I will never forget sitting with Elijah when I started school last year. As a fifth grader, he didn’t understand the concept of multiplication.
I started at the beginning, I taught him that any number multiplied by zero is zero. Then I taught him that any number multiplied by one is that number, and one group of five or five groups of one is five, and so on. I didn’t make judgments, I never made him feel like it was his fault. Eventually, he started getting it. He knew I invested in his learning, so he became an investor as well. Soon, Elijah was bragging to the other teachers, “I know beating!”
That was when it shocked me: Many of our students suffer from low academic self-esteem, which has been dramatically worsened by the experience of the past two years. We have fifth graders who have never had a project where they have to choose a topic or topic that they are excited about. I’m not interested in pointing fingers or blaming, but I’m not willing to accept that.
This phenomenon is not just a byproduct of the epidemic. It is a more important issue of how we choose to engage students in underserved communities. Access to high-quality instruction can change the course of these students. However, we cannot continue to operate on the deficit model as we believe that they will achieve success if the students work harder. If they are unsuccessful, we need to recheck the “work”, not just the student. We have to start by finding ways to build their self-confidence.
The roots of low academic self-esteem
I am a fifth grade instructional instructor at Title 1 School. Our student population is 78% black and 21% Hispanic. Even before the pandemic, our students were struggling; Less than 10% of our new babies demonstrated the expected skills, including social and emotional development, language development, and communication. This is the starting point from which our teachers begin their educational support for students.
As an Instructional Coach, I work with all teachers across the classroom to improve practices that will help our students grow. When the pandemic forced us to close our school buildings, we introduced distance learning, but we mostly taught on black screens. I don’t like the term “learning loss” because it fails to capture the fact that students cannot lose something they didn’t have before. Because of the pandemic, students have not been exposed to the academic concepts they would normally learn during the regular school year. Many of our fifth graders have not received uninterrupted term instruction since third grade. We cannot focus our efforts on re-teaching. We need to find new and better ways to speed up learning, but no one person can achieve this alone. We all have a role, students included.
The power of the student’s voice
The students who need the most care and support are often not given the agency and authority to communicate their education in ways that are beneficial to improving their academic achievement. The Democratic Teaching Framework provides equity-conscious educators with a path to engage these students—despite all other challenges—by creating a more inclusive space with shared authority.
If there was ever a time to embrace shared authority in our classrooms, now is the time. Teachers are overburdened: 77% of teachers work more today than last year, while 60% say they enjoy their jobs less. At the same time, students no longer practice discussing social situations with their peers. Sharing authority and encouraging students to help others learn can be an excellent way to build those skills faster—and have the added benefit of strengthening the connection to learning.
For example, every classroom needs rules and procedures; Otherwise, the class can become disruptive and devoid of academic discourse, discussion, and discovery. Unfortunately, many teachers are reluctant to give students a voice or share their authority, particularly in classroom management. But using the STEM Ed Innovator’s Democratic STEM Ed Innovator framework, we might ask students to create a classroom culture. What are the rules and how do we develop an accountability structure? Now, if a problem arises, we can say to the students, “You made the rules, and you broke them. What are the consequences of this action?”
By trusting students to create and enforce those rules themselves, we give them permission to take responsibility for their own actions and behavior. And in my experience, ownership of their behavior is directly related to ownership of their learning.
Students need more than one shared authority in the classroom. They need an opportunity to connect their learning to their lives. It is not the presentation of information that leads to true learning and growth, but the application of knowledge. For example, we can tell students the science behind the weather, but there is no guarantee that they will learn the content. But let’s say we give them weather widgets, ask them to choose what interests them, and let them create their own model. In this case, they can determine the meaning of the tool, identify the areas around them where it can be useful, and determine how useful the weather forecast is. Then learning becomes an active event, not a passive event.
The transition to the democratization of the classroom is more than a shift in practice. It’s a shift in mentality. It takes time, practice, and support to reach perfection, but it brings benefits. These benefits are not abstract. It relates to the immediate challenges we all face. The democratization of classrooms creates capacity for teachers, which leads to more meaningful connections between students and staff; Most importantly, it builds students’ academic confidence. Students like Elijah who are confident and connected with their learning and their teachers will be prepared for the challenges ahead.
Now is the time to give them a say in how and what they learn by democratizing the classroom.