In a guest blog, high school ELA teacher Paul Brown reflects on what happened in his classroom when he stopped planning for his students and started planning with his students.

As teachers, we often base our curriculum on the mandates given from our district and administration, the focal points of our departments, and our own understanding and interpretation of state standards. The direction of the classroom content is also, to a lesser degree, driven by our personalities and personal preferences that work in concert with the rigorous schedules we all must keep. In this thought-provoking piece on the need for self-reflection, Val Brown suggests that educators think about how our actions can and do contribute to the failures of students.

Previously, when it came time to plan what I was going to teach in my ELA class, I gave no thought about the views and perspectives of my students. I considered the desires of their parents even less. This year I decided to try something new: I asked them both.

Why not ask students what they want to learn? How much more would students buy-in if they actually sat in the passenger seat, not the back, and had a hand in determining the direction this car was headed? I surveyed my students with the following items:

  • What do you hope to learn this year in English III?  
  • What will you need to do in order to be successful?
  • What will I, your teacher, need to do to help you this year?
  • What should kids in our class be doing to make sure our class runs as smoothly as possible?
  • Our classroom should be ____ every day.
  • School is important because ____.

Two weeks later I asked similar questions of the parents who attended our high school’s Open House. I tried this based on a suggestion from the “local PD specialist” in my house, known as my wife. I did this just to see what the parents thought, but I had no intention to act on their responses. The results were as astounding as those of the students. The fascinating part of it all is that both groups offered similar ideas related to improving student writing, having student thinking challenged, and making sure that I planned my lessons well. My eyes were opened to the fact that with these results I had the opportunity to redesign my classroom with a curriculum that catered to not only the needs, but the wants of most of my students.

I came to realize that students, parents, and teachers are much more aligned with goals for learning than many teachers think or believe. Asking students and parents what they wanted was something I decided to try and the outcome made me listen and adjust. I was able to listen to what my students wanted to learn as well as their level of accountability in the process. Also, I could adjust my lesson planning methods and strategies to fit this year’s students to incorporate more of what they desired to learn.

The answers students gave pushed me to listen to their voices. I heard they wanted to do everything from being able to “understand classmate’s thoughts, values, and opinions”, to learning “vocabulary and literary devices.” The learners in my classroom want to be taught proper ways to write, listen, read, speak, and think. I actually left myself open to immature responses that would potentially be of no help at all, but this was not the case. 

Parent responses centered on helping students “improve their ability to analyze literature” and to aid in pushing students to “grow in their love for reading.” I found that the replies from parents supported what their kids already mentioned and, in terms of curriculum planning, all I had to do was make sure I incorporated strategies to help facilitate “using correct grammar and building vocabulary,” or “to help improve writing skills.”

Inquiring of our students what they desire to learn can continually improve our classroom practice, and make for more successes with fewer struggles. Through this process I discovered that instead of wondering what students want to know, I should just ask them.

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