Questioning the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

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When I first started teaching I was told from one of my professors to grab Harry and Rosemary Wong’s book and use it as a guide.  The guidance in the book was direct and seemed to be working during my first year of teaching.  I still refer back so some of the pages from time to time.  For the most part my class of fourth graders fell in line with the expectations that I set, which were from the book.  My administrator at that time suggested I use a gradual release of responsibility model with my students.  This “I do, we do, you do” model was heavily emphasized.  Basically, I was instructed to start my lessons with a guided whole class instruction, move to groups or partners, and then have students work on assignments independently.  Student input was limited when I used this model and I didn’t really see a problem with that at the beginning of my career.  As the year passed I found that extrinsic motivation was keeping most students on task.  The pressure of getting high grades and outside rewards moved students in being compliant. As I gained experience my instructional strategies changed .

As the years passed I started to let students make a few decisions in the classroom.  I offered students a chance to sit where they wanted at the beginning of the year.  Students also had options in what projects to complete.  This happened rarely, but I found that the choice opened up a new realm of student responsibility.  When students had a choice they often performed better and with more enthusiasm.  The reward for accomplishing a task started to become more intrinsic.  From there I surveyed students and included plus/delta charts throughout the units that I taught.  The more students offered input and felt like their voice was being heard, the more active they became in their own learning experiences.  Now that students were offering input I gave them opportunities to reflect on their learning and had them set goals.  Last school year students participated in genius hour.  I was truly amazed at the projects that were created by the students and the passion that I could visibly see as students presented their projects.  Students happily took advantage of these opportunities.  Students were asked to think about their own thinking, which was a new experience for students.

This opened up a new realm of possibilities for students as I felt they were realizing teaching wasn’t being done to them.  Instead, students started to realize that they were an intricate part of their own learning.

All this is good, but this type of thinking didn’t happen until the last third of the school years.  I scaffolded the gradual release of responsibility model until I felt confident to let the students take on more responsibility.  My confidence in students was conservative and I didn’t take the risk in allowing them to take control until later in the school year.  I’d like to change this next school year.  Allowing students to be responsible early in the school year can lead to dividends throughout the school year.  One book that has influenced me in this thinking has been Paul Solarz’s book.  Students should be given the opportunity to take the lead and be empowered in the classroom. One strategy that Paul highlights is his “give me 5” technique.  I’d like to start this early in the school year.  I’ve also questioned my own thinking regarding how students should be expected to proceed with a gradual release of responsibility philosophy.

I still adhere to the philosophy although I’d like to tweak my perception of it.  Instead of providing constant scaffolding to release responsibility, I’d like to start off the school year with student empowerment opportunities.  Waiting too long to give students responsibility can be costly.  Giving students opportunities to lead with support and guidance from the teacher can lead to positive results. I’m assuming there will be times where students will speak out of turn or take advantage of the empowerment opportunities, but I’ll take that risk.  With direct teacher support and feedback, I feel like students will become better at taking responsibility for their own actions.  There is a risk, but I feel there’s so much potential in empowering students to become part of their own learning experiences.

Student Empowerment and Learn Like a Pirate

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Over the past few weeks I had the opportunity to read Paul Solarz’s book, Learn Like a Pirate. Through his book, Paul takes readers on a field trip into his own classroom. His experience as a classroom teacher is insightful and I feel as though many educators can relate to this book. As I read through the book I found moments of personal affirmation and times where I questioned on how to better my own practice. One of the main themes in the book revolves around the need to empower students to collaborate, lead and succeed in the classroom.

As I read through the book I started to examine my own practice. Ideally, I’ve always thought that students learn best when they’re are invested in their own learning. When invested, students often feel empowered and that sometimes produces results beyond expectations. Throughout my experience I’ve found that putting that into practice consistently can be a challenging task and needs to be built from day one. Giving students responsibility can change how they view their role in the classroom. I find that as students take on more responsibility they start to monitor their own actions in relation to the expectation.

As this school year comes to a close I’m reflecting on how to incorporate more student empowerment opportunities in my school and classroom.  These opportunities happen on a daily basis and I feel as though they’re some components that need to be cemented first before student empowerment can take shape.  Creating a classroom community from the beginning of the school year helps students feel comfortable in voicing their opinions. Along with a classroom community, I believe other management components need to be implemented strategically for empowerment to begin.  Each classroom is different, but I believe the component below will assist in building a foundation to help students become more responsible for their learning.  The list below indicates a few items that I’d like to address for the next school year.

Increase clarity and consistent expectations

Missed expectations cause roadblocks and disappointments for teachers and students alike. I believe that the majority of missed expectations results from unclear or miscommunication. Clearly communicating expectations and allowing opportunities to model them improves understanding, and in-turn, establishes a clear goal for students. At the beginning of the year my class uses a flow chart and the expectations are clearly evident. Although the class might not always follow the flow chart, a quick reminder of the procedure helps keep the class on track. Being consistent with expectations also reinforces the need for students to take on the responsibility to meet the expectation.

Student choice

Giving students a choice in how they show mastery can be powerful. Beyond showing mastery, I feel like projects involving choice-elements enable students to become more intrinsically motivated to complete tasks. Choice doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to academics. Students can build processes that help the classroom run more smoothly. Next year I’d like to give students additional time to reflect more on their progress and create individual goals. Periodically checking in on those goals can lead students to create additional goals and the productive cycle continues.

More feedback

I need to beef up this part of my teaching practice. I tend to give feedback, but the form isn’t very diverse. My feedback is usually found in verbal or written form. Since my district requires teachers to use grades, I tend to ask students questions on their graded papers. The questions are designed to have the students reflect on the process of understanding a concept. Next year I’d like to be more specific with my verbal and written feedback.  I haven’t used this much, but feedback can also be from the students. At the end of each school year I give students a survey about their learning experiences.  In the future I’d like to collect feedback from the students on a trimester basis.

The three components above are not the end-all, but I feel as though focusing in on those areas will help build a solid foundation for the remainder of the school year.  My hope is that the foundation will yield dividends that will help students become more successful in and outside of the classroom.