Just Listen to the Kids

I always think of myself as a teacher who listens to my students. As a teacher who has a democratic classroom. As a teacher who is student-centered. But this was thrown in my face when I had a heart-to-heart with my students about our math class. To be frank, math workshop just wasn’t working. For me. For them. We all felt as if we were just following a routine without a bigger sense of purpose. As one student said, “It just feels like a checklist of stuff…but it doesn’t connect to the real world like our other subjects. I mean…what is the purpose of some of these things?”


Now, I have taught my students to always ask about the purpose of each assignment. I am working on sharing with them what I think the purpose is…but they are tasked with checking me on this. With stopping me and asking, “What is the purpose of this assignment? Why are we doing this? How will this help us?” And while I was able to explain how each assignment on our math menu was helpful, I couldn’t even explain to myself how they all fit together.

I had decided to try something new with math menus. I had read about them. Other teachers were trying them out. They seemed like a fun way to differentiate math.

And it hadn’t worked.

And the kids decided to try something new. They decided to speak up and tell me how they really felt. They decided to be open and explain why they were feeling bored. Or frustrated. Or overwhelmed. They were tentative at first. They hesitated with every word. “Well, it’s just that maybe it kind of seems a little tiny bit not interesting…” You know the deal. Sure, I was telling them to be open but what would my reaction really be if they shared their true feelings? But they took that risk anyway. And you could see them all holding their breath when that first bold kid finally said, “I am just SO over math menus.”

I stared at them all, sighed and said, “Me too!.” The room broke out in relieved laughter.

We spent the next half hour being specific in our commentary. What did we like in math workshop? What didn’t we like? What kinds of things did we want to do during math class? How did we want to learn new concepts or review old ones? And boy, did I listen, and write down notes furiously, and listen again.

Is math workshop perfect now? No. Are we all super engaged every single second? Not yet. But are we discussing different assignments, tasks and activities together to process what works, what doesn’t work and what we can change? Yes.

My eyes have been opened to the fact that while I plan with my students in mind – reviewing my anecdotal notes, student surveys about their interests and passions and student reflections on lessons and units, I do not actually plan with my students.  I plan for them.

With and for are such different words.  Actually, they are different paradigms.  And I have a lot of reflecting to do about where I am now – and where I want to be – between those paradigms.

3 Comments on “Just Listen to the Kids”

  1. Kenny McKee


    Great post! As a literacy coach, I invite students to give me real feedback every time I teach or co-teach. Not being with students every day all day, it is so important for continuing to grow my practice. But when I had my own classroom, I think I was scared sometimes to “get real” like that. Bravo to you and your students for having discussions that are making all of you better!

  2. dahlia

    Just listening to them discuss what they need and want seems so simple but I have been guilty lately of getting their feedback AFTER I have already planned something rather than asking them to plan the unit with me. I think that is the biggest shift for me. Plan with them rather than for them…this is going to be hard!

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