I spent the day visiting Freedom Prep HS in Memphis today. There were lots of highlights, but I wanted to write about one classroom in particular- and specifically about a single phrase the teacher used that was simple, brilliant and useful to others.
The teacher was Torian Black. He teaches 9th grade African-American History. During his lesson he gave students a variety of reading and writing tasks to complete in groups. The tasks were fairly complex and afforded students a significant amount of autonomy so it was important that they listen carefully and get the directions right. Torian was careful to make sure everyone was listening at the outset. His few gentle reminders to ‘make sure you’re listening’ were accompanied by a warm and gracious smile. This not only communicated trust and caring but confidence. As a result things were pretty crisp and class time was spent on the activities as planned.
But here was my favorite part. As he reviewed a portion of the directions, Torian said, “No need to track me; you can just read along on the page in front of you.”
Later he used that phrase again. He summarized the directions and simply said in a warm and quiet voice, “No need to track me.” So students read along.
I love that phrase… “No need to track me.” It does so many things at once.
First it reminds students that there is an intact expectation in the classroom that listeners track speakers. The phrase also shows intentionality on Torian’s part. A really useful rule of thumb for managing a classroom is: Because you can does not mean you must. Could Torian enforce the expectation that students track him while he gave direction? Yes. Must he? No. And in fact he wanted them reading the directions not looking at him in this case. Or perhaps he wanted to give them an inch of extra flexibility because they were so on-point. He gave them permission not to follow the default while reminding them that it still the default- a perfect and elegant way to prevent ambiguity. Plus making an exception here shows students that-when Mr. Black asks you to do something it is intentional and carefully considered- not just a reflex. But he also reminded them that the lack of tracking was intentional and not an accident. The system and the exception coexisted happily.
It was a beautiful and useful phrase, especially because it was a 9th grade class- the transition year from the more structured world of middle school to the increased autonomy and responsibility of high school.
There are a lot of classrooms where a bit of flexibility in the expectations can take things off the rails. We’ve all heard the teacher shouting, “Well if that’s the way you react to a little freedom, I won’t bother anymore.” It’s important for students to be able to earn greater flexibility and be successful at it, though. That way they earn more, so a phrase that allows both flexibility and consistency at the same time is gold and I thought I’d share it.
Thanks to Torian and everyone at Freedom prep for letting me wander through your classes today.