Student Teach-Ins: Centering Student Voices by Letting Go in the (History) Classroom
I’m a first-year high school history teacher trying to survive what was supposed to be a post-COVID year that is very much still weird. This has been particularly hard as someone who is a planner--I have seen a lot of my plans in the classroom fail this year. So, it has been a surprising process of discovery that in letting go of my plans in a small way, and opening up the classroom to more student choice (and hearing about their interests and voices), I have experienced a classroom win, huzzah!
In the fall semester, my focus was on survival, and the only curriculum question I was really asking myself was “what am I teaching in 15 minutes?” I was treading water from class to class and from day to day, with no hope of knowing what was going to happen in a week, let alone a month. However, with some time to reflect over winter break, as well as four months of classroom experience under my belt, in the second semester I have been able to do a little more forward thinking. Since I knew (roughly) what topics we would be covering each week in my US History class for the semester, I created a grid with the broad topic for each week and asked each of my students to sign up for a “student teach-in.”
For the first 10 minutes of class, I hand the reins over to the appointed student who then teaches their peers (and me!) a lesson on ANYTHING related to the time period we are discussing that week. For example, during one of the weeks on the Depression and New Deal, a student taught the class about the way prohibition led to a rise in organized crime and, in response, contributed to the development and growth of the FBI, while another student provided insights on depression during the Depression, exploring psychiatry in the 1930s.
From a practical angle, the teach-ins mean there are 10-15 fewer minutes of each class that I need to plan most days. But that has proven to be the least of the joys after introducing this activity. In terms of my teaching pedagogy, I’ve been amazed at the upsides of letting go of the classroom and turning the mic over to my students. Before I get into that, however, a bit more about the structure.
Here, directly from the assignment, is what I ask of the students:
Sign up for a day to present, perhaps during a week we are covering something you are already interested in
Consult in a brief meeting with Dr. Rathe AT LEAST one week before your teaching day to go over your ideas for your class presentation
Create a short lesson plan to turn in the day of your presentation. Include, at a minimum, your:
Lesson Focus and Goals
Learning Objectives: what do you want your peers to know or understand from your lesson?
Plan for assessment
Do your research to make your lesson a reality! Create a PowerPoint, video, or other resource to share and some kind of assessment to gauge your peers’ learning
The assignment is deliberately unstructured because I want to give the students freedom to explore anything they might be interested in, and because I was uncertain how well I would be able to stick to the rough schedule I set for the entire term back in January. The more flexibility, the better.
Now to what I’ve observed since beginning this exercise. First, the students take this way more seriously than I had anticipated. I have loved learning more about them and their interests through their topic selection and their presentation styles. But most exciting--it has been so fun to engage with my students as experts in the classroom, switching up the staid teacher/ learner dynamic.
For the first week of presentations, I had not considered how students would engage with their peers while they were presenting, but after a quick class poll, they decided they wanted to take notes and raise their hand to ask questions during presentations. After the class agreed to these parameters, they’ve stuck with them, diligently taking notes on each presentation while being respectful and engaged.
Their engagement is helped by the fact that they have landed on some topics I would have never had the time (or know-how) to teach. For example, one student brought in her interest in architecture and described some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings from the 1940s. Another researched post-war fashion, presenting on Christian Dior’s “New Look” and going further, bringing in the backlash to this trend (which I’d never heard of before!). She had great images of the “Little Below the Knee Club” in Chicago protesting the return to long skirts as a sign that women were being pushed out of the labor force.
Beyond covering topics I would not typically teach, my favorite part of these student teach-ins is that I have the ability to refer back to the student teacher as the expert. For example, I can now use this presentation on the “Little Below the Knee Club” in the future when we discuss the feminist movement, pointing to a link between the immediate post-war cultural transformation and the more fully formed women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. And sometimes, the feedback loop is faster. In a class just this last week, a student taught us about JFK and some of his key moments in office, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It just so happened that later in class that day, I had planned to cover the same events, so I turned to the student, asking her to refresh her classmates’ memory on what she had already taught and then simply filled in with a few other details. This exercise has decentered myself as the source of knowledge in the classroom, instead making the students the experts.
In a course survey just before spring break, I asked students to reflect on what they thought was going well in class this semester. The question field was free-text entry, with no options to select from. I was pleasantly surprised that more than a quarter of students, 12 out of my 40, specifically noted that the teach-ins were their favorite thing. One student commented, “I actually really enjoy the student teach-ins because it introduces topics that aren't necessarily in the curriculum and is an engaging way to learn,” while another wrote, “I have enjoyed the classroom feeling and bonding with my classmates.”
Although I was initially overwhelmed by the task of identifying and organizing enough information to fill an 80 minute class period two to three times per week, it turns out that it’s not on me to do all of that work. I cannot recommend enough turning over some of your teaching to the students in your classrooms. At least in my experience, they have gotten more out of this activity than I could have imagined. And it has been a good reminder in my first year of teaching high schoolers to continue to take risks, including in who we define as experts in the room, with benefits for all. Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge describes, “Every time students teach their classmates, they are helping their peers to find their own authentic pathways to understanding… when we effectively leverage students’ talents for sharing their emerging understandings with other students, it not only enhances the quality of instruction but it also contributes to a sense of community.” What teacher doesn’t want to foster authentic understanding and classroom community? I encourage you, go forth and try out student-led teaching in your classrooms.
Currently in her first year of secondary school teaching, Caitlin Rathe has been exploring World History with 9th graders and U.S. History with 11th graders at an independent all-girls school. Her goal is to guide students in ‘thinking historically’ and examining the ways we in the present construct the past. Prior to this year, Caitlin received a PhD in US History from the University of California Santa Barbara where she learned about the history of food welfare programs in the U.S. She worked in university administration for three years before realizing, yes, she really did want to be a teacher. When not thinking about the classroom, Caitlin works as a producer/ archival researcher for podcasts about history, including LBJ and the Great Society, Nixon at War, and currently on Eclipsed. On the weekends, she is teaching herself to cook Indian food.
Ferlazzo, Larry. "Effective Ways Students Can Teach Their Classmates." Education Week, 21 November 2018.