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Learning at its Best

Why Should We Ask the Children?

This year I took the ultimate risk; I asked my students what they wanted to learn about.  The first time I did this, I was met with averted eyes and mumblings.  One student even asked me if this was a trick question?  After much reassurance, after all, these kids know that adults usually use their words against them, a few dared to raise their hands.  “Well, we like what learn about, Mrs. Ripp, perhaps we could just learn about in a different way?”  “Yeah,” piped in another, “Maybe we could have some choice?  You know, instead of doing a presentation, I could write a paper. ”  And with that, my blinders fell away and I started to realize that teaching is not a solitary job but one you share with every single one of your students.

So I set forth to provide my students with choice,  some set perimeters, but always the option to add their own voice somehow.  Some students craved the choice, others hated it, after all, why couldn’t the teacher just decide everything, wasn’t that what I got paid to do?  After a while though, my students demanded a choice if I had not provided one.   Sometime large ones as to what the topic would be and others as simple as who they would work with.  The engagement in my students multiplied and the work they did was enthusiastic, creative, and sometimes just downright inspiring.    So I continued to ask my students questions; what did they love about school, what did they want to change?  How would they run a classroom? What makes a great teacher?  What do they wish they had learned about in school but never covered?  Many of their answers can be found on our kidblog, our little portal to the world.  And I devoured their answers, pushing myself to make our classroom better, more engaging, and more inspiring for these eager learners.

Now looking back after almost a year, I wonder why I never asked the kids before?  Why did I spend two years of my teaching career assuming that I knew best?  Why did I not reach out and get their opinion?  I was afraid of their answers, that is for sure, but truthfully I didn’t see the value in it either.  I was the hired expert, the person brought in to fill their minds with knowledge.  They were there to be managed, rewarded, punished when needed, and then passed on through the system.  After all, these are children we are talking about, not fellow teachers, principals or other people who have teaching careers and experiences telling me how to get better.  These are children that should just take whatever we present to them and be happy that they are part of our learning journey.  These are children that do not know as much as adults.  They are not supposed to have an opinion, let alone share it, because that is not what learning is all about.  Or so I thought.

So today I stand by my flaws and mistakes.  Without them I would not be on the journey I am on now, one that has led me to reflect deeply on all the things I should change, on all the things I have done right, and how fundamentally being a teacher is not about teaching but about learning alongside with your students.  That is what I hope to inspire in others; to ask their students what they want to learn, to ask them their opinion on the school, on the classroom, on what makes a teacher great.  And then to act on it, flaws and all, to make a classroom where the students are stakeholders and the teacher is a partner, not the ultimate authority, not the person to be feared, not the only one with knowledge.

The other day a student raised their hand and told me that my lesson was boring.  Silence, nervous glances, and then just waiting.  I looked straight at that student and said, “You know what?  You are right, what can we do to make it better?”  The look of relief and excitement that spread across that student’s face will never be forgotten. So ask the children, if you dare.

About Pernille Ripp

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.


3 thoughts on “Why Should We Ask the Children?

  1. “You know what? You are right, what can we do to make it better?” The look of relief and excitement that spread across that student’s face will never be forgotten. So ask the children, if you dare.”

    Very fine story. Very fine quote at end. This is a check valve moment that has nothing to do with data, facts, numbers or any of the mad ephemera that makes up most of what we call ‘quantitative’ research. A check valve will allow water through but it won’t allow it to go back. You have discovered that once we allow the authentic conversation of the classroom to grow, we can never go back down that old rabbit hole. We must go forward to dig and live in new ones with all of our newly discovered helpmates. Bless you for discovering this for yourself. Keep on!

    Here is link to page with annotations that extends this comment further:

    Posted by Terry Elliott | May 19, 2011, 7:17 am
  2. This reminds me of the time a like-minded educator asked me, “So how long did it take you to stop delivering content?”

    “Eight and half years,” I replied.

    Kudos to you for taking just two.

    Having taken the ultimate risk, does it still seem ultimate to you, or is it a springboard to more discoveries further off? How can we assure colleagues that the world doesn’t end with our break from standardized education?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 19, 2011, 9:52 am
  3. Both of you, thank you for commenting. I realized after several months of asking my students that I would indeed never be able to go back to how I taught before, in fct, sometimes I am even ashamed if my old way of teaching and think of the genuine disservice I did my student. Unfortunately, students must suffer as a teacher learns to teach. Having taking thebstep, I don’t see it as huge or momentous anymore, while some believe I have gone off the deep end. I hope to lead by example, thus chronicling my journey, and in turn inspire others to attempt as well, if we debunk how treacherous the trip may be, others may take the first step.
    Thank you so much for your comments,

    Posted by Pernille ripp | May 22, 2011, 8:42 am

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