Ideas, Activities

Letting Go of The Classroom Reins

As teachers, it is so difficult for us to let students lead. We fear:


but one of the most important things we can do is to allow our students to guide their own learning in the classroom.

One of the ways in which I recently tried this with my English 3 Honors students is by giving them a very simple set of instructions:

  1. Figure out what you’re supposed to do with the information
  2. Go do it

That’s it. I gave them nothing more than that. I did say they may find themselves working together or they may discover it individually, but beyond this, I gave them no other instruction.

They hated it.

Honors students sometimes feel threatened by autonomy. Self-direction has been the path to wrong answers and incorrect methods. The students who choose to write their won instructions or find their own way have been marginalized in school systems. Honors students are observant and see it happen, so they work actively to do EXACTLY as the teacher says and nothing more. This stifles their creativity and kills any internal motivation the student may have in a topic (beyond the pride points of getting something right).

The materials were simple. I opened a Google Doc and typed in different resources relating to Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. I put in hyperlinks, scholarly articles, newspaper articles, college sites, etc. Some were just hyperlinks while others were names, titles, and other information like one would see on a Works Cited page. I wrote each one twice to make the lesson more dynamic.

I printed them out and gave one to each student. I explained the instructions above and also said that some of these may repeat.

In my second block, the students worked together to figure out the information. Some students stayed at their desk and immediately looked up their information to determine what it was. Some walked around and tried to figure out what each student had. After about 15 minutes, they were all working on a task. I walked around and asked each one of them what they had chosen to do. Some students were working in pairs to create a summary of their link since they had the same one. Some of them were making a Works Cited page entry for their source. Others chose to read and write a summary of their text. A few decided to connect the article to the information they learned about the Harlem Renaissance yesterday.

My fourth block took a bit longer to get going. They took about 25 minutes to figure out a task. They were very hesitant to select doing the wrong thing. Many students took on leadership roles, trying to get everyone together and organize a task. Eventually, they determined to work both individually and in pairs. They chose to do similar actions as the second block class.

My lesson went from what I feared, to what I wanted:



After a time, I asked the students to wrap up their tasks and then share what they decided to do.

I asked them what they thought I wanted them to do. Their included the tasks they did and then some students were very astute and said, “You wanted us to take the information and do something with it.”

Correct! There was nothing they could have done wrong except NOT use the information. I shared a few more tasks they could have done with the information:

  • create a single Works Cited page in a Google Doc and have everyone enter in the citation for their source
  • work in pairs to create summaries
  • work in two different groups to compare information from the sources and compile an annotated bibliography
  • created an annotated bibliography entry individually
  • create a Google Slides presentation with the summaries they made

These are just a few of the choices available to them. The possibilities are really endless.

I then explained that sometimes, they have to decide what to do with the information we give them at school. A teacher will not always be around to tell them what to do with the information and how to use it. They have to be confident enough to take risks, make mistakes, to take control of their own learning.

They liked the lesson and recognized that although it was uncomfortable working outside of their usual roles, they enjoyed the freedom and wanted to do more activities like this.

As the teacher, I learned a lot about letting my students take control and letting them direct their learning. I have to let go of the reins and let them lead and teach me.

This activity is also great for teachers who aren’t sure what they want their students to know specifically. I realized that if I get more excited when a student chooses to make a Works Cited entry rather than write a summary, then I know I want my students to learn how to make those entries. Having this information allows me to plan for an extension of this lesson that focuses on that skill.

Have you done a lesson like this? What was it like? How did it go?



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