In addition to other commitments, this semester I’m “teaching” an independent study on contemporary literature. I put teaching in quotes because from the start, the deal I struck with four seniors was that if we added this study to our plates, they would share leadership of the class and, whenever possible, I would follow their collaborative decisions as to pace, assessment, and discussion topics.
They chose the books (we’re reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See now); they chose the place (in the library on the couch near the front); they have a say in which day of the week we meet (it really depends); they decide how to respond to the literature (I suggested they keep a journal, but they decide what goes in there).
I’ve learned a lot as a student of my students. First and foremost, I’ve learned to hold my thoughts for longer than I usually do. I know I could still do better. Nevertheless, in the process of keeping quiet I’ve learned that if given the space to lead, students not only can, but will.
These four ask surprising questions and don’t mind not knowing the answers. They mark beautiful passages and agreeably read the words out loud for all of us to hear and contemplate. They contextualize narratives and probe at characters without any prompting. They search the internet when they have questions that can’t be answered by the text. While they don’t go deeply into that digital information, they do sit with what they find online and question it as well.
When I first heard about “student centered” learning,and the push in education to move teachers away from lecture and toward collaboration, even management, I wasn’t sure about the benefits. Good teachers have what is called “deep pedagogical content knowledge” and students by nature of their relative youth and lack of experience typically do not.
I’m still hopeful that there will always be a place for teachers to share the knowledge they have acquired over time with students who have not yet had the time. But the medium and the method is clearly changing, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s a good thing if it means that young people are increasingly comfortable partnering with adults to gain skills, fluency, and voice.