we are big believers in independence in our classroom. independence is important for practical reasons (we become more effective in our jobs if we have twenty kids who are pretty independent), but even more important for our kids as people long-term. we take our role in creating independent thinkers and doers seriously.
independence isn’t something that just happens for most kids, though. we’ve found that the language we use, the way the classroom is organized, and the routines we put in place can all help to encourage and foster independence in our students.
here are a few ways we try to encourage independence:
in the language we use: in general, we try to use language that gives kids the opportunity to do things independently. this is most often done when we respond to kids with, “how could you solve that problem?”
our kids are used to going to adults for help. for the first month or two of school, it’s not uncommon for our kids to daily say things to us like: i don’t have a pencil; i forgot my notebook; my partner is absent; i can’t see the smart board; i can’t find my book. we almost always respond with, “how could you solve that problem?” (and, as the genius mary ehrenworth taught us, if they respond with, “i don’t know,” we follow up with, “i know you don’t know, but if you did know, what would you say?” and, suddenly, they know. it’s amazing and magical. try it.)
sometimes, there needs to be some teaching around the solution, maybe because their classroom or lives outside the classroom taught them to respond in a way that won’t work for our room. like, when partners are absent in our room, we teach our kids to first look for another classmate missing a partner, and then, if everyone’s partnered up already, ask to join a partnership. even before we’ve explicitly taught that solution, we’ll still ask how they could solve the problem, because often they know just how to do it.
in june, we of course still have kids telling us about their problems (sometimes you just need to let someone know, right?), but they’re way more independent and proficient at solving the problem themselves when we respond with, “how could you solve that problem?” generally, though, within the first few months of school, there’s a visible shift in our kids when they encounter problems – they don’t have the same sense of urgency in needing an adult to help them, they’re not so overwhelmed when asked to solve it themselves, and many even go straight to solving their problems independently without checking in first.
in the classroom layout & organization: starting on the first day of school, we explicitly say that our expectation is that our students get what they need when they need it, that they don’t need to (and shouldn’t) ask us for what they can do themselves. that is, we trust them to do the right thing with supplies and other materials in the classroom. (in the rare instances students have a hard time with these responsibilities, we have a conversation to address it, either individually or whole-class, and figure out a way forward.) for this reason, our supply closet is their supply closet, and materials are organized so that they’re able to get what they need without asking. this is something we address explicitly the first days and weeks of school, since students might be coming from classrooms who did things differently, and fits with the language we use to help kids solve their problems independently. you don’t have paper? how might you solve that problem? you’ve lost your pencil? what could you do about it? after the first few weeks of school, students know it’s their job to have what they need, and they know where to go for it if they don’t have it.
it’s our job, then, to be sure that things stay organized so that students are able to do this independently (and to enlist students to help re-organize when it gets too messy), and to keep on top of replenishing anything that can’t be handed over to the students (like things that require copies, though we also try to make students involved in that by putting a post-it on the last paper in the stack with a note to ask one of us to make more copies rather than taking and using the last copy) .
we know, from classrooms that we’ve visited, that some teachers have made decisions about limiting the independence that students have in getting their own supplies. in one classroom we visited recently, students would sit with their hands raised to get a needed supply (pencil, piece of paper, etc) until a teacher wasn’t busy and was able to give permission. in another fourth grade room, students waited each day after workshop to have someone give them their notebook and then when they didn’t get started right away, someone would “help” by opening their notebook to the next blank page. sometimes, these structures are out in place because teachers find it easier to make sure that students aren’t wandering freely around the classroom. in another instance, it was a schoolwide routine, implemented by the principal.
in the former case, we encourage teachers to consider the longer term rewards of teaching students how to get their own supplies. students will feel empowered about making their own decisions – their work feels more important to them because they’re in charge of all parts of it. they’ll also be more productive; they won’t need to wait when they need something – they’ll be able to get it and get right back to work. additionally, if the teacher isn’t needed to help with supplies, the teacher’s time can be devoted to actually teaching, and interruptions to any conferences and small groups would be greatly minimized.
if the second example, we would say it’s important to have a conversation with your principal about how much more productive your classroom could be if you took the time to teach kids how to help themselves. we know that this will be more challenging in some classrooms, but we need to believe that all our students are capable of independence. kids often rise to what’s expected of them. you’re likely familiar with the studies that show the impact of teachers’ expectations. a teacher with high expectations has students that perform higher. this can extend to behaviors; if we teach and expect our students to have certain behaviors (like being independent with their supplies), our students will rise to that.
in the routines and procedures: we’re big believers in the power of routines, and spend a lot of time explicitly teaching routines, not only because of the time they save across our day (and year!), but also because of the independence they promote. when our students know what’s expected of them, they can do it without much support. predictable ways to start and end the day and each subject (different between subjects, but the same for a subject across days) allow students to independently get themselves ready and begin their work.