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December 6, 2021

Classroom Conversations / The Power of Student Assistants

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Instructional Strategies
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The Power of Student Assistants (thumbnail)
Credit: SOLSTOCK / iSTOCK
We've all had moments that have split our careers into before and after. Some of these moments make us such better teachers in the after that we wonder how we ever managed to do anything in the before.
One such moment in my teaching career was when I walked into my former colleague Zac's room and saw the warm way that his students spoke to each other. Sure, in my class the students enjoyed my charisma. But in his, they seemed to care about each other, and I wanted that. So I made up my mind to do all I could to replicate his "classroom of love." More recently, I watched my colleague Amal describe the way her students use physical notebooks in this digital world. Ever since then, I've been an unabashed proponent of handwritten notetaking in my class.
But few moments have led to a more seismic change in my teaching practice than when, more than a decade ago, my principal, Chris Lehmann, came back from a conference with the idea to start a Senior Assistant Teaching program at our school. In this program, select high school seniors could forfeit a free period and be rostered into freshman classes to play a role similar to college teaching assistants. These seniors would also attend a semi-regular meeting as a cohort to share best teaching practices, not unlike the seminars from our student teaching days.

I am a slow adapter to many fresh initiatives, but this one had me at hello.

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My mind was spinning before Chris was even halfway through his proposal. "These seniors could help (re)design fun projects! They could coach kids on their writing! They could judge our poetry slams!" I told him. I imagined (correctly, it turns out) that the experience would inspire some of our seniors to consider careers in education. I am a slow adapter to many fresh initiatives, but this one had me at hello. I volunteered immediately, calling each of my mentees among that year's rising seniors that same afternoon to blurt out, "Hey, come teach with me next year!"
Many years later, it's hard to imagine teaching without my student assistants, or SATs (we've expanded the program to both seniors and juniors). These 17- and 18-year-olds—who might otherwise come down with "senioritis"—have instead become some of the primary engines behind my younger students' learning. Here's how the process tends to work.

Taking Ownership

When every year's roster of teaching assistants comes out, I eagerly check which mentees requested to work with me. Though sometimes these "applicants" are my highest-scoring students, just as often they are kids who just enjoyed the reading in my classes, or the discussions, or the writing, or our good vibes. Excellent grades are not a prerequisite. (Positive energy, however, very much is.)
As summer wanes, I shoot each of them an email about the books that we'll be reading in our ELA class, so that they can either refresh their memory or read them for the first time. During the first days of school, I have between one and three assistants who I introduce to the younger kids, along with any student teachers, as members of the class "teaching team." While the younger students read the course syllabus, the SATs read their own document, which describes their responsibilities, my expectations, and some opportunities for going above and beyond, like teaching full lessons. We have a quick meeting after that first class to answer any questions.
Many of the teacher assistants' early responsibilities remove the daily minutia from my plate. They take attendance. They keep the class's online notebook tracker up to date. They take notes on the board so that I don't have to pause interactions with students to do so. Before the class moves into its first texts, I teach the assistants how to make a five-question short answer quiz. This is usually pretty easy, since most students remember taking similar quizzes when they were in my class. From then on, the assistants write their class quiz questions (which I check the night before), administer each quiz, and then grade them (which I teach them how to do correctly). They often take proud ownership over this slice of the class, one that I find tedious but necessary, and infuse the moment with energy. And I have more time to plan, or grade, or pull students aside to help them.

Creating Trusted Coaches

But having assistants is about so much more than reshuffling the stuff I'm least excited about. My students do a lot of writing projects, and assistants are immediate sounding boards who, with my help, develop into trusted writing coaches. As students are writing, the assistants circulate and ask, "How's your story going?" (I train the younger students to never answer, "Fine," but instead describe something they are working on.) There are similar interactions in our school's science classes, where assistants are encouraged to ask students to describe their hypothesis during experiments; and in our math classes, when assistants ask students to describe their current approach to solving a problem.
In my 32-student public school classroom, the queue of students who are actively asking for my help can be so long that it's impossible to attend to students who aren't. Student assistants mitigate that problem and can describe for me, in detail, what they've seen in an underclassman's writing after class. This focused attention often leads to assistants investing so much time in the underclassman's success that I actually have to tell them, "You are not responsible for helping the kids on your own time. This includes helping them online and during your lunches. Never assume that I expect you to donate your time outside of class to helping them." (I like to tell the younger students that their assistants "turn back into pumpkins" after class, and to leave them be.)
The casual mentor/mentee relationships that form between the juniors and seniors in the program and the freshmen and sophomores who work with them makes the whole school feel more connected.

Developing Role Models

There are many more opportunities for student assistants who are really invested. With coaching, they can lead discussions or teach a whole lesson. Back in the day, one SAT who is now a teacher even designed and taught a mini unit that complimented our text. But, by far, the student assistant program's biggest contribution to my class has been increasing the opportunity to model productive habits of discourse. Assistants raise their hands in class discussions to not only share opinions, but to model how to express disagreement or respectfully ask a classmate to clarify their point. More formally, assistants will sit in a "fishbowl" and discuss a prompt while underclassmen take notes on their conversation. It's one thing for me to tell my students how to productively discuss an issue that requires vulnerability, or humility, or patience; it's another thing to have a fellow student who is only a year or two older than them model it, then express how they'll be using these techniques for the rest of their high school careers.
As I've argued before, our students today do not have enough quality conversational role models. A student assistant program is a practical system that fills our classroom with influential and inspiring peers. This benefit alone makes working alongside your students in this capacity an option worth exploring.

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