Editor’s Note: Earlier this month I published We Shouldn’t “Empower” Students – Instead We Should Create The Conditions Where They Can Take It, and invited readers to answer this question:
What are actions you take to create conditions for students to gain and exercise power in your classroom?
Outi Frisk submitted this previous guest post, which had previously appeared at Ditch That Textbook.
Outi Frisk is an English Language Educator in Sweden with a long experience of teaching English to all age groups, from young beginners to high school students and their teachers. She has a website for English (ESL/EFL) teachers, WebEnglish.se.
One day in 2005, my student, Malin, walked in looking for me just to tell me that she used to hate English before I became her teacher. The reason, she said was: When I got to decide a little myself, I could learn more because I was more interested.
That’s when I knew I was on the right track.
This is how it started: I was teaching a 5th grade ESL/EFL class in Sweden and there was a chapter in the textbook about King Henry VIII, who happened to be my favourite in the line of British monarchs. I told the story of his six wives the best I knew how with an amazing result: The class made a unanimous request to learn more stories like that!
I paused for about 5 sec, and said: “If you want, we can throw these textbooks out of the window”, while pretending to toss the book out, and continued: “and study only British history. I could tell you the stories and then you could write about what you have learned.”
They agreed and we started from Stonehenge; I collected the material into handouts with text and pictures, we discussed the stories in class and they wrote what they had learned as homework. The following lesson started with some students reading their stories before we went on to the next.
We continued even after the summer break, until we got to Queen Victoria. That’s when they felt tired of history and we chose something else to study, but I never looked back at textbooks after that.
An added bonus was their history teacher who told me later that this class had a generally better understanding of history than his other classes.
In these 20 years I have gradually developed the method and created a website WebEnglish.se to go with it.
5 steps to show your students that they are in charge
Ask your students what they can recall as having been the best and the worst activities in their former English studies.
- Let them think about this individually for a couple of minutes.
- Make small groups, 3-5 students in each, where they share their ideas with each other and choose the ones they can (mostly) agree on.While they are doing this, you draw two columns on the whiteboard with the titles ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ on them. Of course you can have this ready on a Google Doc that you project on the screen.
- Each group reports their lists. Each item needs to be checked with the rest of the class and written on the board only if the majority agree with it. You can also write them all and have a vote afterwards, crossing out the ones that do not get the majority vote.
- Surprise your students by drawing a big cross over all the items on the ‘Bad’ side of the board, promising never to have them do any of those things. On the ‘Good’ side you can draw a big heart around the list and promise to bring all of those things to class.
- Save the results! I used to take a picture of the whiteboard, but if you do this digitally, of course, it is automatically saved in your GDrive.
I always say to my students: English is a World Language. You can read about anything in English.
If their wish is not in the WebEnglish.se list of topics, I still make it happen. One time, I learned a lot about the FBI after one student suggested it and the others agreed.
5 steps to let your students do the planning
Give your students a list of topics either on paper or digitally eg. in Google Forms.
- Ask them to mark all the topics they find interesting individually for a few of minutes. Collect their answers.
- Have your students start writing a story while you count the results, or you can both take your tasks as homework.
- If there are too many winning topics to be managed in one term, have another vote in class between the best ones.
- Show the students the number of weeks they have and ask them work in small groups to distribute the topics to suit the length of the term.
- Collect their suggestions on the whiteboard and discuss till you reach a consensus.
When going through these steps, remember that the students only choose the topics to be studied. The teacher is responsible of the pedagogy and covering the curriculum.