One of my New Year’s Professional resolutions was to become more of an active reader for professional development. Before Winter break, I had assigned a reflection activity to my 5th grade homeroom, to whom I teach ELA and Social Studies. I have a very chatty group with some ‘tude and they can be challenging at times. The purpose of the activity was to find out the “why” of their behaviors and figure out what I could do to transform our class into a successful, responsible group of soon to be Middle Schoolers.

The activity:

I asked students what is something they wanted me to know. It could be personal or academic, but it had to be an honest reflection of something they really felt I should know about them to help them succeed. Their responses should be anonymous so they wouldn’t fear retribution. (of course they shouldn’t fear it at all, but I wanted them to feel comfortable saying whatever it is they wanted to say)

The responses I got were fairly normal: “I’m not good in Math”, “I like to sing and dance but I’m to shy to do it in front of people”, “I want to play more games in class”. But there were two that blew me, and my confidence, out the water! One said, “I wish you could go deeper into Social Studies topics like Ms. Fill in her name here, used to do”. Another said, the class has a nickname for you, MSL (which stood for Ms. Screaming Lady). I was floored by both and they both brought me to tears. My pride was hurt and my spirit was broken. I had worked so hard to try to establish a an engaging, fun classroom culture, or so I thought. So I took to the books to try to enact positive change without being too drastic.

My search brought me to the book “Learn Like a Pirate: Empowering your Students to Collaborate, Lead and Succeed“. Reading this book brought me back to life, and it took care of one of the two issues my class had with my teaching and their learning. The book is a map (pun intended) on helping scholars achieve their full potential by taking control of their own learning and collaborating with peers. I coined this “academic responsibility” in my classroom. While I was reading the book I found a great book talk blog (take a look here: The word “Pirate” in the book is an acronym for enacting powerful change within your classroom:

Peer Collaboration builds community and supports teamwork and cooperation.
Improvement-focused learning challenges students to constantly strive to be their best.
Responsibility for daily tasks builds ownership in the classroom.
Active learning turns boring lessons into fun and memorable experiences.
Twenty-first century skills engage students now and prepare them for their futures.
Empowerment allows students to become confident risk-takers who make bold decisions.

(Paul Solarz, Learn Like a Pirate)

Upon return, I told students that I had read their reflections and did some reflecting myself and I wanted to honor their requests and make learning fun, stop lecturing them, and let them take control of the class (with some restrictions of course). This was welcomed with cheers and smiles and it made my heart smile. I told students that in Social Studies from now on, they would have to teach themselves and then teach their peers in whatever way they feel will get them to best learn the material. I told them I surrendered all power (and my DOJO account) to them when they were teaching. Our school follows a “Teach Cycle”, in which the teacher presents the material, there is a guided practice activity and then students are to work on a task independently, finally having a peer check their independent work and reporting back to the teacher how many in their groups were able to satisfy the objectives. I explained to scholars that we would continue to follow this model: I would intro the lesson, which I have been doing with YOUTUBE videos or PowerPoint (we are into colonization), then the student who is assigned the lesson for the day will present their lesson as the guided practice , and finally students must answer questions given to them by me as their independent practice. The student teacher is responsible for ensuring the correct answers are provided. At the end of the week, I do a review with students to make sure all targeted objectives are covered.

I have been impressed with the quality of work that has come out of my students as they led the class in the lesson, as well as amused by the way they mimic my teaching. But what I can say is most rewarding is the comments that, “This isn’t easy Ms. Torres” and “You do a great job at teaching us”. Once I surrendered control of the classroom, scholars were able to realize that they had to change their own habits and take responsibility. Observing them work with the material and collaborating together to come up with answers to higher order thinking questions has given me an even clearer insight on how my students learn. Students are now taking leadership and ownership of not only the class, but their own actions and learning. Even those that were once the “ring leaders” are now reminding the class of their academic responsibility. As students are working in groups to develop writing pieces in ELA and breaking down open ended responses into organized pieces, I see in my class what I wanted all along: Scholars at Work, Engaged in Learning, taking charge of their academics. It’s such a refreshing sight!

I strongly urge all educators to pick up this book and invest the time to read it and reflect on their teaching. It is quite a treasure!

Get your copy here!


( One of my student presenting her mini lesson)