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Let Them Learn for Themselves

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I watched them in the halls, at their lockers, in the assembly, and, finally, in the classroom. This year’s juniors, a group I started with 4 years ago when they were only in 8th grade.

In many ways they are exactly the same. For the most part, they look the same: a couple are a little taller, a couple a little thinner. Their smiles and laughter are the same.

They greet each other with an embrace, even though many were together all summer. They talk excitedly about their junior year – their classes, their teachers, their activities.

They are bored with the review of the dress code, attendance policy, grading scale, expectations. They’ve heard them before. But they listen without interruption or complaint. They already know their teachers and their expectations.

What is different about them is something I wasn’t sure we’d ever see – a confidence about who they are academically. These are a very smart group of kids. Most of them are planning to attend college. Most are good students and participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities. They’ve done so as long as they have been in school. Until now, however, they had little faith in their abilities to succeed in class. As freshman, they couldn’t do anything on their own. Their teachers would give very specific instructions about what was expected in an assignment. There would be written examples. The teachers would model for them. And in the end, after all instructions were given, 25 hands would go up asking questions about what they were supposed to do.

It was funny at first. But it became a little scary as the year progressed and the teachers worried that this was a group incapable of independent thought, critical thinking, self-direction. Each teacher tried different strategies, but the chorus remained the same: What will happen to these kids in college or in the workplace if they can’t think for themselves?

Then last week, they had their first big project in English: an oral presentation on one of four poems they had studied the first few weeks of school. It required a discussion of theme, author’s purpose, literary devices. It asked for favorite lines from the poem and why they chose those lines. It asked for a symbol to represent the poem. And, it required their getting in front of their peers to share all this information.

One by one, on their own, they walked to the front of the class and presented their poem. They talked for a long time – an average of 5 minutes per student. They had their notes in front of them, but didn’t read them. They had insightful comments and interpretations. They cited specific examples from their poems and didn’t stop at the minimum. They were all different. In the past we would have heard the same examples, the same comments, the same observations because they would have shared information with 2 or 3 of their friends. For the most part, when I praised them later, they thanked me, but thought they might have been able to do more.

So what happened? Certainly, natural maturity contributes. In this case, though, I think it was the persistence of their teachers in not giving up, in finding new ways to “make them think,” to figure it out for themselves; in encouraging them to trust their ideas and feelings, and in developing a relationship with these kids that allowed them to feel safe in their endeavors.

It would have been really easy to give them answers or give them work that didn’t require any kind of thinking. I remember a conversation I had once with a mom who chose what her young son would wear to school. I suggested that he needed to start choosing for himself; to take responsibility not just for what he wears, but for being ready on time, planning in advance, learning some independence. She was afraid if he chose “weird combinations” other kids would make fun of him. Often doing things for our kids or giving up is the easier choice. We quit assigning homework because the kids don’t do it anyway. We pick up all the materials for our kids’ projects because it’s easier than the last-minute hullabaloo when they forget to tell us. We mow the lawn because it’s faster and less stressful than haranguing our kid. Next time you have the urge to “do it for them,” think about this group of juniors.

Thank goodness these teachers didn’t “cave,” as the kids would say.