The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.
– Thomas Stallkamp
Matt and I looked at each other halfway through the class period and asked each other why we hadn’t tried this until the end of the third quarter.
In the last class of the last day before Spring Break, our students were working together, collaborating and mentoring one another all the way to the end of the period.
My original plan had been for my G11 students to visit Matt’s G9 class and share the vignettes they’d crafted and then discuss their writing process. I saw it as a chance for the upperclassmen to mentor the freshmen in reading and writing.
Surely, the younger students would be enamored of stories from their elder peers’ lives as readers. Well, probably not, now that I type that. The point is, we’ll never know.
As in the best learning experiences, very little went as planned.
Matt’s class had been disrupted earlier in the week by a field trip that had only taken a portion of the kids our of the room. Some students were working on making up the day, others were revising their own memoir projects and still more were working on a smothering of other smaller assignments.
As shocking as it was, I came to terms with the fact that these kids weren’t clamoring to hear vignettes detailing my students’ lives as readers.
Instead, we did something much less contrived. We had the older students pair up and work with the younger students.
They sat around Matt’s room. They occupied tables in the hall. They migrated to my room for more space.
The conversations were real and earnest.
“Mr. Chase,” one student said, “I don’t know who needs help.”
“Walk around and introduce yourself. Then, ask how you can help,” I told him.
I looked to one side of Matt’s room and saw one of my students who is most frequently off-task completely focused on helping one of Matt’s students improve his writing.
I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been struggling daily to find ways to motivate this student to engage in class. Turns out she wasn’t waiting for my help, she was waiting to help.
After I’d heard a student advise, “You’ve got the outline of a paper here; now you need to fill it with what you want to say,” another one of my students approached me asking what he should do now that he’d helped two students with their papers.
“Go back to the one you helped first,” I said, “And see if she’s made any progress. It’s something I do as a teacher all the time to help students focus.”
He looked at me as though I’d just given him secret teacher knowledge.
In reality, the whole process was a reminder of my general lack of teacher knowledge.
While I’m keen to point out teaching’s general lack of willingness to utilize the wisdom of the elders of the profession, I should also be looking to the wisdom of our older students.
My students have walked this way before. They’ve known what it is to stare confoundedly at a laptop screen trying to piece an argument together. They’ve also felt alone in the effort to be better writers.
Every one of my students, no matter their level of proficiency, was an expert today to someone who benefited from that expertise.
I can and should attempt this type of cross-pollination more frequently. Failing to do so ignores the resources of the school and reinforces the artificial boundaries adolescence creates in the presence of a difference of two years.