Students as coteachers

In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, my man Chris Emdin writes:

Coteaching is a natural outgrowth of the educational cypher. Ideally, coteaching is implemented in the classroom after a cycle of cogen sessions has taken place with a group of students….Cogen participants are more amenable to putting themselves out on a limb fot the sake of further improving classroom instruction. (p. 93)

I have more or less adopted Emdin’s model for cogenerative dialogues these last two years. In doing so, coteaching with students has always been on my mind. It’s a natural progression for students to go from discussing and critiquing the class to taking the helm and being the change they wish to see. Positioning myself as a coteacher alongside my students has been a primary goal for my cogens since I started them. I achieved that goal for the first time this week.

I played around with the idea last year during remote learning, but I think I planted the seed a couple of months ago with this year’s first cohort of cogen students. I was preparing one of my hallmark assignments and they helped me revise it. It was an interesting and worthwhile venture, but I noticed afterward that the students had merely helped me plan the assignment — I didn’t get out of the way and let them enact it. Don’t get me wrong, their planning was new and critical in the development of the cogen’s work. But it would have been better if, instead of me, the students rolled out the assignment to the class. They knew the assignment well and could speak to it, but I gave them no airtime to present it to the class. Noticing this, I was encouraged to go a step further with the next cohort of students: design a lesson with them and coteach it.

When I approached the students about the idea of coteaching, they were on board. As Emdin suggests, I think their willingness to boldly engage in coteaching was a direct consequence of their involvement in the cogen and how it has positioned them as change agents. Having never cotaught with students before and wanting to privilege their ideas, I encouraged them to decide the topic and format of the lesson.

What did they choose? Math Bingo.

A game! I was excited. So were they. We spent the next few cogen sessions planning it out. I showed them a Bingo template and sample problems. We discussed flow and logistics and consulted on timing. I was nervous, but we were ready.

The game was originally planned for one day, but ended up needing two. We finished it this week. Five cogen students cotaught my three Regents classes. Overall, it went smoothly. My coteachers led the class through the game — they floated to assist students, called on students to respond, and kept everything organized. I stayed mostly in the background, anchoring myself to some of my most struggling students. I would occasionally nod to my coteachers indicating that I thought it was time to move on to the next problem. Without even knowing it, I guess you can say we adopted the “One teach, one assist” coteaching model. We played off each other well.

Two cogens (standing near Smartboard) students coteaching in period 3.

On the exit ticket, there was plenty of positive feedback. When asked about one aspect of the activity they liked, students wrote things such as, “It was something to have fun with and learn at the same time,” “We worked together,” and “It was fun competing with one another.” The constructive feedback came in the form of things like, “Maybe try and fit more problems,” “It felt kind of slow,” and “Give us more time for the problems.”

My cogen met two days after the lesson and we spent the majority of our time reflecting on how the lesson went. I asked my coteachers to attend, if they were able (they had already selected their replacements for the cogen). Three of my five coteachers joined us.

We agreed that Bingo was a nice escape from what we usually do — the break from the norm was appreciated by all. The students liked the diversity of the problems too; they got to review many key ideas from the current unit in a game format. I heralded the time I spent helping weaker students as a major achievement of the lesson; having coteachers freed me up to work closely with those who needed me most.

While there was copious amounts of positive energy about the lesson, we knew it could be improved. To help with timing, which was highlighted on the exit tickets, the cogen agreed that we should have paid more attention to the details of the game (some problems needed less time than others, for example, and we didn’t have rewards for winners). We also admitted that I should have helped my coteachers gain a deeper understanding of the problems before we played. This would have equipped the coteachers to better help their peers during the game. It would have also helped with pacing. In the end, when I asked if they would want to play again, the cogen’s answer was unanimous and enthusiastic: YES!

In the days leading up to the lesson, I went back and reread the “Coteaching” chapter in White Folks, from which the above quote was taken. Despite a year and a half of cogening, relinquishing my status and upending my classroom’s power dynamic would be hard. I needed to steal some of Emdin’s confidence. Interestingly, when I first read the chapter many years ago, it felt unnatural and impractical. The idea of coteaching with students was ambitious, but too much so. Looking back now, I simply wasn’t ready. This week, I found myself reading it with a fine-tooth comb. I pocketed advice and identified personal weaknesses that might prevent me from embodying my new role as coteacher. It couldn’t have been more useful.

All my previous cogens and my rereading must have worked because during the lesson I felt something shift and click into place. It was magical. Coteaching with my students felt organic and necessary. It felt like a practice that should have been happening all along.


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