Releasing Control in Second Semester

The holiday break is OVER, and it’s time to face the reality that we have 5-6 more months left of school.  And to hit you with another reality—for most of us, the next big break isn’t until April!  (insert shocked face emoji here followed by a tear).  So the question is:  How do we get through the next 5 months without getting burnt out?  The answers to that question are to micromanage less and audit more (remember spot checking?).  In other words, the second semester is the time to release some control within the classroom and to allow your trained students to take on more responsibility. But releasing control can be downright scary!  We all know that micromanaging our students is born out of the fear of standardized testing.  We fear that if we release control of our students that they will not meet the expectations and the benchmarks that they need to meet.  

But I'm here to tell you that once you have trained students during first semester, the second semester provides ample opportunity for you to release some control without sacrificing quality of learning.

Once you’ve established the procedural and pedagogical methodologies of your classroom during first semester, the second semester provides an excellent opportunity for you to stop micromanaging every single aspect of your classes.  It begins with the overall trajectory of the school year—moving from teacher-directedness to student directedness. 

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First semester is a time to micromanage. It's a time to set the tone for the classroom; it's a time to teach students the procedures of the class; it’s a time to teach students how they will be assessed. Second semester, on the other hand, is a time to allow your students to take more ownership.  It’s a time to grade less and audit more; it’s a time to allow students to make decisions about their learning, and it’s a time for them to assess their own progress.  

If we were to create a graphic representation of student growth from first semester to second semester, it should begin with students at a lower level and ending on a higher level, and it should also begin with more teacher direction and less teacher direction towards the end of the school year.  

Our goal as teachers is to gradually enable our students to become more independent learners and more independent minded.  

Reflect back on first semester and think of areas where you can release some control.  Consider the following questions:

  • What did I micromanage in first semester?
  • What can I stop micromanaging in the second semester?
  • Where can I begin to audit instead of micromanage in second semester?
  • Where can I integrate more student choice?
  • Where can I "LET IT GO" ELSA STYLE?

Let me give you some examples of what this looks like for me in my classroom. During the first semester, I make a point to give a reading check after every single reading assignment. When I give my students anything to read—even if it's a poem or an essay—I will assess their reading on the day the reading assignment is due.  Because I work hard to set this precedent in the first semester, my students continue to anticipate these reading checks throughout second semester.  This is where auditing begins to take more of a role.  Instead of quizzing every reading assignment during second semester, I may quiz every other one—or every third one.  Or, I may even have my second period class create quizzes to give my sixth period class.  This way, I put the responsibility back on the students and also have them create their own assessments = double win!  

The idea with auditing, or spot checking, is to do just enough to keep students on their toes.  After all, that’s how the IRS works.  I also apply the same concept to my students’ writers’ notebooks. During first semester when I'm training them how to use the writer’s notebook, I check the notebook twice every marking period. However, when second semester comes around, I cut back this grading frequency to once per marking period. For the other notebook checks, I have students create their own rubrics assess each other’s work.  Then, I audit the grading process by taking up only five notebooks and double-checking the grading accuracy on only those five notebooks.  It's another way to keep students on their toes and another way to cut down my workload.  

Something else that I micromanage during the first semester is makeup work.  I give students lots of reminders during first semester about what they've missed and what they need to do to catch up, and I also remind them every single week about makeup work procedures.  By the time second semester arrives, students should know the makeup work policies and what to do to get caught up, so I remind them less and less and allow them to take ownership of their own work.  

That being said, we all know that we have a select group of students who still need to be micromanaged throughout the entire year because they are at risk of failing. So releasing this kind of control for that particular group of students is not possible, but these students represent the exception for most teachers and not necessarily the rule.  

As a tangential side note, one of the things I build into my curriculum plan is Flex Fridays.  These days are reserved for finishing lessons, reteaching a skill that did not meet mastery, and/or enrichment.  I also use Flex Fridays to help struggling students get caught up.  If a student is at risk of failing, I will have that student use Flex Friday class time to complete any work they never turned in.  This enables me to go back and replace zeros with at least some kind of score that will help boost their averages.  Thus, when making decisions about when, where, and how you will release control in second semester, be mindful of struggling students and modify your plans accordingly.

Second semester is also a great time to allow your students to make more choices about what they want to study.  It’s the perfect time to practice more of the Social Constructivist Approach to learning (i.e. allowing the community to set the course of study). 

There are many strategies for implementing this approach in your classroom.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Allow students to select their own research topics
  • Allow students to select pieces of writing to submit for grading
  • Allow students to write an essay in a mode of their choice
  • Allow students to create their own portfolios of self-selected works
  • Allow students to create their own projects and present to the class
  • Allow students to create their own rubrics
  • Allow students to grade each other’s work

There are many more ideas where these came from!  Did you notice the key word “allow”?  It implies that the teacher has to release control of students and give them the ability to make decisions.  Student choice feeds student efficacy and also motivates them by permitting them to explore their own interests.  You would be amazed at how the element of choice even motivates struggling students!

During second semester in my ELA classes, I build in student choice with book club wherein students select their own novels (based on certain criteria), make their own reading assignments, and then present their analysis of the piece of literature to the class in whatever format/fashion they choose.  It’s essentially a Free Choice Project.  I am always amazed at the quality of the presentations and the passion that my students bring to these projects!  

They also produce portfolios to showcase at least ten pieces of their writing from the school year.  They choose the pieces of writing, and they design their own portfolios.  Some choose electronic formats; others create books.  But without fail, students are very proud of their portfolios and tend to keep them forever.

In order to release students in second semester, first semester plays an important role as the training ground in which we need to micromanage our students so that they are prepared for taking more ownership in the classroom later on.  And the better job you do at training them during first semester, the easier time you will have releasing them during the second semester.  The first and second semesters work in conjunction in order to help students become more independent.  Both are necessary parts of the learning trajectory for our students.  Not only that, but giving students more control in the classroom also helps to prevent teacher burnout in second semester when the stress levels of standardized testing tend to run high.  So, take some time here at the beginning of second semester and evaluate how you can release some control in your classes to save your sanity while simultaneously keeping your students motivated.  It’s a win-win situation!  Don’t be afraid to let your students make some of the decisions in your classroom.  They might just exceed your expectations!

Do you have any thoughts about releasing control during second semester?  If so, leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you!