Engagement: Conducting a Symphony of Learning in the Classroom

A conductor stands in front of an orchestra. He raises his arms and there is silence in the concert hall. When he brings his arms down, music begins. Each instrument plays his or her own part in creating a larger musical production. The conductor hears the music and directs the players, but he does not play every instrument. How wonderful it would be if we were conductors in our classrooms!

Each year, I find myself in front of a new group of sixth grade students — fresh new faces, some with no idea how good they are at playing music.  Some of the music will be beautiful, some will create dissonance in their lives and in the community.  And, you know what?  It’s okay.  Together, eventually, we will create a whole new community — one that will encourage independent thinking so that each member can solve problems and have an open forum for discussion.

However, right now, we are not there yet.  As always, with the first couple of assignments, there’s always a Dion who asks “Is this right?”, “Should I ……?” (fill in the blank with whatever decision necessary).  When I ask, “tell me what YOU think…” they look at me as though I have suddenly grown three heads.  I turn, take a deep breath, and think, “Okay, here we go, it’s September!”

Sometimes, whether I intend to or not, I give the impression that I am, as the teacher, the purveyor of all information, of every note and instrument, and my way is THE way.  What I really want my students to do is to theorize and contemplate ideas they have and synthesize the information that they discover. However, when my students begin to play their part in the music, sometimes I try to “fix” it. It does not take much for students to become disengaged when they feel that their voices are not valued. Imagine the conductor ignoring an entire group of instruments…

I want to teach my students. I want them engaged! However, engagement requires that I actually teach them from my own places of vulnerability and openness. Do I mind being wrong or not having all of the information or do I feel that I must play each instrument to get it right? What if there is another way to solve a problem? Am I open to seeing and hearing their music?  To teach my students well, I must listen to their thoughts and ideas. I must work to break down the barriers between us that suggest that there is one “right” way.

Every year, the instruments in my “classroom orchestra” are played by different musicians, each talented in a different way than the ones before.  There are a variety of ways to encourage students’ “music.”  For example:

  • Practice not answering any question that students can answer for themselves.  This goes for most of the questions that students ask in the beginning of the year.  I model the manner in which I want them to question each other – “I wonder if …..”, “what do you think will happen if ……”, “do you think that will work?”  Then, I get ready for incorrect answers.
  • Allow the incorrect answers.  In the places where a discussion can take place, I ask students what they think about both correct and incorrect answers.   Students end up discussing their answers.  This is my opportunity for modeling and discussing different ways of  “talking to” without “talking at.”  Here, I can build trust and listen to student thinking.
  • Trust is imperative. Our students must trust us and we must trust our students enough to allow a level of autonomy in the classroom. This is not a haphazard learning environment where everyone “goes on their own.”  It is a highly structured environment where students are free to speak and think aloud and reason with others, openly discussing their ideas.
  • Allow students to discover their way through learning by hypothesizing and testing.  I have had to let go of the feeling that they will not “get it” or will not be able to discern the “right” way if I do not “help” them. Me releasing control of the “how” and “why” has been the key to opening the door to a greater level of engagement for my students.

Our students and their reasoning should be given respect–even if it is not the way we think. Dion can learn to think and reason aloud with the rest of his classmates if we respect him enough to hear him play.  That respect is the key.  For all that we hope to accomplish, we should know that we must be open and willing to “let go” and allow students agency–the ability to make choices to explore–in their learning. That way, we become conductors of a symphony where we do not play every instrument. We understand, we listen, and we conduct the music.

marciabondsMarcia Bonds is a 6th Grade Math and English Language Arts Teacher at Key School in the Oak Park School District.  She has been teaching for 17 years.  Marcia is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project and was a co-facilitator of the 2014 Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute. She has facilitated professional development on inquiry-based learning for the Oak Park School District.

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

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