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Give your students ownership of the classroom

By Team ISTE
August 12, 2015
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Pernille Ripp’s 5-year-old daughter didn’t like school. She announced this every afternoon when she came through the door. On day seven, the tune changed to “my teacher hates me.” By day 10, the child was claiming a stomachache and begging not to be sent to class.

That reaction hits hard when you are not only a parent, but also a teacher. For Ripp, it was a turning point.

“School should not be done to our kids — it should be something they experience,” says the seventh grade teacher from Oregon, Wisconsin. That’s why, five years ago, she turned over her classroom to the kids.

Ripp’s daughter’s distaste for school was just the tip of an iceberg with serious consequences. According to Statistic Brain, the United States sees 3 million high school dropouts annually, 41 percent of which are in the largest 50 U.S. cities. Crimes committed by high school dropouts? A whopping 75 percent. Jobs for which a high school dropout is ineligible? An even higher 90 percent. No wonder the lifetime earning difference between a high school graduate and a dropout is $260,000.

Students love what they own

The good news is, educators on the ground assure that the smallest changes can make monumental differences in motivating students.

Take, for instance, classroom setup. Studies show that improving a primary classroom’s physical design — things like lighting, layout and décor — can boost learning by as much as 16 percent. Building learning zones within the classroom, visual inspiration, white space — it all matters.

Of course, if you give ownership of your classroom to your students, you can outsource your classroom redesign to them. Here are a few ways to begin:

  • Ask students to pin spaces they like (not just classrooms) on a Pinterest board and comment on others’ finds.
  • For older students, develop a list of questions about classroom design and have them reach out to experts in the community for the answers.
  • Definitely let the kids do much of the physical work, like painting, moving computers, rearranging chairs and cleaning up.

Manage your mindset

Ripp’s realization was that she couldn’t change the children. She could only change how she teaches. “Do I want to be a student in my own classroom?” she asks herself. When the answer is “no,” she knows the kids who file through the door each morning need choice and voice, not more rules.

To find this zone in your four walls, start by clarifying the purpose, the learning goals and the criteria for each new unit. The purpose is to help your students see the ultimate destination, because the route to get there is up to them. Teachers who turn the classroom over to students don’t lead — they facilitate class discussion by providing whole-group and individual feedback in detailed, written and verbal form.

But primarily, educators spend classroom time motivating, because there is no process or supplemental program that works if students are not willing to engage. And that means injecting fun the way Chelsea Dale, founder of On Giants’ Shoulders, approaches it. 

She recommends arranging 15-minute, weekly, one-on-one Skype or FaceTime chat between younger students and academically accomplished high school students. Her program matches pairs according to a common interest, whether that’s sports, music, art, or something else. She finds that the natural tendency young students have to look up to older kids organically stimulates motivation, teaches communication skills, encourages respect for teachers and the learning process, and counters low self-expectations.

Ripp has learned that time, that most precious commodity, is also part of the student-owned classroom mix. On the first day of school, for instance, she eschews the ice breakers, the locker room motivational speech and the need to dazzle students with what will be. Instead, she quietly reads a book aloud, invites students to visit with one another and asks them to start reflecting on classroom rules they’d like to implement.

“Take the very first step to get to know these students that have been thrust into our lives,” she urges. “That’s also their first step in trusting us and trusting the community.”