“The obvious question is, what do you do when it’s the core content class? And maybe it can’t always be quite as much of a party,” she said. “But at the same time … you can be more flexible. So it’s just being open to the possibility of agility. And then you’ll see kids be more interested in what they’re doing, and that’s reflected in the work.”
In her book, Plotinsky details four stages for moving away from helicopter teaching. Given the busy lives of teachers, she said this shift can be gradual. Teachers can try modifying a single lesson by keeping the content but rethinking the approach. Learning to recognize helicopter teaching and to use student feedback to guide instruction are good starting points.
Recognizing helicopter teaching
There are three obvious symptoms of a micromanaged classroom, according to Plotinksy.
- An overpacked agenda: This is when teachers have every moment of the class period planned out and often more. “We probably won’t get to all of this, but…” is a common phrase.
- Little student talk: This happens when most of the class is devoted to silent work or teacher talk. Some educators and administrators assume that a quiet classroom is a well-managed and productive classroom, but Plotinsky disagrees.
- Discussions dominated by only a few students: This is when a class features frequent dialogue but mainly between the teacher and a few vocal students, while others act as observers.
Plotinsky said she was guilty of all three of these early in her career. Book discussions in her class, for example, often involved a small group of students expressing ideas similar to her own. At the time, she viewed those classes as a success, but reflecting now, she sees a problem: 25 of the students in the room might not have said a word.
She offered a simple idea for more inclusive class discussions: Give each student one or two index cards. After speaking, they throw their card into the middle of the room and listen to others. Plotinsky recommended that the topic for this style of discussion be open-ended and low-risk, not something that feels like a “gotcha” about homework assignments. She also recommended explaining the process and giving students time to think about the question before jumping in.
By adopting practices like these, Plotinsky noticed that students who other teachers saw as quiet felt more comfortable speaking in her class. “That was a huge benefit — that people found voices in a way that they hadn’t before.”
Using student feedback
Requesting and using student feedback is a key part of Plotinsky’s concept of hover-free teaching. She likes to ask students three things in every unit:
- What they already know
- How they learn best
- What has worked and what hasn’t in the class or in the past
Those questions can be asked through online forms or other kinds of exit tickets. As a classroom teacher, Plotinsky would share with students what they collectively said worked and didn’t work and how she was integrating that feedback into class plans. She couldn’t always make requested changes, but she said that being transparent made students more engaged.
Like other aspects of hover-free teaching, getting student feedback can be nerve-wracking. “It’s scary to hear what kids think, but it becomes less scary the more we do it, because then it’s less of a surprise,” Plotinsky said. “And then what happens is it gets kind of addictive.”