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Classrooms Full of Teachers


The day started unremarkably--and then something remarkable happened. I had just ended a conference with a young writer, and as I pushed myself up from the carpet, I scanned the room to take in a sea of second graders, working on their writing. Many looked in limbo. Worry rose. I had to get to all of them. All I could see were twenty-four learners with unique needs. Each one seemed to depend upon me, each one seemed to be treading water to just stay afloat, waiting for me to toss them a strategy, like it was a life jacket, so they could swim forward with their writing. Then, my gaze landed on two students tucked into a quiet corner of the room.

Jon and Abby sat together, legs folded under them, leaning into a piece of writing. Jon had one finger on the notebook page and his other hand was in the air, acting out something from the story in his animated style. I smiled, appreciating his playfulness, the joy in his face, and Abby’s smile, as she absorbed what her classmate was showing and telling. I headed to my next conference, but then I literally stopped in my tracks and turned around to look at Jon and Abby again. Oh my gosh—they were the life preserver, not me.

In that moment, I began seeing my classroom in a radically different way. I was no longer looking at Jon the student. Instead, I saw Jon the teacher. With this new perspective, the space in front of me was no longer filled with learners who needed me and me alone. It was a room full of learners who had the potential to learn from and lean on one another.

From that day on, there was a shift in the tone and the routines of the classroom. Teaching shares now often took the form of fish bowls, where we would watch partners teaching each other, and study the moves that helped students support their peers. We made sure we reserved a few moments to “pause and ponder” before partners met, so that the collaboration seemed—and was—more planned and purposeful. We learned how to ask ourselves and others the kinds of questions that uncovered our strengths, our needs, and our own process. We learned to appreciate the multitude of strengths that lived within our classroom walls and how to use those strengths to lift one another up.

There are so many reasons why we can draw on the teaching power of our students. We know that students taking a seat in the teacher’s chair and teaching others not only what they know, but how they can do this work, is the deepest form of understanding. We know that it solidifies concepts at a whole new level. We know that sometimes students need to hear a different voice in order to understand something new, and the other students in our classrooms can be the voices those students need. We know that we can spread our teaching out so that it reaches more learners by having students teach someone what we just taught them. We know that by harnessing the power and knowledge within our students, we can beat that clock that is constantly telling us that there is so much to teach but so little time.

In this blog series, Maximizing Mentoring, let’s explore ways to develop metacognitive habits of mind in students. This way they are mining their own process in order to be able to name the what and how of their learning. Across the year, and across this blog series, I’ll show you how to invite students to move from supporting themselves, to supporting the learning needs of their peers. Join me on this journey of turning our classrooms full of students into classrooms full of teachers.