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Swirling Leaves, Student Agency, and Believing (Part 2)

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
February 17, 2021

"Learning sometimes occurs because someone insists that you recognize the excellence in yourself."

RIta Pierson

In Part 1 of this article I shared the story of when I first believed I could be a successful student. This paradigm shift happened not because I earned an A on an exam or an assignment, or in the class overall. To be honest, I don't even recall the grades I earned in my physics class. This shift happened because someone believed this to be true and shared it with me. My classmate turned to me and exclaimed, "You know, you are really smart." I'm not sure why, but that particular day, with that particular classmate, I believed it. That has made all the difference.

Finding The Courage To Lean In

It was the shift I needed to find the courage to really lean into my education. Up until this time, as I explained in Part 1, it was as if my education was happening all around me. I was unclear how to jump in as an active participant. This newfound belief in myself did not magically transform me into an actively engaged student, but believing I could be a good student was the first step on that journey.

Why I Became A Teacher

Recently during my first meeting with a school who is adopting Organized Binder, we all took time to share why we became teachers. There are a handful of reasons why I went into education. The one I shared was that I wanted to empower young people, especially those who have historically struggled and/or been marginalized by our system, to become confident and active subjects in their education.

Fast forward ten years from the afternoon in my physics class. I reenter the high school classroom, but this time, I am the teacher. Now I was that person up front, the one who was supposed to know the subject inside and out, to know how to teach, and to know my students personally. For as uncertain as I felt as a new teacher, one thing became crystal clear to me: revisiting my own insecurities as a learner would pay huge dividends as an educator.

Connecting With Students

My first teaching job was at an urban Title 1 school. That first year I distinctly recall seeing in my students the same insecurity that gripped me in high school. Like when I would arrive early to my English class, so I could snag a seat in the back of the room, in hopes of the teacher not calling on me to read aloud. Or when I would stay up all night studying for an exam, even though I had few resources to study from, and would be so tired the next day I would perform poorly on the assessment. I just did not know how to approach learning. The same was true for my students.

As a teacher I found an interesting and vital connection with my students. I could remember that feeling of leaves swirling all around me but not really being a part of that dance - but desperately wanting to. I remembered what it was like to sit in a classroom and feel unsure.

My Mission As A Teacher

So I set out on a mission. My goal was to equip my students with the agency I so dearly longed for as a young person. I wanted them to step into their education with confidence and dexterity. Most of my students came to school routinely but were plagued with a history of academic failure. Many of them questioned whether or not they could achieve, and therefore, were less likely to engage with me and our class community. Just as my classmate had changed my narrative about myself and my ability as a learner, it became clear that I had to do the same for my students. 

How could I do this? I certainly was not an expert. No one discussed it in graduate school. Where would I find the time? I never had enough time to cover all of the content of the course. This question swirled in my head those first few years. Then one day it came to me. If I keep my experience as a student front and center - I might be able to help my students develop agency in their learning. I created a two part plan. First, I committed to being the person who told each and every student, "You know, you are really smart." Secondly, I decided to design every lesson through the lens of my experience as an unsure learner. I needed to explicitly scaffold the learning environment if I was going to empower my students (by the way, this was the first step in designing Organized Binder). My hope was that my students would believe they could succeed and, as a result of my scaffolding, that they would begin to develop the academic skills and habits that research indicates empower students to achieve.

Be Explicit

In the years that followed, one word surfaced again and again - explicit. I held tight to Lisa Delpit's thesis in Other Peoples Children, that we need to make explicit that which is implicit in education. For students to develop, every single aspect of every single lesson had to be hyper-explicit and predictable. When students are clear on how to “do” school they are more likely to engage. When students start to experience success they are more willing to lean in, to try a little harder, a little longer. They are grittier.

Watching my students, especially those for whom academic success had forever been elusive, enter confidently into their education, might be my highest honor as an educator. I beam with pride when students engage with certainty and confidence, with agency. It makes me grateful that I was lucky enough to struggle as a learner.

Over the past 20 years I've watched as students start believing they can succeed as they develop the skills and habits needed to approach their education with confidence. I am the one telling them, “You know, you are really smart!” and they believe me!

Be well,

Mitch

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