In this week’s One Thing You Might Try . . . blog third-grade teacher, Jennifer Orr, writes about her ongoing journey of letting go of control and shares some tips for making space for student ownership in the classroom.
In my twenty plus years of teaching elementary students, from kindergartners to fifth graders, one thing that has become increasingly important to me is allowing students as much ownership over our classroom and their learning as possible. By default, I, as the teacher, am in control of everything. What students do. Where they do it. Who they talk to. When they go to the bathroom. I’m the big boss. It took me a few years of teaching to realize that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted (and still want) our classroom to be about us, not me. Also, not just them. We are all there, sharing the space, working and learning together. It is ours.
Letting Go of Control
The first thing I had to do was to let go of some control. That wasn’t easy for me. I had my systems and they worked. I was, several years into teaching, starting to feel comfortable. I liked that I had some idea of what I was doing. But I didn’t want to keep controlling everything that happened in our classroom. I got rid of the behavior chart in our classroom. That scared me but it turned out to be a surprisingly smooth transition. Removing the behavior chart helped me feel more comfortable letting go of control in other ways.
Letting go of control required that I trust my students. That was definitely not something I had been taught in pre-service education. I wasn’t taught not to trust them, of course, but I did take a whole class on classroom management, so that lack of trust was implied. Dropping the behavior management chart helped me see that I could trust my students. I could have done so all along.
One year I turned over the classroom library to my students. Instead of having everything set up, picture perfect, on the first day of school (which was definitely my preference!) we set it up as a class. Another year I moved to flexible seating. No more assigned seats in our classroom. Yet another year I began having students apply for classroom jobs. They got to decide which of the jobs in our classroom they wanted to do. Students applied for a class job every quarter so they got to try on several different ones. They stacked classroom chairs, organized materials, set up our daily schedule, served as our class librarians, and took attendance. I came to realize that I shouldn’t be doing anything in our classroom that the kids could be doing. More letting go of control.
Library baskets organized and labeled by 3rd graders.
I got to a point, in the physical classroom, at which I had to justify to myself anytime I kept control, anytime I dictated things to the students rather than giving them a choice. If I chose their partners, then I did so because there was a strong pedagogical reason. If I assigned writing topics, it was because it was a step to something they would soon choose. Instead of my having control being the default, it was the exception. Which isn’t to say I didn’t still have a lot of control. And of course, there are also plenty of things that neither my students nor I control. Things that are controlled by my school or district or state. But I was and still am making a major shift in the direction of my students and their power.
Our 3rd-grade classroom with flexible seating.
What I have found, through the process of letting go of control over time, is that the students take on ownership in ways I might not anticipate. Or have planned for! One year I set up a desk for a student teacher who wasn’t starting right at the beginning of the year. I wanted to be sure she had a space and wanted to plan for it. Almost immediately the students used it. All spaces in our classroom, unless I made a forceful claim on them (my storage area where I keep my personal things, for example) were for students. I just hadn’t really thought through what student ownership over our space truly meant. Luckily, when the student teacher arrived, the students ceded the desk to her.
Students in our classroom also make suggestions and request ways to approach a new project or unit. They recommend activities and greetings for our morning meetings. They problem solve challenges in our classroom. By letting go of control I realized I sent my students the message that I trusted and valued them and their ideas. They realized they could be themselves, take up space, and speak up in our classroom. It was better and continues to be better than I had dreamed it could be.
In the Virtual Classroom
Like just about everything else, I wasn’t sure how to give students control and how to let go in our virtual classroom. When students are learning from home, they (or their families) have control over their physical space. I felt so unsure about what I was doing in the virtual classroom that I couldn’t see how to let go of control and build that sense of ownership. I was back to feeling scared of letting go. It was like being a first-year teacher again.
One of the first steps I took in our virtual classroom to encourage ownership and give students control was establish jobs. I haven’t yet managed to come up with a job for every student so that they can apply for various jobs, so instead our jobs rotate daily. We have a Meeting Manager who chooses our greeting and our activity during morning meeting. We have a Physical Trainer who chooses GoNoodle activities throughout the day, so we get chances to move our bodies. Another student reads our morning message, and another leads us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We have just enough jobs that most weeks everyone has a job.
My students started off the year already having learned, back in the spring, to keep their mics off when they aren’t speaking. I do the same. Too many mics on means it can be tough to hear anyone. (In breakout rooms, in small groups, we often all have our mics on.) My students almost never turned on their mics early in the year unless they had raised their hand and I called on them. That definitely made things easy for me, but it didn’t seem like they felt they could speak when they needed or wanted to. I began planning purposeful activities to encourage students to engage with their mics without having to wait for me. We played a game called Counting to a Number during morning meeting. We pick starting and ending numbers (sometimes getting creative and skip counting or counting down) and all turn our mics off. Students turn on their mics to say the next number and the goal is for only one student to speak at a time. When two students speak together, we start our counting over again. It took some time for them to learn to watch if anyone else was turning on their mic just as they would learn to look at their classmates on the carpet to see if anyone was about to speak. They loved the game and now they rarely speak at the same time. In class conversations and during lessons, I remind them of how they can check each other’s mics and say they can turn their mic on anytime they have something to say or ask.
The chat box is another way my students have been able to gain some sense of ownership over their learning and participation. And again, it took me a while to let it happen. I knew that when we first started using the chat box I would have to be willing to take the time to have some class conversations about how to use it or there would just be chats full of emojis and repeated words and phrases. Like a new manipulative in the classroom, I knew we would need some time to just play around with the chat. It took me a long time to be ready to commit that time. Now students use the chat to ask each other questions, to send encouragement to each other, and to double check things with me. I’m amazed at these third graders’ ability to use the chat in ways that add to our learning and our community.
Finally, having my students share their screen rather than only me doing so has been a major shift. When students are the ones to share their slides or lead us through a website we’re using, they are more likely to step up and lead. Their classmates are more likely to speak up, ask for more time, and push back on ideas and explanations. Activities that are confusing get questioned in a way they didn’t when I shared my screen. I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t do this all the time. But every time I do it works so well, and I’m encouraged to do it again.
A 3rd grader sharing her kinetic sand with her classmates.
Anytime I give up control and hand it over to the students, they gain a little more of a sense of ownership. When I give them choices in an inquiry project, let them choose their books to read and topics for writing, allow them to move between breakout rooms to decide what works best for them in that moment, all of those small bits of control send a message that they are trusted as learners and as people and that they can drive their own learning.
About the author
Jennifer Orr has spent more than twenty years teaching and learning with elementary students from kindergarten through fifth grade. She currently teaches third graders at Fort Belvoir Upper School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She tweets @jenorr and blogs at jenorr.com.