The Best Lesson I Never Taught

I broke a promise to myself today. I gave my students a worksheet. And it was the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given.

This is week 10 of our school term, the final few days before winter break. We have been reflecting on the success (and failure) of our term long City of Glacier Park project. It was a project born from a belief that we could do and be more. It has been based on increasing students voice, PBL, and “going gradeless”. We have been guided by four overarching themes:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Community
  4. Collaboration

Reflecting this week I was able to tick the first three boxes. Big improvements. But box four, collaboration, no dice. Last Friday was a nightmare day. I chased tail all day, trying to keep up with the never-ending revolving door of students seeking advice, permission, and answers. I have been selling a lie. Our class didn’t actually know how to collaborate.

The topic of blogging as a form of reflection has come up fairly regularly as part of the #TG2chat (Teachers Going Gradeless) Twitter chat that I have been part of recently. Blogging has been a powerful reflection tool for me this year. In the past I used blogs to share student work, videos etc. Never really to help organise my own thoughts or reflect on learning.

I’ve never really been a sharing kind of guy. I’ve always kept my “best lessons” to myself. Kept parents at a comfortable arms length. Informed, but not too involved. But for this project/experiment, I committed to track my journey, share more with my colleagues, attempt to engage parents, and build my own Personal Learning Network (PLN) by blogging and tweeting. I’ve been lurking on Twitter for years, but only started posting recently. I’m a little nervous now before I hit publish, because all of a sudden, it appears I’m not the only one reading my blog.

That gets me to the point of this blog post. You never know when something shared will result in a lightbulb moment for someone else. A flash of inspiration.

I had one of these on the weekend. I have been searching for answers to “going gradeless” in Maths. I am starting to understand how to make English, HASS, Arts, Design & Technology etc work in my context. But Maths? I need some help. So I hit up Gary Chu over The Twitter. Gary is a Maths teacher in Chicago, far away from Adelaide, and without even knowing it, he taught my class to collaborate today.

I found Gary’s Medium blog, and I #StoleLikeATeacher. I found a post titled: Capitalizing on What Students Do Best: Socialize. I can relate to this (if socialising was a sport, we’d have some world champs). In the post he shares Larry Geni’s work which yielded a post on the art of appropriate socialising for students. These diagrams led to a significant reflective discussion of our “collaboration” practices. The consensus was that “We suck”.  Students love the idea of collaborating for conversational learning, but in reality, they were mostly socialising.

We had watched the following two videos earlier in the week and discussed what resonated with students. We discussed the industrial revolution model of schooling and how the love of learning evident in young children seemed to drain out of students as they progressed through school. That we too had been guilty in the past of diluting learning down to a collection of letters and numbers by which success was measured.

Everyone agreed that students accessing the curriculum solely through a teacher was an antiquated practice. It had its place at different times, but should not be the lone means of learning. The teacher shouldn’t be the most important person in the room. Collaboration. But even after a semester of banging on about this, we still weren’t really collaborating.

This brings me back to Gary who wrote this about group questions.

Whenever an individual raises their hand, I walk over to that individual, maintaining eye contact until I arrive at their desk…and then I abruptly turn to someone else in their group and ask them about the question. If they do not know, I walk away.

L1: Wait, where are you going?! Why did he just walk away??!
L2: Why didn’t you ask us first? We could have helped.
L1: [zero comeback]

Nine times out of ten, the learner who had the question did not ask their group. Well, at the beginning it is nine times out of ten. Once a group picks up on the whole “group question” thing, they are much more cognizant of utilizing each other as resources first.

This was my lightbulb moment. My inspiration. So simple. But this changed EVERYTHING. It took a little while to cotton on, but students started engaging in conversational learning. I say it was the best lesson I’ve never taught because I literally couldn’t have done much less to help.

Students were tasked with using simple, compound and complex sentences in a constrained 100 word writing challenge. I outlined the task, shared this image, and walked away.

No explicit lessons. No scaffolds. No explanation of sentence structure or clauses. Nada.

It didn’t take long for hands to start shooting up around the room. This is when the magic happened (and if I’m being honest, a fair bit of fun for me…) If someone else in the group couldn’t tell me what the question was, I walked away. Students were forced to become their own best teacher today. I was no longer the most important person in the room. It was awesome. They researched on iPads, shared & discussed sentences, argued about clauses, and sought help from each other. Collaboration!

Then it happened.

A year 7 student remembered a worksheet we used last year for a similar writing task, found it in one of my text books, surveyed the class, and decided we needed 25 copies. At the end of the day almost all of the sheets were gone. And not in the recycling bin either for a change. It is the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given out, because I think it’s the first time a student actually ask for one.

As Gary says –

Share the wealth.

I encouraged the kids to share the wealth today. If anyone has made it this far and you don’t already blog, I encourage you to also share the wealth. We all have a story, you never know who yours will inspire. Thanks Gary.


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