Yesterday, a student taught my class. From start to finish, this student handled the class (well, aside from the administrative tasks of attendance, etc). And the secret? It’s not that a student(s) taught my class. (I’ve had students do that many times.) It’s actually the fact that I’ve been waiting for this.
The lesson was based on the Touchstones Discussion Project I’ve used for almost 20 years. But instead of me leading the discussion, I stepped aside, way aside. You see, I’m in “20 Time” mode and the students in my 10th-grade Gifted English classes are involved in pursuing their own interests and developing real-world solutions to problems or innovations they’ve identified.
One of my students, Aidan, is interested in dialogic learning, in particular, The Touchstones Discussion Project. After a brief but fruitful discussion with Stefanie, Executive Director at Touchstones, Aidan engaged his fellow classmates in a discussion about sensory perception and human consciousness. Aidan’s goal in his project is to improve the Touchstones experience for students and teachers, as well as to develop blog posts and videos on how students can better engage in and benefit from the project.
As I noted, I have a deep history with the project. I will make no claims, however, to expertise. I have ideas, I have experience, but as with any work where human beings and their interactions are the focus, what works this year may be entirely different from what worked last year.
So Aidan’s project has me interested on two levels. First, I’m interested to see what insight and criticisms he can bring to bear on his classmates as well as what he’ll discover about the act of moderating a discussion. But second, I’ll be listening intently for the insights he’ll offer to me and to my own moderation of these discussions. For, regardless of the number of meta-discussions we do as a class, students can’t get past my status as the teacher. Such power dynamics are almost impossible to escape, even in a once-a-week project like Touchstones. Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking.
In the best of world’s, Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking. Twenty years of work with the same project, even if the texts for the project have changed…twenty years of work in any field can yield complacency. Especially during the past three years where I’ve worked with only gifted students I’ve felt myself drifting off, even–especially!–when the discussions are good. There’s a difference between “hands off” in order to facilitate student ownership and learning, and “hands off” because I have become lazy and stale.
I’m not sure where I am, exactly, on this spectrum, but I suspect Aidan’s project will assist me in finding out, and helping me to improve as I continue to lead Touchstones discussions in school and elsewhere. And I’m sure that Aidan’s project will help all my students learn more, do more, and be more.