Allow your students to raise the bar: The student-led classroom

Motivating students to do their best (especially in project or researched-based units), can be challenging. Traditional teacher-imposed methods are often ineffective, especially for middle schoolers. However, using academic leadership, student expertise, and peer-based teamwork can be an effective way to raise the bar. This requires you to evolve your classroom by transferring the leadership from the teacher to the students. Once students see what other students can do, and what other students can teach, you have grabbed hold of one of the strongest forces in middle school: peer pressure. But this is the good kind. For them, their peer group, not their teacher, is the most important influence in the room. So don’t fight it. Use the motivation of your students’ peers to improve the effort and quality of their projects. Here are a few examples on how to get started:

Technology Help

Projects and research units will likely involve many different implementations of technology. This can be challenging when you have 15 students asking you how to cite a video in Noodletools or how to access one of the library’s databases. Well, several years ago, a close colleague, Peter D., gave me great advice. Find the two or three “computer nerds” in Photo on 2-27-12 at 2.04 PM #2the class, (who, by the way, are usually less inclined to step forward and contribute to your teacher-led activities), show them how to use the application, and let them help the other students. Over the course of just minutes, the often quiet and reserved student turns into an academic leader, and finds a place on the team. They are now the tech experts of the project. Rule here: Give your helpers the recognition they deserve and never, ever answer another technology question in your class again. That’s what your new tech experts are for.

Written and Oral Presentation Projects

Boy_Reading_-_Cartoon_3In middle school, students produce written and oral presentations that vary from excellent to just awful. And, unfortunately, this variation has less to do with the students’ ability, and more to do with their ideas around what is expected. I have found that an easy solution here is to set the bar by having some of your high-achievers present first, allowing for the lower-achievers to see their work. Then make sure the remaining students have a little time to upgrade what they have done. For example, if you are asking students to write a paper, chose 3 or 4 of them to read their first draft papers aloud in front of the class on Friday. The final draft is due on Monday. Try it and see if the quality does not go up for the entire class. Do this several times, then begin to put your once struggling writers in front of the class. You are not only defining your expectations better, but you are developing academic leadership in the classroom. Rule here: Recognize your improving writers by letting them read their papers in front of the class, once you have given them a chance to improve the quality of their work.

Student-Led Class Lectures and Socratic Discussions

Student TeacherAs a geography and history teacher, I often give a reading assignment and then begin the class with a short lecture and discussion on the reading. I always require that students turn in short reflections on the reading, based on two or three questions that I assign. However, once the basic content is established, the teacher should step out of the way. On a rotating basis, assign the lecture and discussion to a student. Tell them in advance so they can prepare for the discussion. Give them a sample of one of your lesson plans. Ask them to prepare one, too. Here is what you will discover: One, as good as you think you are, there are better student teachers in your room. Two, in student-led lectures/discussions, the number of students participating in the discussion doubles. And three, your students will respect you even more after they realize that leading a class requires a lot of preparation. Rule here fight the temptation to correct or interject during the student led discussion. If you need to clarify or correct, wait until it is over, or do it by playing the role of a student and ask some leading questions.

Team and Collaborative Projects

Personally, I think students are in their best learning mode when talking with two or three other students about their ideas and discoveries. The problem is that this wonderful image often goes up in flames when you ask the small group to turn in a group project that requires them to meet after school. This is often when you get emails from your students or their parents about how they are doing all the work, or that Peter has done nothing on this project, or that the student has too many after-school activities to make time to meet with classmates.DSC02300

So, what is the answer? Let them collaborate, brainstorm, take notes, and research together in class. Of course, monitor their progress and assess their collaborating, brainstorming, noting, and researching. Then, have each member of the group turn in their own final product.

Like most things in my classroom, creating effective student-led learning experiences is a process. But each of the four examples described here is fairly simple to organize and initiate. And, I think each has helped me raise the quality and quantity of learning in my class. It all boils down to this: if you are going to call your classroom or school a learning community, then make it as egalitarian as possible.

Learnin’ the Trucker’s Hitch: A Lesson in Good Teaching

Over the years, I have observed many good teachers. As a learner, I have been part of a variety of both effective and ineffective learning experiences.  And, as a teacher, I’ve experienced great and not so great teaching moments. For many years, I’ve reflected on the process of learning and have become a believer in learning by doing or, to use the current lingo, experiential learning. But the experience must be part of a process, and each part of the process can have experiential components.

I just got back from a great conference in Boston, Brain-Based Learning for 21st Century Learners. There, many neuroscientists and their studies affirmed that the classrooms that produce the most learning do not look like traditional classrooms at all. So what does this new classroom look like? For starters, it is based in experiential learning. I think I can best explain it using the Trucker’s Hitch. It is a very simple, but effective knot for securing things that want to move to anchored objects.


Several years ago, a group of teachers (including me), attended an Outward Bound program – The Educator’s Initiative. Since we were going to hike and sleep outside for 8 days, they needed to teach us a few things. They started their instruction with the construction of a shelter, a tarp tied down tightly and close to the ground. Since we were going to sleep under tarps for 8 nights, the Outward Bound instructors assured us that a properly tied down tarp is as waterproof as a tent. Ha, right…. It turns out that this lesson seven years ago, and many learning experiences since, have me hooked on the following learning process:

The Introduction.  Make the lesson relevant and emotional. And, find a memory hook or two. In this example, the hook is “the trucker’s hitch.” Say it will a southern accent, and spit. It will help your students remember.  Emotion leads to attention, and attention leads to learning. So spit twice. The relevance of the trucker’s hitch is that if you don’t put up a tight tarp, you’ll die of hypothermia. Motivated now? Paying attention?

The Pre-assessment Phase.  Before you really know what to teach students, you need to figure out what they know. This can be done experientially. In this example, give each group of students a tarp and 5 lengths of p-cord. Engage them in determining important features (must keep you dry, be easy to disassemble, etc.). Then ask them to create the structure. Observe and take note of the skill sets you are working with. You may observe certain behaviors that can help your instruction later. Look for the “academic leaders,” observe the collaboration process. Also, notice how learning is taking place even before the real lesson begins.  When this exercise is done, ask them what they have discovered, what worked, what didn’t.  This will give your students the context to lead you into the next phase of learning.


The Skill Phase.  In this phase the instructor does a lot of the talking.  The student is introduced to the tools, the language and skills necessary to immerse themselves in the experience. New vocabulary maybe introduced, along with new tools, technology, and basic skills on listening and working with others collaboratively. Using my example, it is at this point that the instructors show us a tarp (vocab), with a hole in each corner for the p-cord (vocab) to be inserted. Then she carefully and slowly demonstrates how to tie a trucker’s hitch.* After the demonstration, we are all thinking, “What’s the big deal, just tie a knot and be done.” Having anticipated this, the instructor puts her full weight on the cord, and then easily releases it. She ties it again. Now the cord is so tight, that we are afraid it will snap. She picks up a long stick, and launches it like an arrow from the cord, launching it 50 feet in the air! Now we are thinking, “Cool. I want to do that.” But, she stops us. Despite the cord being so tight, the instructor walks over to it, and gives it a tug, and it instantly releases. Cool. (This creates more emotion, leading to more attention and therefore, more learning.) She now explains to us why it is such a great knot. (It is used to tighten things down: tarps, canoes, children, and it releases instantly with a good yank.) She shows us again, talking and repeating the same words. Then it is our turn to try again.

The Experience Phase†: With some skills and new vocabulary words, the students are ready to immerse themselves in the experience. What experience? The experience of taking a corner of the tarp and tying it to a tree with the p-cord using a trucker’s hitch knot. Each student helps the other, and some learn faster than others. After each student successfully ties two trucker’s hitches, then they experience tying all four corners and the middle cord to create the “A” frame type tarp. Wow! What an awesome tarp! We will stay dry and live!  Think of this phase as the glue application phase.

The Reflection Phase: There are many ways to reflect and assess your newly learned skill, but I find the best way is to use more experiential techniques that are directly relevant to the learning goal. In our case, our tarp group gets together, puts up another tarp, talks about what we can do to improve it, then puts the tarp up again. Each group will likely conclude that the key to a good tarp setup is how tight your trucker’s hitch is.  After they set up their second tarp, it is time for some real reflection.  Since teachers are omni-competent, the can create a rainstorm to test the tarp. (Or, just use a bucket of water.)

The Mastery Phase: Well, how will you always remember how to put up a tarp and use the trucker’s hitch? Practice. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Not quite that long for the trucker’s hitch. Even this phase is experiential and fun. Teachers, play the game of the weather god. Each tarp team must put up and get under their tarp in 5 minutes or be doused with cold water. Do it again, but in 4 minutes, then again, and again. By the time you get to 2 minutes, everyone will be wet, laughing and masters of the trucker’s hitch.  The glue is now setting. But remember, everyone’s glue sets or dries at different times. If some students need more time to master the trucker’s hitch, ask your new master students to work with them.

tarp shelterSome last thoughts:  It is my belief that teaching strategies that follow the basic elements of the process outlined here will effectively produce learning and learners. The process includes key principles required for learning: It is relevant to the students, and creates emotion. It requires student action, and therefore it is experiential. It is collaborative, requiring students to interpret and communicate what they have learned. It is reflective, assessed, and mastered. There is little room for any student to not master the skills and content.

*If you want to flip your class a bit, then you can have the students learn some knot skills at home. Have them watch your video or one out of the Internet. And since you are fascinated about the trucker’s hitch, here is a video

† Just because you are not it the “experience phase,” it does not mean that experiential learning is not taking place in all the phases of the lesson. Even the pre-assessment is experiential. The more action you can create by the student, the better.