more adolescents into learning by teaching me that
our students are important coworkers and should
be treated as such. Teachers spend more time with
our students than with our closest adult collaborators and thinking partners. Students’ capacity for
uncovering and building new knowledge is a vitally
Meeting and talking with Rolo opened me to
thinking about ways to tap into that capacity. My
students don’t set the curriculum, nor do they weigh
in on all the assignments or norms in our classroom.
But viewing schooling through a lens that values
students’ knowledge has been transformative for my
teaching—and for my students’ learning. Here are
some ways teachers and students can learn from one
Share Your Learning Journey
When Rolo suggested the “What’s in your head?”
task, he noted, “Sometimes you come into class and
things are bad [in your life]. But if you find your
head and it has things that keep you going, you
can remember why you are there. Remember you
have got a place there—and get your work done.”
That connection between a sense of belonging and
classroom performance resonated with me in my
first years of teaching. I began wondering about
engagement in learning contexts, particularly mandatory ones, and how to foster environments where
all of us could do our best work and grow.
One of the simplest things that helped me create
a motivating and engaging atmosphere in my
classroom was showing students my own learning—
even my learning about how to teach. I became
more public in modeling ways teachers improve
our practice—such as by explaining why I ask formative assessment questions or sharing with the
class what the results of formative assessments told
me about my instructional practices. Making these
behaviors and the thinking behind them explicit cost
me little time or energy. If we want our students to
take learning seriously, we need to show them that
teachers take our own learning seriously.
Check Out Your Assumptions
Uncovering the assumptions we make is a vital part
of becoming better teachers. I had no idea what Rolo
was going through when I first asked him why he
had checked out. Many of my assumptions about
students continue to be inaccurate at best, including
assumptions about what learning strategies will
be most effective—and why some strategies flop.
Questioning students directly helps. If I introduce
what seems to me like an engaging lesson and
students act restless or roll their eyes, I’ll stop,
acknowledge what I’m seeing, and ask, “What’s happening? What can we do to make this better?”
Ask Students in Many Ways
Students will share more of what you need to hear
if you encourage lots of voices and show clearly that
you value others’ perspectives on your work. I ask
for input in many formats: through writing, one-on-one conversations, whole-class discussions, and so
One format I love is panel discussion. During
lunch or after school, three or four students chat
with me about a question I have. In my first year
of teaching, one such panel—a successful English
language learner, a struggling student, and a young
student taking advanced courses—helped revamp
my classroom’s frustrating peer feedback cycles.
Building on one another’s ideas, these three told me
what was needed: very specific structures and guidelines that could be differentiated and that would
help students feel more comfortable giving one
another feedback. When I implemented their suggestions, the quality of peer feedback, and therefore of
students’ final work, improved dramatically.
Since my partnership with Rolo, I’ve continued to
turn to students as thinking partners, although now
I usually do so during class. After all, students have
firsthand knowledge and experience of my work.
Incorporating this knowledge into my practice has
made a powerful difference in my classroom. EL
1Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the lens of a
critical friend. Educational Leadership,
51( 2), 50.
Author’s note: All names are pseudonyms.
Kirstin J. Milks is a science teacher at Bloomington
High School South in Bloomington, Indiana, and a
fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.
““Our students are important coworkers and should be treated as such.