The "Figure It Out Yourself" School of Learning (Or, How Necessity Really Is the Mother of Invention)

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"Ms. Chatfield, the Tuesday cohort lost the pieces that I need to finish the Lego dragon."

Remember when I made my case against grit?

This is my case in favor of grit.

When I was a Teach for America corps member, the goal was to make everything as simple as possible for our students. No longer were students given blank composition books for note-keeping; no longer were they expected to write their essays on loose-leaf paper (complete with a professional heading that they'd memorized at the beginning of the school year). Instead, they were given worksheets with sentence starters. They were given fill-in-the-blank outlines and graphic organizers. They were given prompts with a bullet list of points that we expected them to include in each paragraph. Now, I'm not saying that these modifications are necessarily a bad thing, especially for our ESL or SPED scholars.

But I am saying that students can benefit from having to figure things out for themselves.

This week, I've taught my best eighth grade classes of the entire school year -- and "figure it out yourself" has been our guiding mantra. Where are the directions to assemble the green screen and the softboxes? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. How can we make this cardboard box look more like a rugged mountainous cave? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. What do we do when we're missing the pieces that we need to finish the Lego dragon? First of all, CAN WE PLEASE STOP IT WITH THE LEGOS? Second, I don't know. Figure it out yourself.

At first, I thought that I was being a bad teacher. I'm supposed to anticipate student questions and misunderstandings. I'm supposed to create exemplar responses and use rubrics to guide students towards the ideal product. I'm supposed to open up class with a Do Now and then lead my students through each component of I Do/We Do/You Do. That's Lesson Planning 101. But here's what MY classroom looks like on a regular day: Students enter and sit in their assigned seats. They put their trapfolios (backpacks) into the cubbies so that they won't get damaged while we're working. There's no Do Now, Brain Buster, Learning Log, Bell Ringer, or any other eduspeak term for a pen-to-paper activity to start off class. (Sometimes, if I think my students are going to be especially energetic [i.e. right before an extended vacation], I'll put on an episode of Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge for any students that are stuck waiting.) I announce the activities for the day: "If you want to build something, go to the red table", "If you want to design something, go to the yellow table", etc. Students move to a new seat at their selected table. Then, I go around to each table and give them their objective:

- Design eight foam puppets.
- Create a cave for the dragon.
- Assemble the light poles.
- Find a local studio for us to record in this weekend.
- Fill out a purchase order for our office manager.

Sometimes I'll give them the materials that they need -- but usually not. To assemble the light poles, for instance, they first needed to ask the operations team in the main office if the light poles had even arrived yet. Then, they needed to go downstairs to the lobby where the package had been delivered and bring it up to the theater room. They needed to unpack all of the different components. When they struggled to put the parts together (because the poles didn't come with an instruction manual), they needed to go to the laptop cart in the teachers' office, grab a Chromebook, and look up directions online. And they needed to come up with all of these steps on their own because whenever they asked me for help, I simply shrugged and said: "I don't know. Figure it out yourself."


Of course, these are eighth graders. They've been at our school for years and have accumulated the necessary "know-how" to solve their own problems. They feel comfortable walking up to me and asking: "Can you write us a pass to the fitness room? We need to grab a resistance band." This method probably wouldn't be as effective with our lower grades. (Then again, I haven't tried it with them, so I couldn't say for sure.) But still, I'm amazed at the fact that, every single time, students are able to complete the objectives that I've laid out for them.

And they're almost always able to do a better job of completing the objectives than I would.

I believe that the best learning happens when teacher and students are working together as a team -- not when the teacher's standing at the front of the classroom, trying to extract an answer that she already knows. Teaching is not all about getting students to successfully complete an exit ticket on their way out the door. Today, I sat at a table with a group of eighth grade girls, and we all worked together on assembling puppets. I didn't circulate between groups and monitor their activities. (In fact, when a couple of students came over to ask questions, I had to tell them to wait because we were struggling through connecting the socks to the foam puppet heads -- one of the most challenging parts of puppet assembly. None of those students came back over because they all managed to solve the problems themselves.) I trusted that my student leaders would be able to make progress without me and that they would behave responsibly and respectfully with the materials.

This doesn't always work out. (I have one student who has a penchant for wasting materials. Today, he took the bejeweled stickers that I bought at an Upper West Side paperie and stuck them all over his fingers. Definitely needed to take a calming, meditative breath after that one.) But nine times out of ten, students will behave like grown-ups if you treat them that way. Last year, when I coddled and scolded them, there were many more instances of theft and destruction in the theater classroom. But left to their own devices, they generally choose to do the right thing.

I don't know if my classroom runs so smoothly with this structure because I teach performing arts. Could this same methodology be implemented in an ELA or math classroom? I have no idea. But I do think that, in every class, our students could deal with a little less hand-holding and a little more grit.

(Our first green screen test)

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