active involvement in the lesson provides kids an immediate opportunity to employ what we just taught, and teachers an opportunity to see how effectively our teaching landed in the listening of our learners.  In my work with teachers though, I sometimes hear statements such as, “Oh, I don’t want them turning and talking… I don’t trust they’ll talk about what they’re ‘supposed to’ talk about.  What if they talk about their weekend or Fortnight game?”  When I hear such statements, I always offer a counterargument–  I argue that part of the way we can make our teaching relevant and impactful is to trust our kids.  We really do need to trust them to turn and talk about the strategy at hand.  Trusting kids in this way matters, it really does.  It might be said that this trust is an invisible but powerful internal stance we can take, one that creates possibility in the room.

During the Link– After recapping our teaching point during the end-of-lesson “Link,” it’s often helpful to encourage writers to make a meaningful choice around setting a goal for the work of the day.  In doing so, we provide kids a voice in their learning path.  We can, of course, always refer to an anchor chart and invite them to select a skill or strategy they wish to focus their energies on that day.  I am a huge fan of how charts can support student self-initiation in the room.  But with middle school students, I also like to tuck in language like this: “And I know there are also other things you know how to do.  So while I’m imagining that some of you cannot wait to work on the strategy we just learned today,  I know some of you will want to devote yourselves to other writing work you find fascinating.  Quickly consult the anchor chart, and then I’d like to invite all of you right now to set a goal for your work time today.”  In using this kind of language, I am working to impart a couple of important implicit messages to writers:

    • You have a voice in your learning path.
    • I trust your choices.

During Independent Writing Time:

Conferences– During independent writing time, we often devote our time to conducting individual writing conferences.  When pulling up next to a writer, after doing a bit of research on the writer, instead of just one, try thinking of a couple of different tips to offer the writer. And then… offer them a choice.  Following an authentic compliment, this could sound like, “Wow, okay, Kalman… in thinking about next steps for you, I am thinking about a couple of tips as your writing coach right now… one is more around elaboration, and the other is more around the craft of writing.  Which one of those feels more interesting to you?  I’m going to trust you to guide this conference.”  Those of you reading this now can probably hear how this might build up a writer (yes, I trust you, dear reader!).  And honestly, I cannot always come up with two solid choices for the writer in a conference.  In those cases, I will often mask my tip to sound like a choice, even though I don’t actually have two different strategies in mind (e.g., “I am thinking of one tip around structure, and one tip on how writers organize this type of piece…what do you think?”). Perhaps you might  find this disingenuous? Maybe it is.  But remember, my goal is to find ways for writers to feel trusted, listened to, and empowered.

Trusting kids is one meaningful way we can empower them.  For those of you wondering, I ended up making that penalty shot during the shootout.  But that is not the point of telling that story.  Rather, the lasting resonance of the trust placed in me that day has never left me.  When kids feel trusted, listened to, and empowered by choice, they engage.  And not only do they typically engage more in their learning, they add on to an internal narrative about themselves: that they matter.  And isn’t that something we want for all our kids?  How do you place trust in your kids?  I’d love to hear from you!