A Shift in Focus

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

~Wayne Dyer

It’s funny how new experiences and ways of thinking can change the way that you view things even when they are very familiar. These two posters have been in my classroom the majority of my time teaching and thus I have seen them nearly every day for the past several years. But they have each suddenly taken on new meaning through my teaching experiences this year and my reading of Choice Words by Peter Johnston.

The poster on the left has a few components that Choice Words has helped me to acknowledge. The first is that it begins a conversation on the many different identities that students can take on. The second is that students are the reason that schools even exist. This may seem like an obvious statement but I’m beginning to realize that even though teachers know students are at the core of all we do, often times we make ourselves the center of all that happens in a classroom. “The underlying premise is that the teacher already knows what needs to be known and therefore takes the role of judging the quality of the student’s response, positioning the teacher in the role of authority and knowledge giver and the student as the knowledge receiver without authority (Choice Words, pg. 54).

Even though this seems to be the status quo in many classrooms, there are some questions and responses that we can say to students to reorient classroom power dynamics:
  • “Let’s see if I’ve got this right…” (pg. 54).
    • I find that I often say this to my first graders to make sure I am understanding their explanations. First graders love to take on the role of “teacher” and I am learning how best to use this strategy to help students develop agency.
  • “Thanks for straightening me out” (pg. 57).
    • Similar to the previous statement giving students authority, this statement shows students that teachers do not actually hold all of the answers and that we are learning right along with them and often even from them.
  • “That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll have to think about it some more” (pg. 57).
    • When I was in school, I generally held the conception that there was only one right answer and that a teacher would confirm whether or not students’ replies conformed to it. This statement helps to show that there are other ways of looking at things and that there may in fact be more “correct” ways of looking at a particular situation.
  • “Never believe everything I say. Never believe everything any adult says” (pg. 60).
    • I think that this is a very important concept for students to hear. I have said it a little differently to my students as “We all make mistakes. Mrs. Langford makes mistakes. Mrs. Keadey makes mistakes. Your parents make mistakes. It is what we do with those mistakes that truly matters.” We are all on a journey to learning and the more we learn, perhaps the more we realize we don’t know.
  • (Silence) (pg. 56).
    • This is something that I definitely need to work on perhaps more than any of the above. I am guilty of always needing to give a reply or step in to help students reach an answer or solution to a problem. In this way, I am stealing their agency by making them dependent on my help. I am working to step back and simply observe the means by which they can solve things on their own.
The poster on the right has become a focus in my classroom this year as we have been working to navigate challenging conversations. This year, it struck me through reading this book and listening to the wisdom of coworkers, that students are co-creators of knowledge, even outside of academic content areas. In the past few weeks in particular, we have been revisiting the establishment of procedures and the process of problem-solving. Last Friday, we had a class meeting and I shared with my students that when I was in school, I often felt frustrated with my teachers about the rules that they had in place and did not understand why we had to follow them. I asked if any of them had ever felt the same. Many hands shot into the hair, including those of me and my TA. Then I had students share a rule that they did not understand and instead of telling them why it was important myself, I had their classmates explain its importance. This was so powerful and held much more influence than if the explanation had come from an adult. Since that conversation, it has been encouraging to hear students discussing some of these concepts and navigating conversations in which they might not all agree.

I have realized that as much as I encourage my students to “THINK before they speak – is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind”, I often forget to do the same. This is particularly true in the way that I ask my students questions or evaluate their responses. We often make it difficult for students to connect concepts across disciplines because of the way that we think and speak about them separately. Some words that I can use that will better enable students to be flexible and transfer learning are:
  • “One of the things people do when they start a story is think of what they know. Mathematicians do this too…” (pg. 44)
  • “How else…” (pg. 45)
  • “That’s like…” (pg. 46)
  • “What if…” (pg. 47)
I am working this year to do more thinking and less speaking. And I’ve realized while thinking, sometimes it’s best for me to say nothing at all.

4 thoughts on “A Shift in Focus

  1. “The underlying premise is that the teacher already knows what needs to be known and therefore takes the role of judging the quality of the student’s response, positioning the teacher in the role of authority and knowledge giver and the student as the knowledge receiver without authority (Choice Words, pg. 54).

    This was one of the most important reminders for me as I did this reading this week as well. I always misinterpreted this idea to mean that students should be given choice and shouldn’t always be told what to do. I totally agree with your idea in this post that sometimes it means we need to just be quiet and let our students not only to come up with the answers, but the ideas and the questions! On Thursday, I held a Paideia seminar for my students. In the past I would post the subjects and the main ideas on the screen and the students would comment on them. This time, I created the first two slides and then I let the students lead the rest of the seminar. It was by far the best discussion we have had all year! It took a lot for me to, as you said, “say nothing at all”, but the students were SO proud of the ideas they came up with. It is so easy to forget that we don’t always have to be the “knowledge givers!”

    Great post Lisa! I am so glad that you are not just reflecting, but you are making real changes in your classroom based on those reflections. You’re not afraid to try new things with your students! What lucky kids : )


  2. Lisa, I would love to spend a day in your classroom. Your blog is so reflective and I can tell you take to heart what we learn, read, and discuss in class. You truly care and are such a great role model for me of someone who takes action in the classroom. For that, thank you!

    In your post, I really liked your two posters and how, for me too, they’ve taken on new meaning. I have seen those posters before and thought how nice they were and what good messages they sent. However, after reading this week, I see how powerful they are and what strong messages they give kids. I think your points about switching and “refocusing” our focus, almost, are of the utmost importance! I think as teachers we DO a lot of these things, but the intentionality and the consistency of them make a huge difference. Like you, I want to work on “silence” in my room. Let’s see how much of a difference that can make!


  3. Lisa, I love how you are stepping back in your classroom. This is hard for me as well. I have really been focusing on staying out of students way during math independent practice. I even save tasks for me to do during their work time so that I can’t help them. Another area that I focus on this is during writing workshops. I actually sit on my hands sometimes to keep from making corrections myself. I don’t know why it’s so hard sometimes!

    I love that your post focused on stepping back during discussions and letting students ask questions, respond, and be in control. I feel like this may be my next step. I would love to observe how your class does this as I think it would provide great insight and would be an example of something that I could work towards. Thanks so much for your post and inspiration!


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