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Chapter Five: Conclusions

During my research, I explored what happens when student voice and student reflection guide my teaching and our learning. Toward the end of this research, as my first graders and I walked to lunch, Deon asked, When is our next exhibition? Wow! He asked for another project. My first grade students ask to work on projects even though its harder. They welcome the challenge to critique each others many drafts, solve problems when collaborating in groups, and prepare presentations to an audience for exhibition. They give recommendations to make our class function better instead of waiting for me to suggest them. When they have conflicts with each other, they invite each other to the Private Conversation Table to solve them. I dont need to rely on behavior color cards to make them behave or to convince my students that our work matters. Finally, they trust their voices and each others to give kind, helpful, and specific feedback as they strive towards beautiful work that they are proud of. I no longer feel the burden of holding all the knowledge. My students and I are learning how to learn together. What used to be my classroom is now our classroom, a democratic classroom. We developed our classroom through the rough spots. The rough spots happened when voices wanted to be heard, including a teacher who was learning how to listen instead of control. Some bad habits snuck up from time to time. My temptation to control happened when the voices about meeting benchmarks and standardized tests resounded like a loud gong throughout the year. Although my students performed well on our district benchmarks, I did not teach to the test. I strived beyond the minimum of what those tests measured. Students learn more when engaged than having a series of standards to hit. I relied on tools I learned from my students to help me regain my focus on empowering them to pursue deeper learning. The best tool Ive learned to sharpen is listening. I began my research seeking how to listen and respond so that my students would be empowered by their voices to define learning that was meaningful to them. Listening is a skill that develops and strengthens over practice. I am growing in this skill as I keep at it. As I challenged myself to listen to the voices of my students and less to the voices that reminded me about tests and performance, I have come to find that students want us, educators, to be mindful of some key ideas. Compliance is not Learning Each year, I ran into students who were hard to reach and those who seemed easier to reach. I couldnt help but wonder why the hardest to reach students looked and sounded the same across grade levels at my school. We know who the hardest to reach students are. They are the ones who take up the most energy from us because

they are angry and defiant, or quiet and behind. Both are hardest to reach because they have checked out of learning in our classrooms. I chose Andy and Anna as two of my four focus students because they had these qualities. It was time to reach out and create a learning environment that would work for them. We have all had an Andy. Andy already had a record at the tender age of six, of anger and non-compliance at our school. This reminded me of Assor stating that if compliance does not occur then anger is evoked due to feelings of unjustness (Assor et al, 2005). Teachers feel threatened when students act out in anger or in overt noncompliance, so we tend to control more. Students may check-out or wont make an effort because they find it impossible to succeed with a controlling teacher. I knew I had to choose against my typical instincts to control Andy through behavior contracts and punishments, and instead ask him what was not comfortable and how to change it. I had realized that his outbursts werent to challenge me into a power struggle, although I can understand how other teachers may perceive it that way. Instead Andy asked me questions that challenged me to be more explicit about what we were doing and why it was meaningful. Becoming more explicit about our purpose and the steps along the way did not just benefit Andy. It benefitted all of my students. Anna on the other hand was quiet. She was compliant but left behind because she never spoke up when she didnt understand what she was learning. Assor stated that anger, tuning out and anxiety are signals that indicate that a students need for autonomy is being threatened (2005). Children need to be given choices and safe opportunities to voice what they need when they are uncomfortable with their learning, not punished more. If we are to reach students like Andy and Anna, we need to use their feedback to guide our learning. As I continuously asked Andy and Anna questions about what was comfortable and uncomfortable, and implemented their ideas, they both were eager to share more. It was as if they had been waiting for an opportunity to say what they thought. Surprisingly, when I asked the same questions to my easier to reach students, I had a different experience. The easier to reach students in our schools are those who do as they are told without being asked twice. They are the ones who perform academically well on tests and are the first to receive awards. Charlie and Anna were those easier to reach students for me because they were compliant. Yet, when I asked them what was uncomfortable and how they would like to change the way we learn, they had the most difficulty answering those questions. It may seem as if I am reaching my compliant students because they appear well-behaved and are doing their work. But according to Assor, they may be just doing

what they are told (2005). In actuality, I may not be reaching them because they do not have their own internal motivation to learn what we are doing. Instead of focusing on learning, they are distracted by pleasing the teacher or looking smart. By creating compliant students through control, we are decreasing the amount of innovators or creative thinkers for our democratic society. Andy, Anna, Charlie, and Abbey taught me that having choices and freedom to question was vital to the learning experience and key in a democratic classroom that is preparing students to function successfully in a democratic society. It was startling to discover that in a democratic classroom, where students are encouraged to have their own opinions and to share them, the status of those hardest to reach and easy to reach switched. When I questioned Andy and Abbey through surveys, community meetings, student-led conferencing, and project-based curriculum, what they wanted to learn or how they would change our norms and routines to be more comfortable, they were ready to share their ideas. It was as if they had been waiting for this opportunity to say what they thought. When I implemented their suggested ideas after listening to them, they were more willing to listen to me in return. Annas courage increa sed. She used her voice more often to say what she needed. Andy contributed to the well-being of our community. On the other hand, Charlie and Abby had difficulty sharing ideas because they feared I would disapprove of them and use punishment. When I prompted them, listened, implemented ideas, and removed rewards and punishments, Charlie and Abbey began to trust their voices. Teacher-centered classrooms dont work for the Andys and Annas in our class because someone else (the teacher) dictates what students should learn, how, and when. Andys and Annas give up because they cant compete against the authority of the teacher. Dont be deceived by the compliant Charlies and Abbeys in your classrooms either. The problem with compliance is the most compliant students were the most difficult to reach because they didnt know what they wanted. When these different groups of students experience a teacher-centered classroom, they enter democratic society unprepared to persevere, solve problems innovatively, and ultimately contribute to the well-being of our changing world. Knowing this, I encouraged Charlie and Abbey to reflect on the successes and challenges of working through a project, while also brainstorming steps to guide their own future learning. When students experience a student-centered classroom, they develop confidence to persevere in the face of challenges, rely on one another, and contain the inner drive to create innovative solutions. This will only happen if educators ask questions and truly listen to what their students say. Teachers dont see everything, so ask the students

I used to think that I knew everything that happened in my classroom. After witnessing the same students falling behind and the same students who I thought grasped what we learned, forget, I began to wake up to the idea that I didnt know what and why things were always happening in my class. I decided to ask the students. After surveying and interviewing my first graders through play, I learned that my students didnt feel comfortable with what and how we learned. Writing was uncomfortable for my students. Although my student Andy was comfortable vocalizing his discomfort, Ahh! Why?! Writing is boring! Others werent as comfortable. I observed my other students walking to the opposite end of the room to poke another student instead of completing their writing. Their behavior signaled that they felt the same as Andy. What was striking for me was the majority of my students werent comfortable sharing their discomfort with me directly. When I asked my students what would help writing feel better, their response was simple. They wanted choices with what they could write with, pencils or markers, and where they could write, sit or stand at their desks or lying down on the rug. My students needed to have choice. After we implemented their suggestion, I saw students write carefully and take their time thinking about what they wanted to say. Writing is more involved than choosing a writing tool, but the motivation came down to comfort. My students knew what would help them feel comfortable to learn. In the past, I would have relied on bribing with rewards and punishing by withholding recess to encourage them to write more. I realized my former methods made my students resist whatever we were learning even more. The act of asking, listening, and responding to what students say is comfortable for them allowed an easier entry point to learn. I also learned the act of asking, listening and responding needed to happen all the time. My students and I began a Being Curious George project where students chose to research topics they were curious about. They collaborated in teams according to topics while researching their own questions and designed pages in a big book to teach kindergarteners about their topics for exhibition. As we would write during the Being Curious George project, I noticed my students were struggling to write sentences in their paragraphs. Yet, my students werent voluntarily saying they needed help. It became clear to me that I had to remain faithful with asking, listening and responding to my students so that they would be able to trust me and their voices to create a common learning experience for all of us. Mc Quillan states that listening is an active gesture that seeks the root of where ideas come from (2005). When I shared that I noticed that they had some challenges in writing, they began to openly discuss what their challenges were. I then asked them what they needed help with on exit cards so that my quieter students would feel comfortable to share. The majority of my students

said they needed more time to learn how to turn sentences from their research into paragraphs. They also asked to have their fifth grade buddies help critique their writing for our project. This listening and responding process made me realize that students care about their work too. We need to trust our students and slow down to teach them more about what they say they need. Listening, slowing down, and responding will be difficult because we tend to submit to the call to move on if we are to cover all the standards before the end of the year. Do we want students to understand an inch depth of many standards or transfer skills that foster deeper knowledge? I have found that when I slowed down, trusted my students voices, and taught what my students said they needed more time to learn, they were more invested in what we were learning. Then moving on was easier because they had the foundation to build from. Even at a young age, students know what feels good and what doesnt. We need to trust them to guide the classroom. We need to trust students to tell us what they need. We also need to trust them to solve their own problems. Give students the freedom and trust to solve their own problems Rewards and punishments are some of the structures within schools that continue to send the message that some students are good and others are not. While these structures are intended to motivate students to rise to academic challenges, instead they make students feel defeated. Kohn calls this burnout because students are just going through the motions of learning, handing in uninspired work and counting the minutes or days until freedom because they lack control over what they are doing in effect, they feel powerless (1993). Year after year, I continued to witness the same majority of students disengage from school and the same few praised. I realized that since I was the one telling my students when they were behaving or working hard enough by moving their behavior clip or taking away their recess, they never learned how to monitor themselves. Kohn states that we must allow students to have power with authentic choices and guide them in how to handle that responsibility (1993). I decided to put away my behavior chart and erase the table points. Instead I decided to rely on our Private Conversation Table, Community Meetings, and the boxes we put around the room (Problems to Solve, Ideas for Change, and Celebrations) to provide students with opportunities to practice what it meant to be a citizen who contributes to a society that prides itself on human dignity, equity, freedom, and justice (Apple and Beane, 2007). Giving freedom and trust to my students didnt mean that I let go and leave them by them selves. Students need guidance, not control.

During my research I read that A.S. Neill, who founded the Summerhill School in England, designed a system in which students practiced democracy through general meetings. I had decided to label our version of Neills general meetings as our community meetings. My role during community meetings was to guide my students to speak and listen to each other while working through a problem. I then asked them to share solution ideas for those with the problem to choose from and try for a week. I found that my students ideas were more creative than what I would have suggested. I also noticed that the students would listen to each others problems because they had a purpose. Their purpose was that the community needed to contribute ideas to help our community function more efficiently and peacefully. I was fascinated by my students bluntness and honesty with each other when problems were petty. Those were difficult times for me to bite my tongue and not say anything but trust them to do this. There were also times that I needed to step in. Instead of sharing my solution, I would ask a question to the group, hoping that it would lead them to a helpful solution. Another time that I used questioning to guide my students to think of solutions together was when they had difficulty collaborating in their Being Curious George project teams. Abbey had gotten frustrated that her team was not doing their work to help them finish their page in our big book. When I asked her what she thought should be done, she suggested that each person have a role and then rotate the roles each day. The class was willing to try this and ended up feeling that this idea was helpful. This shows how creative students are when given the opportunity to solve problems that interfere with learning. Students are no longer passive recipients of knowledge but are contributors who are actively involved and invested. This is because they came up with the idea instead of me. When students have choice within a project, you dont have to convince them to learn When students have choice within projects, they take the work home, they have a reason for engaging with their peers, they feel listened to, and they enjoy it more, even when the work is harder. I discovered this when my students and I did our Being Curious George project. At the end of each year my colleagues and I talk with regret about what we would have taught if we didnt need to worry about benchmark assessments or other standardized tests. This year, I made the decision to discover what my first grade students were curious about and turn it into a project. We used our curiosity wall to collect what each student wanted to learn about. The curiosity wall was a place in our room to collect student questions and passions that they wanted to delve deeper into. We then formed into teams that had similar curiosities. Each team chose the questions that would guide their research. At first, I was going to have each student create a product and exhibit their project in whatever way they chose. But due to the variety of amazing ideas my students shared, I was

worried that I wouldnt be able to provide the structures they needed to finish their products. I shared my worries to my students and proposed that we create a big book. I asked them to choose an audience they wanted to teach their knowledge to. They chose kindergartners. Throughout the project, my students kept the kindergarten audience in mind through the choices they made for the design of their teams page in the big book and how they would teach kindergartners at exhibition. Their choices had purpose because they had an audience to teach. They understood that what was taught needed to have accurate information. They wanted to be good teachers. My young first graders began to embrace themselves as teachers and held each other accountable with their roles in their teams and through critiquing sessions of our work. Like Gloria Ladson- Billings, I found that students came to care . . . not only about their own achievement but also about their classmates achievement (Sluijsmans et al, 1994). I believe that selfawareness also happens when students learn to support one another. Rogoff calls this culture a community of learners (1994). She states: in a community of learners classroom [there are] complex group relations among class members who learn to take responsibility for their contribution to their own learning and to the groups functioning. Instead of one individual trying to control and address 30 students at once, it is a community working together with all serving as resources to the others (1994, p.214). I also found that my students chose to continue their research outside of project workshop time. Parents of my students would tell me that their child shared with excitement what they were learning in their project once they got home. One mother called me to say that Isaac was sick and couldnt come to school but he was mad at her because he was missing out on what we were doing. During the Being Curious George project, I didnt send home a formal invitation to parents for our exhibition since my students chose to have kindergartners as our audience. And yes I was receiving texts and emails from families asking when our exhibition was because their child was inviting them to come too. Abbeys, who was studying butterflies, parents also shared with me that she would go home and look for butterflies outside. Students become engaged in the learning process outside of the classroom. In the past, I would need to tell parents what we were learning because my students didnt remember what we learned or didnt feel it was relevant enough to share. I found having choices throughout projects makes students feel invested in their learning, and that they wanted to share it.