10 Things I Learned Sitting in a Classroom
By Sarah Cooper
Last week I remembered how hard it can be to sit.
For five days, usually eight hours a day, I attended a seminar for history teachers filled with inspiring lectures and activities.
As fascinating as the content was, I learned almost as much about what it’s like to be a student as I did about the material itself. Most notably, I felt new empathy for having to follow teachers’ instructions all day long.
Here are 10 takeaways I’m bringing back to school this fall.
1. Movement is important.
During class I volunteered to pass out papers simply to be able to get up. Sometimes I wanted to stand against the wall to listen to a lecture, but it seemed rude, so I didn’t. During many discussions I slipped out to use the restroom or get a drink of water. Afterward, I felt much more able to focus.
If I had been required to ask the teacher if I could leave the room, I probably wouldn’t have, because I wouldn’t have wanted to seem like I was interrupting or didn’t care.
2. Letting students assuage their worries can help them learn.
Sometimes a student will ask to call or text his or her parents just before class starts, to confirm that day’s pickup or respond to a question that feels like an emergency. I’m not always sympathetic to these requests, wondering if the call could be made at break or lunch instead.
However, after sitting for a week in someone else’s class, I’m much more understanding.
One afternoon my phone was charging on the side of the room. During that afternoon’s lecture I worried that I would forget the phone and not be able to call my family that night. Being an adult, I walked over and got the phone. If I were a kid in a classroom with strict rules, I might feel it was difficult to do that. Then the phone would be competing with class in my mind, and I would feel less in control and likely learn less.
3. Social learning is real learning.
Often I’ll ask kids to pair-and-share, to chat for a few minutes about a concept before we return to class discussion. Through such check-ins, students release energy and explore their ideas.
At the seminar, I craved and appreciated such brief conversations. The material was so interesting that I wanted to talk about it, not necessarily in a large group but with my seatmate and other colleagues. I’ll be even more attentive to pairing-and-sharing now.
4. Student chatter is not always off-topic.
Of course, sometimes students are talking about the soccer game this afternoon or the party last night.
But sometimes they talk because they are burning to tell someone about an idea related to class. Last week I learned so much about film possibilities and lesson strategies from the woman sitting next to me.
If student conversations become wild, we can always return to pair-and-share for a minute or two – “Share with your partner anything you want to say about what we’re discussing” – or take a one-minute stretch break so that those who want can keep discussing the material.
5. Wandering the room can build connections, not just keep students on task.
When students are working in pairs or groups, I roam from desk to desk to answer questions and make sure everyone is working. However, last week I realized that such wandering also can acknowledge students’ ideas in a quiet and affirming way. Those who might feel overly enthusiastic sharing their thoughts with a large group might find a 30-second conversation with a teacher the perfect outlet. I did.
6. Writing about something helps cement it in your brain.
By the end of each day in class, my brain felt saturated.
Ideally we hope that our students will go home and reflect on their own. But many of them lack the time or inclination to do this, and their on-the-spot reactions can be powerful.
Writing a brief five-minute reflection – even as simple as “What is your reaction to this set of facts or this video clip?” – means that students can live inside their heads for a while and find their own perspectives. We as teachers can also glance at several responses to see where to head next in the class discussion.
7. Just because a student is quiet doesn’t mean he or she is not engaged.
In an ideal classroom, from the teacher’s perspective, students would be jumping off the walls to participate – and, in middle school classrooms, such enthusiasm is often a big reason we love teaching this freewheeling age group.
However, not all students will be able to rifle through information, especially heavy or charged content, and spit back a synthesis immediately. During my summer symposium, sometimes I was quietest in class when I was thinking the most.
8. Cold-calling can be kind, not cruel.
About half of the teachers in the seminar never said anything in class discussion. At times I wished the professors would call on these quieter students so that we could hear their voices. Ideally they would contribute on their own, but sometimes it was hard to break in when many others raised their hands. Cold-calling would have created an even more robust community by making elbow room for the less assertive learners.
9. Looking up relevant facts can help some students learn and be engaged.
During the lectures when the wireless was working, I took notes and looked up the speaker’s references online simultaneously. My seatmate often glanced over my shoulder at the works of an artist or author I had just found. Now, I remember those lectures even more vividly than the others because I was able to enhance them through my own curiosity (and device).
In 1:1 laptop and BYOD classrooms, one of the biggest challenges for teachers is that students distract themselves with irrelevant material. Giving students the freedom to search while we are talking takes balance and courage. But we shouldn’t be afraid to open the walls of our classroom to the quick fact check – with guidelines – when such exploration might engage students more.
10. You never know whom you are influencing, and how much.
Throughout the week we listened to one phenomenal lecture and Q&A session after another, but I didn’t usually thank the speaker afterward. The one time I did, I felt a little like a groupie or teacher’s pet. The words didn’t come out right – they were more effusive and less precise than I intended.
Better indicators of my interest were the intensity with which I was taking notes and the kinds of questions I asked.
For instance, in a lecture capping off our week, the professor quoted James Baldwin as saying in an interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel: “You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”
The professor interpreted this quote to mean that “having a sense of history means knowing you’re not alone.” I was so excited by this this idea that, after looking up several other Baldwin quotations, I raised my hand to ask how much the professor thought literature was a valid source in writing about historical memory.
Back in my classroom . . .
Sitting in a desk for a week reminded me just how much control we as teachers have over students’ day-to-day lives in our classrooms.
As a result, I’m inspired to test just how much more independence I can give my eighth graders so that they feel more in control of classroom life – ideally learning more about themselves and about “having a sense of history” in the process.
Were you a student this summer? What did you learn?
Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is co-dean of faculty at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. She lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons, both in elementary school. She is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and writes and reviews books for MiddleWeb. Her 2018 book, Creating Citizens, is published by Routledge/MiddleWeb.