creating a student-led classroom

During this past school year, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom. This focus grows out of my own ideologies as a teacher, the evaluation system of my district, as well as the professional development our school has been receiving.


One of my goals as a teacher has always been to transfer the locus of control from me to my students. I find myself aligning with a constructivist model in my classroom, where the students are in charge of their own learning and I act as a facilitator. In this system, my students are as much the teacher as I am. This is critical for the population that I teach: a student body that is used to be underestimated and overlooked. By organizing my classroom into a place where they take leadership, the routines and community of our classroom operate from an asset-based lens–a lens that builds them up and elicits their strengths as opposed to magnifying their weaknesses.

Naturally, because students feel believed in and entrusted, they rise to the occasion. They take ownership of their learning, of their writing, of their discussions, of their reading. Thus, a student-led classroom breeds students who are more engaged. On any given day, I have at least 95% engagement in my classroom. And not compliance-engagement, where students do what they’re supposed to do passively to avoid consequences, but active, energetic, purposeful engagement.

But a student-led classroom is not just about what I believe…it is about preparing my students for college. A student-led classroom inherently creates a soil where solid and healthy trees of rigor can grow, and students climb these trees into the sky of their future. By transferring more of the responsibility to students, they are forced to be meta-cognitive…one of the highest skills in terms of rigorous thinking. They also must become self-advocates. Both meta-cognition and self-advocacy are essential skills for college learning, and so a student-led classroom eases the difficulties of transitioning to college.

Lastly, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom this year because it aligns with our district evaluation as well as our school PD. To be distinguished in a majority of our evaluation system’s categories, the ownership lies in the hands of the students…not the teachers. The students are evaluating each other, building the objectives, applying their learning, checking each other for understanding, teaching each other, keeping each other in check, etc. And being the perfectionist I am, I want those distinguished ratings! And so I must not only push myself, but my students to be the best “teacher” possible.

This has not only been something on my mind, but on the mind of my colleagues as well. One of our PD approaches this year has been learning labs, where we visit a host teacher’s classroom and debrief together. In each of those, our focus questions have revolved around building student capacity:

How can I vary teacher CFUs according to content target to foster student self-checks for understandings?

How can I build higher level (according to Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions from students that elicit thoughtful upper level responses from peers and between peers?

By focusing on these questions, we read, planned, and reflected on how to increase rigor of questioning by transferring leadership to students–a critical component of a student-led classroom. When I hosted the learning lab, I worked with a colleague who suggested adding a peer evaluation component to my planned lesson. I did, and the level of thinking and evaluation it elicited from students was inspiring! (See this website for the lesson plan and graphic organizer I used to implement this peer evaluation.)

The many reasons I want to create a student-led classroom matter very little if I cannot actually implement it on the ground. Here are the strategies I have used to transfer leadership to my students:

  • Asking quality questions and teaching my students to do that. As my boss said, this is “making the question do the work.” I used AVID strategies to teach my students the language and process of quality questioning. That became a foundation for my questioning, as well as their own.
  • Student-led discussions. I modeled effective discussion leader practices. I pointed them out. Then I handed that role over to my students. Here are resources for this. Part of this piece is 100% participation…no one can hide in my class. In fact, it’s often a part of grades for students to call out their quiet and hidden peers.
  • Student evaluations of each other. We wrote papers. I then showed AP scores on those same prompts. They used this to score each other’s papers and give feedback. I was no longer the grader…they became responsible for that evaluation piece.
  • Student feedback to each other. I expected students to give feedback to other students during discussion, such as correcting verbs, upgrading vocabulary, adding details, asking probing questions. See resource for how I taught them to probe each other to increase depth.
  • Socratic seminars. Stay tuned for a 3 part blog series regarding how I make these work for my students! For right now however, I cannot say enough about how this practice transfers ownership to students!
  • Structures. A student-led classroom has an innumerable amount of structures, routines, and procedures that are hidden, but essential. They are the foundations! For example, students must have rubrics and models to give quality feedback to each other.
  • Teacher language. The way I talk to my students, about my students, from day one, establishes whether or not I will be able to transfer leadership to students. Therefore, I am a broken record: “Listen to your colleagues.” “We honor all voices in here.” “Talk to each other, not me.” “There are 24 teachers in this room…I am only one of them.” Language like this converts students from passive unbelievers to active owners of their own leadership qualities.

Did it work this year? Yes. Did it work perfectly? No. It is a work in progress. But these are some moments that I am proud of and that highlight the student-led classroom I’ve created and its many benefits:

  • I hosted a PD for my colleagues on how to facilitate Socratic seminars.
  • I scored 7’s–distinguished–in several LEAP categories.
  • On my student perception survey: 97% of students said “my teacher encourages me to share my ideas” and 100% agreed that “my teacher makes sure we treat each other with respect.”
  • Feedback from when I hosted the learning lab: “a classroom where the students both ask and answer the questions”; “students conversation at table did not follow a protocol but all students participated”; “students shared leadership roles”

Of course, there’s more to do. Next year, here is what I want to do to strengthen the level of student leadership and ownership in my room:

  • Supports. I have built up quite a repertoire of student supports and scaffolds, but I need to do a better job of introducing them earlier and pulling them away as the year progresses. The goal is for the student to not only not need those, but to feel confident without them. I know in college they will not have those, and I will be heart-broken if I handicap students so that they are less prepared for the rigor, intensity, and individualism of college.
  • Sequencing. To meet the aforementioned growth area, I need to re-sequence my texts. Right now, they progress to the most complex and difficult, but I think I need to rearrange that so I send them off to college and the AP exam feeling confident and prepared. This goes back to the structure piece I mentioned earlier. I cannot create a student-led classroom unless I have organized the content in such a way that fosters that.
  • Early embedding of clear structures. Every year I feel I waste so much time getting to know the students and figuring out systems that will best support them. I need to do this earlier and earlier each year, so that I can immediately start expecting them to take leadership in our classroom. This directly correlates to one of the challenges of a student-led classroom: how much time it takes. It’s much easier for me to just tell students something, and it’s quicker. But to establish the structures, then let students struggle until mastery, is much more time-intensive. I know it is worth it, but it calls on me to be on my game much earlier in the year so as to minimize these transitions.

I want to conclude with a symbolic representation of two different classrooms:

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the spokes are independent of one another.

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the students are independent of one another.

Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

I do not want a classroom where I am the center. I want a classroom that is led by students, owned by students… but mostly loved by students.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: arrival journal: days five through seven – Life in the Dport
  2. Jamie Miller
    Apr 10, 2018 @ 09:07:34

    Hello Mary,
    I began my teaching just over a year ago. In the course of that time, I too have created a classroom culture much like yours. I have been invited to my district to conduct a professional development course of which I am doing called “When Students Become Teachers.” I would love to get more information from you on this fantastic concept. Please contact me if you have an opportunity. I cannot wait to learn more from you.

    2nd Grade Teacher



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