Sunday, October 11, 2009

Turning the Horse

I read recently that if you try to turn a galloping horse sharply, you'll probably wear yourself out and just make the horse mad.  Instead, it was suggested that you gently guide the horse in the direction that you want, slowly influencing direction with a gentle touch.

For far too much of my career, I tried to forcefully turn the horse, when I wasn't trying to drag it in a direction it didn't really want to go.  Sometimes it was an individual who was, in my eyes, "on the road to hell."  Other times, it was the whole class.  Fortunately for me, I got too old to fight the class.

Somewhere along my career I noticed that students acted far more appropriately when I had them doing something "fun":  a hands-on science experiment, a Social Studies craft activity, or perhaps one of our musicals.  The more I reflected on it, the more I began to realize that this was my hook.  No matter what the makeup of the class in September, by December, they were, for the most part, with me.  It was really simple.

Early in the year, we did lots of "fun" things.  By "fun," don't think for a moment that I wasn't teaching.  I was.  I just made sure that everything was done in the most active mode possible.  I wanted my students to get used to listening to and following my directions.  They had fun if they did.  They sat out if they didn't.  They're smart.  They figured it out on their own.  The horse was getting easier to turn.  Progressively, I could ask them to persist a little longer on the "hard" things like writing or reading textbooks, because they were becoming used to obliging my requests, and they knew that we'd do easier, more engaging things as well.

Patiently, over the year, I turned the horse.  I never lost sight of where we needed to be in May for our annual tests.  I always spoke the language of accomplishment.  Personally, I kept data like assignment completion statistics to make sure we were making progress.  I always told them where we were headed.  Because they knew where we were headed, they allowed themselves to be led there.  The results were a happier class, a happier teacher, and even happier administrators.  We all won because we each got something that we wanted.

This year, I've had the opportunity to visit many classrooms.  I see many variations on trying to drag the galloping horse in some direction or another.  I'm so happy I got too old to fight the horse.

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