Recently there was an online debate about what comes first, ownership of learning or engagement? Although I don't think we came to a consensus on this, we did agree that both are important and need to be cultivated with equal force. As for me, some days I think engagement must come first and other days I am convinced that giving kids control over their learning is what will get them engaged. Therefore, I try to strike a balance between the two because I think some kids may not ready to take control of their learning. They have been too coddled or never given the opportunity to make even simple decisions in the classroom. Therefore, they become entirely dependent on the teacher to make all decisions for them. It takes a long time to break that dependency, but it's well worth it for the children and the health of the classroom community. Even though these students may recognize the freedom that ownership of their own learning can offer them, they are not yet ready to take the first steps towards becoming active, independent learners. That's why I introduce a variety of structures in the classroom to help facilitate this process.
In my classroom this year, my grade 5 students conducted weekly class meetings. On some weeks, they were able to have a total of two or three class meetings lasting 15 - 20 minutes each and, on other weeks, our schedule made that prohibitive. Either way, the kids ran the class meetings by setting the agenda (addressing problems that they had identified throughout the week); having class "referees" to lead the meetings (the referees changed on a regular basis); and making decisions through a self-made process that included discussion, offering solutions, and voting. The results of the vote would then be implemented in our classroom. Although I tried to stay out of these discussions as much as possible, I wasn't always successful. Sometimes I would intervene when it seemed that things were getting out of hand. To be honest, I think I may have talked too much. My goals for next year are to (1) help kids set norms and expectations for the meetings and (2) to teach the first set of referees how to run a meeting effectively. This first pair would then teach the next two referees and so on. My hope is that by doing this backstage work early, I will not get too involved in their discussions.
The list that follows gives an idea of the kinds of problems that the kids addressed during these meetings:
- how to take turns talking during class meeting in an orderly manner
- how to make sure that devices are handled with care when stored
- how to address the lack of pencils and other writing tools because students were being careless
- deciding which class jobs were needed or not (this conversation happened at least three times during the school year)
- how to take turns with the two bean bags in the class so that everyone has a fair turn
- using the bathroom without asking for permission from the teacher
- listening to music during class time
- soliciting ideas for the newly minted grades 3 - 5 student leadership council
Next school year, I plan to implement class meetings again. They give kids some control right from the beginning of the year about what happens in the classroom. They allow all students to have a voice without the teacher interfering too much. They help students engage in the day-to-day workings of the classroom. They set the stage for further involvement in learning. They give kids experience with democratic structures.
I would love to hear from others who have tried class meetings in their classroom. How did it go? What worked? What didn't work? Or, if you have other examples of how you engage and/or give kids ownership of their learning, please share here. I would love to try new strategies in the fall.