This Is Letting Go, and This Is Good: A Lesson from Minute Maid (And Megan Kortlandt!)

One of the joys of a rainy Saturday afternoon when all the work is caught up and the laundry rumbles around in the washer or dryer is stretching out on my couch for a little channel surfing. Usually, a commercial break means it’s time to change the channel, but last Saturday, the break began with a commercial I’d seen months ago and really loved, so I paused and watched it again:

Normally, my commercial tears are reserved for Hallmark masterpieces (grab some tissues before you click that link!), but this Minute Maid commercial got to me because it demonstrated something I’ve been trying to do–sometimes more successfully than others–all year: get out of the way of learning. 

I’m not a parent, but I think I can identify with the dad in the commercial. Life in the classroom is a lot like the little boy’s orange juice pour–it’s sometimes slow-going, often suspenseful, and, when it all works out, so satisfying and sweet.

But sometimes it’s SO. HARD. to watch the kids pour that juice! 

We could sweep in. We could prevent the mess. We could grab the glass or the carton or hold a hand to make sure that the pour isn’t too forceful or quick. We could take ourselves out of that tense moment and solve the problem or prevent the disaster. Identify the literary term at work. Give students a thesis for a paper. It would be so easy. Easy for us.

And that’s just it. What’s easy for us teachers in the short term makes things harder for students in the long run. Sooner or later, our students have to learn how to pour the orange juice by themselves. We have to get out of the way.  

Last week, Megan shared some ideas for de-centering the teacher in her Navigating Vulnerability mini-series. Her timing was perfect for me, because I found myself struggling with the urge to put myself back in the center in order to make everything go more smoothly (or at least feel like it was). Here are some of the ways that I, with Megan’s words in mind, tried to step away from the kitchen counter (so to speak). Following each step back is the next step I think I ought to take so that I’m really out of the way. 

Step Back #1: Swapping chapter questions for reading reflections

If you’ve taught a novel, at some point you may have assigned short answer questions to accompany each chapter as a way to check comprehension or determine if students have completed assigned reading. Reading three chapters and answering a few questions is how my ninth grade literature study began last month, until, after a reading check, I asked a few students, “Are these questions helping you?” and their blunt answer was “no.”

There may be a place for comprehension questions, but that place was not in this particular literature study. Truthfully, I was more interested in what my students were noticing about the text on their own–what repetition they observed, what transformations they saw in the main character. So I stopped making copies of chapter questions and started asking students to show that they had read by sharing their thoughts and reactions to the previous night’s chapters on an index card. Students stopped dreading the start of class and instead grew excited to discuss what they’d read with me and with each other. 

The Next Step: Student-composed reflection questions and/or class evaluation of chapter reflections

Once students wrote a chapter reflection, I picked it up and used it as a formative assessment, but I could put more of the learning in students’ hands by asking students to compose questions for their peers to answer or by sharing their reflections (or choosing a few to be shared anonymously) and talking with my class about what’s working and what might need some improvement. For example, does the reflection share specific details from the chapters? Does the reflection explain why a reader reacted so strongly to something that Holden Caulfield did or said?

Step Back #2: Letting students lead discussion

The Harkness method for discussion is still pretty new to me, and that limited knowledge makes me feel nervous whenever I use the strategy (I’m more comfortable with the Socratic method). But I think even a little knowledge can go a long way, and limited knowledge also leads to fewer rules and restrictions on this student-led discussion (for example, I didn’t grade the conversation as this was our first time trying the method. If you’re unfamiliar with the method, a quick Google search for “Harkness discussion” will share more than enough. Almost too much!) This discussion model de-centers the teacher and makes the students responsible for the synthesis that we teachers sometimes perform during whole class discussions

The two days my ninth grade students spent discussing our novel without much of my help were some of my favorite days of the semester. I marveled at the insightful questions students composed, the new leaders that emerged, the savvy observations students made, and the way that, once the responsibility for making sure that everyone was heard and all speakers supported their thoughts with evidence fell to them, students made all of that happen!

The Next Step: Make this a regular practice rather than a special lesson

I want generating questions, developing evidence-based responses, and conducting a respectful and engaging conversation to become part of the rhythm of our class so that more of our learning together is guided by students. Students should leave my class feeling confident leading or leaping into a discussion.

Strategy #3: Supply the spread but outsource the taste test

My seniors and I sped through our study of Death of a Salesman. I didn’t like our pacing, but it was what our schedule (a fast-approaching spring break and impending IB exams) demanded. As we quickly reached the end of the play, I fretted. Shouldn’t we have spent more time talking about stockings? And seeds? And The American Dream? Identifying conflicts in the play? Marking out its rising action and climax?

Yes and no. Death of a Salesman is 70 years old this year. Plenty of people have already written about it. So rather than regenerating old knowledge, why not challenge students to synthesize their experience and understanding of the play with what other great artists have experienced and understood?

I gathered a list of useful databases and search terms for Death of a Salesman and let seniors loose on the internet with the goal of finding three sources that could help them think about the play as an actor, director, playwright, historian, or critic (they chose their roles). Today, they will be guest panelists in a commemorative discussion of the play, sharing insights from a particular expert angle. We’re all feeling a little nervous about this new approach, but I know it’s making them pursue and own their learning rather than waiting to receive it from me.

The Next Step: Stop myself before I step forward

I gave lots of hints and nudges as I observed students searching for Death of a Salesman sources. Sometimes, I probably gave too many hints and pointed a student in my favorite direction rather than letting them carve their own path. Step away from that counter, Ms. Jochman! 

The Dance of Letting Go

For each step back I took during a week, I know there was another time when I took a step forward–getting too involved in a paper during a conference and pointing out all the ways to fix it; reshaping a thesis when a student had approached with a simple question about sentence structure; giving my students options for a writing assignment and the developing rigid rubrics for evaluation–and so I wonder: how many “perfect pours” did I deny my students?

I can’t know the answer to that question, but what I can do is keep trying to hang back, wait, and watch as students’ own instinct and ingenuity takes over. I can supply the refrigerator, the carton, the glass. But I have to let them pour.

What’s the best way you’ve “let go and let learn” in your classroom? Have any questions for my “Writing Our Way In” series? Please share your ideas on Twitter @MsJochman, in the comments on this post, or through the Google form posted below. 


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