How to Fake a Student-Centered Classroom

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It’s the time of year where preparing for the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference moves into full swing. My co-presenters & I are building on last year’s session on becoming a reflexive practitioner. This year we’re talking about moving from reflexivity into action. For our purposes, reflexivity means looking not only at what happened, but the beliefs, attitudes, and values undergirding what you do, think, say.

I think most everything in a classroom relates to power. The way you set up your classroom, the ways you relate to students, the policies you’ve established, the kinds of activities you do, even the content of your classes all speak to what you assume to be true about power. Who decides what’s important to learn, to know? Who decides what the best ways are to get there? Those are heady questions, designed to think about over the course of a career. The day-to-day of your classroom is where you can see what you believe, and how deeply.

You can work feverishly and create a classroom that looks student-centered. For example, students may have choices in how they complete assignments, what books they read, or what topics to research. But student-centered classes have many levels. Some of the most challenging aspects relate to how actively students are involved in making important decisions, or how important their personal goals are in the class, in short, how much power they have. Here are questions that I hope will nudge you look at what you believe; they might trigger some insights into what– or who– is at the center of your classroom.

  • Do you ask questions to which you already know the answer? Why– what’s your purpose? (Should you make a statement instead?)
    • What would happen if you asked a question you didn’t know how to answer? Are your class operations designed to make room for that? Your curriculum?
  • Do you ask students to help make class rules? Why– what are your purposes for doing so? Have you shared these with students?
    • What might their purposes for rules be? (Would they even have any, and would that be OK with you? Should it?)
    • Do you have ongoing mechanisms in place for students to think about how they personally, or class members, are doing with the rules?
    • What happens if you or they think things aren’t working?
  • Do you ask students what they want the class to be like, what they think it will take from them and you to make it be that way?
    • At the start of a unit, a week, a class, do you ask students to think about what they want to learn during that period? Do you ask them to consider who is responsible for learning and what that will take? Do you ask them to reflect on the relationship between their goals or hopes and their actions?
  • Do you have a mechanism by which students can give you feedback on your relationships with them, your teaching practices, and what you think is important for them to know and do?
  • Do you have a mechanism in place– other than grades– by which you you can give students the same kind of feedback?

What assumptions or beliefs about teacher-student relationships, student and teacher roles and responsibilities, might be guiding your responses to these questions? I believe these are at the center of making a classroom more student-centered.

When you ask and try to answer questions like these, it’s possible that what you thought you knew as “true” will no longer seem so certain. Then you get to decide what you will do. That’s the moment the adventure begins.


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