The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Learning to Work Independently

One of my favourite quotations about education comes from American educator and essayist Elbert Hubbard. I first came across it when I was a teenager and delivered newspapers in the morning. After finishing my paper route, I would open up to the comics and puzzles section of the paper and, alongside my older brothers and my mother, would race to finish the puzzles. There were three of them each day: the crossword puzzle, the “cryptoquote,” and the jumble. Most people are familiar with newspaper crossword puzzles. They have been a mainstay of the medium for at least one hundred years. The jumble was a collection of five groups of letters that had to be unscrambled and then there would be a final clue that used letters from the first five clues. I am pretty good at these, but my favourite was always the cryptoquote.

The concept was fairly straightforward: there would be some famous quotation that was changed into different letters so that each letter represented another. (For example, the M in the puzzle would actually be an H, the R would be an E, and the B would be the T. So BMR was actually “the.”) Anyway, it was in one of these cryptoquotes that I came across this statement from Mr. Hubbard:

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.

For some reason, that struck me as incredibly profound. It is also a much simpler way of saying what I often tell my students my job is: my job is to help them learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn. In other words, teaching is all about guiding students along the path of becoming independent thinkers and independent doers.

This isn’t as easy as one would think, as my father-in-law, a college professor, will attest. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try my hardest to have a positive impact on my students in this area!

I give them time each day to work independently. For the first half of the year, this time has been very teacher-directed: journal writing in the morning, math practice before lunch, reading at the end of the day. I give the task and they do it. But that’s very tiring for me and it doesn’t create the independence in my students that I am hoping for. It also means that I hear, at least 20 times a day, this statement/question: “Mr. Valencic, I’m done; what do I do now?”

Repeating the question back doesn’t help much. Even when I say, “Okay, you’re done, what do you do now?” it always takes a few moments before I get a hesitant reply about reading or writing.

The thing is, I am absolutely okay with my students reading or writing if they are done with their other work, but I want them to think about activities that are more specifically related to the area of study at the time. If we are doing math, I want them to find meaningful math activities to do; if we are doing science or social studies, I want them to be able to learn more about the topic, whether by reading other selections we have in the classroom related to the topic or by researching online. If we are working on writing, I don’t want them to ever think, “Oh, I’m done!” Rather, I want them to think, “Okay, I am done with this draft; now I should revise it or some other piece of writing.”

Some teachers have “I’m Finished” sticks in their rooms, which have possible activities for students to do. Others have a chart posted in the classroom. I don’t have either of these yet, but I want to work on having them soon, because I have a feeling that they will help my students think about related activities that will allow them to work independently and select new tasks when one is completed. Also, it will cut down on the number of times I have to remind them that sitting at their desks and staring at the ceiling is probably not the best option available!

So what do you do to help your students work independently? What has worked for you in your classroom or in your home? I’d love to hear some suggestions!


One response

  1. Pingback: Relationships, Trust, and Community |

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