The Incredible Benefits of Letting Students Drive Their Own Learning
When my children were small, they loved the book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” by Mo Willems. In the book, a persistent pigeon begs, with increasing intensity, to drive a bus. As he pleads, children reading along with the story are meant to say “No” over and over again, thus reinforcing the concept for small children that there are limits, and that perhaps letting a pigeon drive a bus might be as foolhardy as letting a child eat napkins for dinner. In other words, we have to learn to accept the concept of No.
As a teacher, I’ve always disagreed with denial as a pathway to education. In my experience, kids are all too familiar with No, which is why they grow to resent it and spend their lives saying Yes to all sorts of things they should leave well enough alone. From the teen agreeing with a friend that driving drunk is no big deal to the overachiever who never turns down an extra-curricular only to find herself anxiety-ridden and unsure how to cope with too much on her plate, saying Yes can be a major problem.
In my experience, kids are all too familiar with No, which is why they grow to resent it and spend their lives saying Yes to all sorts of things they should leave well enough alone
In classrooms, teachers are taught to set limits through routines and structures, and that’s absolutely fine if the limits don’t veer off into hyper-controlling classroom processes. When the teacher voice of No becomes too loud, students turn on us and begin saying Yes in unproductive ways. That’s why the best way to reach kids is by letting them drive the bus.
About 15 years ago, the creative writing teacher at the school where I was working left the profession, providing an opening for a new instructor. I had no background in creative writing; all I knew was that it was a class free of curriculum restrictions and standardized tests. When I went to my department chair and begged for the class, she gave it to me almost right away. What followed was a semester of alternating panic and exhilaration as, for the first time, I navigated teaching a class that had no curriculum map.
Having been a rules-driven teacher for my entire career, I felt as though I were losing control of the situation at times. The class was too unstructured, too loose for someone as organized as I was. Sure, the kids were enjoying themselves, but were they learning anything? In those first few months, I alternated between joy at hearing what teenagers were creating when given the freedom, and worry that I wasn’t using the word No enough.
A few months went by and something magical began to happen. With the freedom to write what they pleased, kids began to blossom in front of me. A quiet kid who never made eye contact with anyone wrote a brilliant horror story that terrified everyone, myself included. From that moment on, he was a hero. He took my class for three years, becoming an outgoing role model for others to emulate. Another student, a girl struggling with recovery from drug addiction, spent the first month of my class scrolling through her Twitter feed and ignoring everyone. But slowly, she picked up her pen. Bit by bit, she wrote about her lack of academic identity and how she would never go to college. Eventually, she found her voice, became the editor-in-chief of the school literary magazine; she is now a drug-free college graduate.
In a world of Yes, magic happens. Students create, they laugh, they love to learn.
It’s not just one class, or one school. As the years pass, and as I’ve replicated the class in another school, each group of adolescents has become a family. Our classroom identity is based on the knowledge that since we write every day together, we are all writers. Each semester I teach creative writing, and each semester, miracles happen. It’s not just because students are given freedom, or that they have a teacher who likes to say Yes (with appropriate limits, of course). It’s because they are driving the bus.
As a veteran English teacher (and now a specialist in my school system), I teach a lot of different classes. While most of them don’t afford the same freedom as creative writing, I have learned that the best way to make sure that students want to do the work is to build the relationship, to make sure they know why the work matters and to show them how to drive classroom success so that they can own their learning.
When we surrender rigidity and learn to trust our kids, we realize how little control we had to begin with, and how much talent we were brushing aside by saying No. In a world of Yes, magic happens. Students create, they laugh, they love to learn. They grow. And as we watch them, we whisper it with them: Yes.