Do Your Students’ Work

10 Nov

When teaching AP or IB English, one of the most useful things I did each year was to write at least one of the essays I assigned my students. I would select a textual response prompt I had never seen before and, within the same time constraints set on the students, I would read, analyze, and respond. I would then slip my anonymous response in with the model essays we used during review. It was always humorous and enlightening to hear my students praise and criticize my work, and once I revealed my response, they were always appreciative that I had put myself “out there.”

As teachers we can easily fall into the trap of forgetting the messy, recursive and challenging process of learning. As we repeat lessons throughout the day or re-read books each year, we remove ourselves further from the inevitable struggles inherent in any learning process. To heighten my empathy for my students’ challenges and to model good learning in action, I often do my students’ work. I try, at least once a term, to complete one of my own assignments.

I gave an Ignite speech right along with my students. An Ignite speech is five minutes long, and the speaker creates 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I have never given such a speech, so I knew I needed to do it as well. I’m glad I did. Had I simply assigned it, I never would have understood how difficult this format really is.

I easily invested six hours into my five minute speech, and I even had to take a “mulligan” when delivering the speech to the class. In the end, however, I am happy with the results.

Of course, my students appreciated my efforts. This assignment produced some vociferous complaints from them. Yet, I responded, “I know it’s difficult, but if you keep practicing, you’ll get it,” and because they saw me struggling, too, they had no choice but to keep working at it. In the end, they all performed admirably.

Taking on extra challenges like these are invaluable to me. Creating my own Ignite speech helps me be a better teacher because I am reminded that:

  • Learning is messy. I am more understanding when students don’t perform perfectly because performing perfectly is unrealistic. In fact adept performance requires time to fail, revise, and reflect. I am more apt to find the possibility in their failures when I am messing up, too.
  • Deadlines are not that important. We have to enforce deadlines, especially within in a school system where we are covering a curriculum, but meeting a deadline is not nearly as important as giving students engaging challenges and the space to meet them. When students have space, they are more apt to find success. I need space, too, and I had to extend deadlines during this process in order to help my students succeed.
  • Students need to see teachers struggle. Teachers should be expert learners. We do our students a disservice if we only do what is comfortable and familiar in front of them. Seeing experts struggle, plan, and reflect is very valuable. Students better learn to cope with failure when they see us doing so.
  • Assignment criteria can be really frustrating. Pragmatically, I know it’s easier to be creative within some set of parameters. Tell me to write a poem about anything, and I might be stuck. Tell me to write a poem about everything that happens at night while I sleep, and I find it much easier to create. The Ignite format is a really unnatural way to speak. I’m much more willing to toss out exact criteria after having to wrestle with some on my own, and I encourage my students to advocate for changes in the assignment parameters I set.
  • What I DO is more important than what I say. Being brave enough to do the work alongside my students teaches them more about my philosophy and values than anything thing I could ever say to them. I encourage you to do your students’ work, too. You’ll be a better teacher as a result.

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