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Learning at its Best, School Stories

Reflections on a Lesson Plan: A Place of Empowerment and Self-Expression

Spend a few minutes at my middle school and you’ll quickly notice students talking over everyone–teachers and each other. Our school has proclaimed to be dedicated to social justice, and I can’t help but wonder how this culture of talking over one another is effective to empower students and help them develop strong voices. My hypothesis is that it is not effective, so what would be?
An obvious move is to have more discussion and debate in our classrooms, to practice talking to one another in a healthy and productive way. But for Baltimore City students  who’ve become accustomed to fill in the blank worksheets and questions with a single right answer, jumping straight into a Socratic Seminar is a disaster waiting to happen. There needs to be a bridge between where they are and the ideal space where their voices are valued by everyone.

The Lesson:

Towards that end, I started a Monday morning tradition where students sit in a circle and share one high and one low from their weekend, with mixed results. The heart of a recent lesson plan I used involved an activity where students got into pairs with one person acting as the speaker and the other as the listener. For one minute they had to speak continuously about something they were passionate about (I modeled by waxing poetic about the Baltimore Ravens), and the other person had to support them by listening intently. Switch roles and repeat. Then, do the same activity except now the listener is to be intentionally disengaged or even downright rude, texting on their cell phone, not making eye contact, etc. What you find is that communicating even when only one person is speaking is a highly social process, when the partner’s engaged your words are a co-creation, when your partner’s disengaged it’s nearly impossible to even continue talking about that which you are most passionate about.

What Happened

The idea was to conduct this activity and then reconvene for a reflective conversation on the experience. Unfortunately reality did not match with my vision of what would happen. The all-girls classes talked over one another during the weekend high-lows, and transitioning straight to another talk and listen activity proved difficult. Probably only 75% actually did the activity, and by the time they finished I was unsuccessful at bringing everyone back together to reflect. At this point I began to question whether it was even possible to teach the way I wanted in this particular school culture and environment. Feeling frustrated and with class time running out I simply asked them to pull out a piece of paper and write one time in class where they felt like their voice was empowered and another time where it wasn’t, or, a time where they empowered or disempowered someone else’s voice.
It seemed that more people were in tune with the lesson than I first suspected in the moment. The girls wrote some very moving words, one of whom talked about NEVER feeling like she could express herself in school because none of the girls ever listen, so instead she chooses to be silent. Another talked about how she only felt comfortable expressing herself in one teacher’s room because they could talk about anything and they knew people would keep it private.
The next Monday I began by reading some of their responses to the class, all eyes were on me once I said that I would share back their classmates’ words. As I spoke there were murmurs of “that’s true” and “uh huh.” Then I told the girls that WE DECIDE whether this is a safe space or not, WE ARE THE CREATORS of it, and I simply asked, what do we want this space to look like and what will you do to help create it? It was a beautiful moment, they had a lot to say, and before we started our weekend high-lows I reminded the girls of their own words. The following conversation was the most empowering one I’d seen at our school to date, not because their weekends were that profound, but because every time a girl spoke her voice was bolstered by the intentional listening of every other student.
I don’t expect class to be a problem-less dream world from this point forward, but I do feel like we’ve begun to walk along the bridge towards a place of empowerment and productive self-expression.


19 thoughts on “Reflections on a Lesson Plan: A Place of Empowerment and Self-Expression

  1. So getting the students’ input first and then developing the plan . . . that seemed to make more sense?

    Posted by NanceConfer | December 4, 2011, 11:32 am
    • I like where this commenter is going. I think the most enlightening message from your story is that student’s voices were not truly acknowledged or empowered until they were actually asked to share their own reflections, and the question of how to structure the space was posed to them. Your experience seems a testament to what I am still trying to learn as an aspiring teacher: That youth have more knowledge than they’re ever given credit for, and that our ideas for the classroom are never as radical or justice-oriented as theirs. The plans we come up with to structure our learning spaces mean nothing without the incorporated perspectives and desires of every person who will ultimately be involved within them. Thank you so much for sharing this needed and important reflection.

      Posted by rad fag | December 7, 2011, 4:44 pm
    • In general I agree with that, although in this particular instance I’m not sure if I incorporated any more student input the first time around vs. the second time around. I’m always gathering input in a variety of ways, in what I hear students say, the conversations I have with them, the nonverbal cues to various words/provocations, and the things they write. I considered much of what I observed into my first effort.

      I think the difference is that the initial failure provided a tangible experience with the issues I hoped to raise, and while that experience was fresh in their minds they were able to effectively reflect on what they heard/saw/felt.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      Posted by Brooksy Boy | December 8, 2011, 7:51 pm
  2. Thanks for this post. I like the idea of highs and lows on Monday. I can see doing this during morning meeting as a way to segue back into a school-as-a-place-of-learning mode. Sometimes we can get frustrated and give up when confronted with a school culture different from what we’re used to that doesn’t appear to promote active listening. You persevered and persisted at getting the girls to hear each others’ vpices and they listened. What a wonderful teaching moment!

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | December 4, 2011, 4:29 pm
    • Thanks! It’s definitely a great segue way, the girls are going to talk about their weekends either way, might as well sanction the activity and attempt to connect it back to the more academic activities for the day. Also, it’s a fantastic place to learn more about who they are outside of the school building, and share yourself personally.

      Posted by Brooksy Boy | December 8, 2011, 7:54 pm
  3. Ah! The first lesson plan “failed.” But the follow-up lesson yielded fruit.

    Prepare for this to happen again, perhaps dozens of times. And the two lessons, together–a success. Here in America, we expect (oddly) to be able to predict things: The weather. Political outcomes. Progress.

    Teaching school is the ultimate experience in planning diligently, then persisting when Plan A falls though. Thanks for sharing the story, and for reminding all of us that we are the creators of our own environment.

    Posted by nflanagan | December 4, 2011, 8:24 pm
  4. This is really a great piece on teaching, the alchemy of teaching and how difficult it is to “know” how something is landing with a class…Things that seem to be a disaster aren’t, and experiences that appear very successful, in a conventional sense, have little impact.

    I love how you stayed in the game, and believed in your class and their sense of agency and desire to be heard and to create. And just like Nancy says, when it seems like you’ve lost it yet again, that sense of belief is going to carry you through.

    Thanks for such a clear and insightful description of your process and dilemmas. I was right with you all the way.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 5, 2011, 9:13 am
    • Thank goodness for the struggle.

      This reminds me to be patient.

      Have the girls spoken or written any about bridging your nascent culture to others classes and spaces in the school? How daunting and desirable does that sound to them?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 5, 2011, 1:52 pm
      • Hey Chad,

        Unfortunately I do not get to work with the girls on a consistent basis, I was subbing for their normal humanities teacher that week. So I haven’t been able to build off the experience as I’d hoped.

        Furthermore, that class was just a single class, and while a step forward we are from consistently empowering each others voices. I’d be hesitant to bridge what we have there to elsewhere until we’ve made a bit more progress.

        With that said, I have every intention of doing activities where we consider who we are in different spaces, and with different people, and from there thinking about how we can be our truest selves regardless of context.

        Posted by Brooksy Boy | December 8, 2011, 8:03 pm
    • Thanks Kirsten, it’s nice having you with me!

      Posted by Brooksy Boy | December 8, 2011, 7:59 pm
  5. Very powerful stuff — Empowering Voice and Silencing.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 6, 2011, 8:13 am
  6. I really liked this post. I think most teachers go through this cycle of inspiration, being slapped by reality, and adjusting all the time. The good thing is that you did not give up on what you were trying to do and was still able to get your point across even if it was not in the way you originally imagined. Keep fighting the good fight!

    Posted by Tinashe Blanchet | December 8, 2011, 5:14 pm
  7. That’s beautiful man. I love it. I hope you can continue to work on that with them. I wonder, were you able to reflect with them about the different feel of the class the second time around? How can reflection and self awareness about the experience of “being seen and heard or not seen and not heard” be built on? Your piece makes me wonder about voice and power and what we mean by that. Was the real empowering move to set up a space for conversation, ask for a written reflection, sharing these reflections with the group, trying to create a conversational space for a second time, was it not giving up on the students’ ability to succeed, was it one or all of these things, could what you did have been done any other way by you or someone else? Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by nanergou | December 10, 2011, 5:23 pm
  8. Reblogged this on geniusstorm.

    Posted by markedmovement | December 28, 2012, 10:37 pm


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