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Students wearing masks participate in a discussion in school. Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press

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My lessons are veering off track more than ever. That’s fine by me.

After so much disruption, I’m trying to create a less frantic, more collaborative classroom.

Ever since I returned to a full-time, in-person teaching position after months of remote learning, I have been wondering about the ways we perform “school.”

It’s not that I feel entirely disingenuous in the classroom, but rather that the classroom experience suddenly feels performative in ways that I’m not convinced are actually supporting student learning.

It begins with the planning of it all. We cycle from a “Do Now” to an “Exit Ticket.” We plan strategies that will keep students in their seats, engaged, productive. We contort ourselves around these daily lessons meant to transfer information to 25-30 students in 45-80 minute segments.

A woman with wavy brown hair wearing a coat and a brightly colored scarf from the shoulders up, with a snowy parking lot behind her.
Author Christina Thompson.
Christina Thompson

Maybe it’s other changing societal norms that have me rethinking everything. Similar to our current cultural conversation about how we “do” work — Why in an office building? Why 40 hours a week? — I am questioning the ways we have structured the school day and the lesson plans.

My typical rapid pace through a lesson has lately caused my seventh-grade students to become either over-stimulated or disconnected. More and more, I’ve been finding myself stepping back and allowing them to guide our time.

The other day, we were annotating a text together as a class using the document camera when students began to voice their opinions about the characters. That old desire to “get them back on track” and move them toward analysis began to grip me. I paused, took a deep breath, and listened.

They kept talking about the text and debating the motives of the characters. And eventually, we did get to that analysis, and they arrived with a deeper understanding from listening to one another. Their conversations set the stage for me to jump back in and guide them even further.

Engaging in this intellectual dance with students has created a calmer environment, one where I can hear their voices better and where they can have the social interactions that they have desperately craved for the past year. They ask one another questions more easily, they request my guidance, and we all give ourselves space to have conversations that are genuinely interesting.

I know it sounds simple, but as a teacher in our current education system, it feels radical.

Looking back, I can understand why the old norms made sense to me. We often think the way forward is to share information with others, which we believe will inherently lead to change. In the throes of the COVID pandemic, we posited that once we had a vaccine, we would share with people that it is available, and they will all seek vaccination. But as Zaretta Hammond, the author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” says so simply: “Information is not transformation.”

More often than not, the vaccine-hesitant people that I have encountered eventually chose vaccination based on a close personal experience with COVID or need to protect their loved ones. What makes a difference is the connection. And for students in my classroom, what pushes their thinking is often their connection with others.

Not everything has changed about my classroom. I am a Language Arts teacher, so text-first planning and text-based instruction are my bread and butter. Reading improves when students are given opportunities to grapple with complex texts; we know this, and my lessons reflect it.

But I am trying to let go of the need to execute a lesson with fidelity if that would mean missing opportunities for students to voice their thoughts, wonderings, and ideas. I’m working to stay in the moment as I teach and listen to how students are processing information.

It feels purposeful — the listening. It feels like honoring and respecting who they are and what they bring to the table. And far more often than not, it feels like learning.

Christina Thompson is a seventh grade language and literature teacher at Bear Valley International School in Denver.

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