Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confessions of a Recovering Control Freak

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

It’s hard for me to surrender control in my life, including my classroom. (You catch that “my”? I’m not kidding here.) Even though my conscious self knows that studies show empowering students leads to more student satisfaction and adult learners need a say in their learning, the insecure inner me yearns to micromanage my classes, doling out pages and assignments like the last M & Ms in a lifeboat.

Admitting a problem truly is the first step on the road to recovery because now I am on a mission to give my students more say, more choices, more control of their studies in “my” courses. Proud in my recovery process, I just wanted to share a few small steps that I took as I started out.

1. I gave students several topics to choose from in preparing presentations and writing papers, or sometimes they come up with one completely on their own. (It took a weekend with the shades drawn to calm down after that.)

2. In a thick textbook that we never get through, students get to pick chapters with topics that interest them. (OK, I chose 7 of the 15 and they choose 2, but it’s a good start.)

3. I allow students to “blow off” their choice among certain homework and assignments. (The tremors are much better now.)

4. Students are permitted to look at incoming text messages during class. They aren’t allowed to answer them, but when they feel that vibration, do you think they are thinking about class anymore? No way! Better to take a quick glimpse and then shut it off until break time. (No one can actually hear my teeth grinding, I’ve been told.)

5. I use every possible excuse to have a student man the instructor station and show a paper on the projector or type on the computer for all to see. I might even stand in the back of the class and ask a student to be at the “controls”, pointing out items for the class to look at or comment on. (And I absolutely resist the urge to shout out Focus! Zoom in! The paper is upside down! Oddly enough, they figure it out without me.)

6. In an advanced level reading course, my greatest challenge because reading can be so teacher focused if an effort isn’t made, I incorporated a regular “You Be The Teacher” activity. In this totally student- centered activity, the class learned about the Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, the problems with building a space station on Mars, issues regarding the Mexican border fence, and how dogs evolved into the hundreds of species we have today, among other interesting topics. Students delved deeply into their articles and became confident with every paragraph. It was very successful as far as student engagement, and I think it caused them to focus carefully on discerning important details from filler. But the best thing about this “letting go” was seeing how involved the students were as they worked on authentic readings of their own choice.

As I hand over more classroom control to the students, I feel we are becoming more like partners in their learning, which is what I had always told them we were. But now I am also walking the walk!


Comment from Ela Newman
March 16, 2009 at 10:46 am


I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I also often envision all the levels of chaos that may dominate the atmosphere in the classroom once I let students “captain the ship.” I worry that we won’t cover as much as we, to my mind, could if I was the one with chalk in hand. But the work they do is, in fact, quite organized, and there’s not much need for me to step in and give extra instructions. I think that most students just care, naturally, to make things work. They tend to want to do a good job as students and as “teachers.”

Comment from Dorothy
March 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm

I’m really impressed that you could let them check their text messages–that would be hard for me too, but you’re right, the messages will be eating away at them until they get to read them.

On the other hand, I’ve stopped letting students pick which textbook chapters they want to study (if we don’t have enough time to do all of them). I still want to be the one who controls what vocabulary, skills, and language we cover, and I think students are usually thinking more about the topic or the theme of the unit than those things.

Letting students teach some mini-lessons like that is a huge confidence builder for them. I think that’s a great idea.


Comment from Maria Spelleri
March 17, 2009 at 8:14 am

Thanks for writing, Ela and Dorothy. I just wanted to respond to some points. Ela, what you said about students wanting to be good teachers is very true. I was so impressed last week when we did this activity because two different groups of students actually had prepared powerpoints to go with their mini-lesson and a third group brought in some music to illustrate part of their talk on the innate human need for music. I complimented them on going above and beyond the rubric requirements and being proud of their work so that they want to be the best they can be regardless of what was required by the teacher. Or course, you always have a slacker who stays a slacker, but on the flip side, there is usually someone whom you thought was lost who shows another side of himself.

And Dorothy, I agree there are some courses in which teacher control of textbook chapters is important because of content. But what I would actually do in that case is “pre-select” some chapters from which they can choose. So I go through the remaning chapters and find those that would be most appropriate and offer the students their choices from a more limited group.

Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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