I made it clear to students the first day that I hoped and expected to learn as much from them as they might learn from me. I explained that I had come from a previous role as an advocate of student voice and student decision making in all areas of school life from classroom to board room. I assured them that despite my age and experience, there was much I wanted to discover—about them, about their goals and aspirations, and from them about our subject. Of course I had already made three decisions without them: How to address them, how to use the technology in our room, and how to set up the classroom. Despite 15 years of promoting best practices in Student Voice, how easy it was to think I knew best.
Not So Fast
As part of my opening remarks about being co-learners, I said it was my intention to address students by their last names—Mr. Walker, Mr. Jones, etc. I explained that I would prefer to work on a first name basis—having them calling me “Mickey” and my using “Tom” and “Emzar” and so on—but that the culture of the school was different. Thus out of respect for them and the school’s culture and the desire to be seen as learning equals, I would address them by title and last name as they would me. Not two days had passed before “Mr. Dotter” (not his real name) approached me and said, “Dr. Corso, can we not do that last name thing?” He explained he wasn’t super comfortable with it and that some of his friends were not fans either. Still thinking I was correct and that this was a minority report, I suggested we put it to a vote. On Friday, I brought the concern forward to all my classes, not just Mr. Dotter’s, and said I would put it to a vote on Monday. On Monday I was schooled: Everyone voted for first names for students and “Dr. Corso” for me. Shows you what I know. Reasons included that it felt contrived and was not necessary as a sign of either respect for them or the co-learner thing. They got what I was trying to do and I didn’t need to use their last names to convince them. Now I get it, too.
Not So Smart
The classrooms at my school all have SMART boards. Over the summer, Russ Quaglia generously donated a large screen TV to my room. Without getting into the challenges of school personnel wondering why I needed it and deciding where it would be installed and then having it installed, the TV wound up in the front corner of the room up high to the left of the SMART Board. My plan was to use it as a supplement. Putting up a twitterfall, for example, while the main presentation takes place on the SMART Board (more on how I am using Twitter in the classroom in a future post). Having a slideshow of student Wordles or artwork running while class is going on. Displaying an ever changing supply of motivational memes as a substitute for the typically static motivational posters I have seen in many classrooms across the country. After a week a student (apparently they were all taking me at my word about wanting to learn from them) approached me and said, “Any chance we can use the TV as the main screen and then if we need to do that other stuff put it on the SMART Board?” Another four class vote and another (nearly) unanimous decision later and we are using the TV as the main screen for presentations (thank you, Russ!). Another decision I had made without Student Voice corrected by students.
Not So Off Base
The third decision I had made without the students involved the setup of the desks in the classroom. My classroom, like most at our school, has traditional student desks. In most classes these are arranged in the classic configuration of rows facing front. There is an Innovation Lab with stand up desks at CM and, of course, science labs have a similar feng shui. I am hoping down the road to replace traditional desks with standups and stools (for those who want to sit). Until then I knew I could not do the “Sage on the Stage” set up. So to back up my co-learner philosophy, I arranged the desks in a horseshoe two-layers deep. Students face other students’ faces, not the backs of each other’s heads. The room is still mostly oriented front, but there is a sense of learning community, of learning as a thing between us, of mutuality. Not yet ideal, but under the present circumstances, it works. If you’re waiting for the part where “a student approached me…” it hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it will. The students in all my classes have liked the arrangement from the beginning. Apparently it created a minor buzz in the school.
So I was one for three. If I was on a team trying to make the playoffs, I could live with that. The strikeouts on the names and tech felt like solid at-bats that I learned from. The desks were by no means a homerun, but a decent double off the wall. Scoring position at least. But I am not at bat; I am at school. Despite having coached others, I need to listen more and learn more. I need to be more open to taking signals from the students before I get up to the plate.