Spheres of Influence

It happens every year it seems. I attend an inspiring professional development session and nurture big dreams about how I can incorporate these ideas/practices at my school. Big dreams. It will bring people together, inspire students to guide their own learning, create an atmosphere of sharing and trust… Then school starts and the ideas must be grounded in the reality of what is actually possible in my sphere of influence. It is small, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Miniscule. Yet.

Even in that miniscule sphere there are places to explore.

This year we tried something new with getting the word out about the Peer Tutoring & Writing Center. A few peer tutors agreed to come to school during freshmen-first-day to share about the service. Some of the peer tutors were so new that they had never actually tutored; but they did fine as we had a loose list of what to cover. Being right there, I wasn’t sure what the freshmen thought. It was surprising to read their responses about the peer tutoring presentation on the survey! They thought it was valuable. They said they were happy to find out about the service and some even said they would definitely make use of it.

Here are a few takeaways from this experience:

#1) Fellow students have a big impact. Upper class students (peer tutors) shared a few key points about the service and encouraged the freshmen to make use of it. It is astounding how much impact peers have. Past efforts to create posters, make announcements, reach out to parents, talk to other teachers were less effective on the whole than this one, short presentation by peers.

#2) Part of nurturing a sense of shared community and student-guided learning involves stepping aside and relinquishing control. Perhaps it isn’t about my sphere of influence, but about inviting and sharing spheres of influence with students and other staff members where we can.

This insight is echoed in the work of fellow participants in the Greater Madison Writing Project. Corina Rogers altered the layout of her classroom to provide more opportunities for her students to interact and reflect on their learning in her history classroom and set aside time for this purpose, a deliberate move that required her to let go of some control. Karla Rempe has investigated incorporating more expressive writing in her history classroom to encourage students to wrestle with thoughts and ideas themselves, again stepping aside for students to do the hard work of thinking and learning.

Of course, this isn’t a free for all. The peer tutors didn’t just jump in and say whatever popped into their heads about the Peer Tutoring & Writing Center. They had a set of talking points to work from. We had a time frame. Their input was in the context of an orientation to the high school library program. It was just that there were multiple voices and perspectives presented within these perimeters. Much of our work as educators seems to involve creating a structure where learning can take place, empowering others in their spheres of influence to think, explore, and learn.

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