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Student-Led Classrooms: Heightening Student Engagement and Leadership

Student-Led Classrooms: Heightening Student Engagement and Leadership

 By Christine Hodges, Fourth Grade Teacher at Colegio International Puerto La Cruz (CIPLC)


The beauty of beginning a new school year is that we as educators have the opportunity to research cutting-edge practices over the summer, and then immediately implement them into our classrooms the following fall. Summer 2015 was no exception. In June, Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012), presented at the USM Spark summer conference in Milwaukee. Alongside Burgess were outstanding educators including Matt Miller, author of Ditch that Textbook (2015), and Micheal Matera, gamification expert. Conference attendees walked away from USM Spark with Notepads full of ideas to implement into their classrooms. Among the jotted ideas was the title of one book in particular: Learn Like a Pirate by Joe Solarz (2015).

Solarz is a 5th grade teacher in Arlington Heights, Illinois who runs his classroom in an untraditional approach: Rather than the teacher leading and facilitating classroom, Solarz’ classroom is student-led. This means that students quite literally own their learning and are in control of their classroom: In this format, students are responsible for transitioning themselves between subjects, gathering tech devices and other lesson materials independently, solving each other’s problems before the teacher gives any input, and ensuring that their day runs smoothly overall (Solarz, 2015).

After reading Solarz’ book, my teaching assistant, Jezabel Lezama, and I, decided to try our hand at a student-led classroom format. Since the beginning of this year, we have done our best to give our fourth graders all the power, directions, and knowledge that they need in order to be responsible for and successful in leading our classroom. The students help manage the class by transitioning from subject to subject, preparing for lessons, and using “responsibility partners” to keep each other on track throughout the day (Solarz, 2015). They are given the opportunity to get started on projects or on transitions without us telling them. Essentially, both students and teachers have equal power, and the students are responsible for figuring out what needs to be done in the room before independently completing it.

Throughout the implementation of our student-classroom, the following points have benefited its introduction:

1: It is important for classroom members to support each other and collaborate together. We began the school year engaging in community-building games and continued them throughout the first few weeks during Morning Meetings.

For example, on during the first week of school, the fourth graders engaged in activities such as “The Marble Theory” (Solarz, 2015), during which students discussed their individual strengths and intelligences, and “Tower of Cards,” during which students worked together to build a tower of notecards that stood at least ten inches high. This collaborative feel ensure that students readily listen to each other and support each other throughout student-led instruction and evaluation.


Students shared all of their different strengths and intelligences through the Marble Theory Activity.

2: Students should receive a clear introduction of and purpose for a student-led classroom:


We explained the need for student-leading in the classroom by stating that students were responsible for helping teachers complete the many tasks of the classroom. We need help, we told them, with things such as keeping track of time and staying organized. We stressed that the classroom is ours as a community, not just the teachers’, and that the students must also take ownership of classroom.

3: Students must learn how to properly use “Give Me Five”: Students learned that if they put their hand up and say, “Give Me Five,” then everyone else goes silent, waiting for the direction to an announcement or question. This means that the students have the power to interrupt, so what they have to say must be an important or helpful point. Students practiced how to use “Give Me Fives” to get their peers’ and teachers’ attention in order to give five-minute warnings, transition the class from one activity to another, provide ideas or suggestions for improvement during activities, provide suggestions or ideas for behavior, to demonstrate a skill that others may need, or to ask a question to the whole class when no one in their partnership or den (small group) knows the answer (Solarz, 2015).


As week one unfolded, students did indeed become more responsive to each other while calling “Give Me Fives.” In fact, they reached their goal of holding attention for the speaker within 10 seconds of the call the following day of actually setting that goal! Slowly, things came together.   The fourth graders were gradually initiating discussions of what homework assignments to write down in their agendas, what goals to set for the following day, and when to transition from subject to subject. These habits have only strengthened as the school year has progressed.

4: Teachers must provide students with encouragement, as well as consistent practice opportunities: Students needed (and continue to require) multiple opportunities to transition themselves, listen to each others’ suggestions during activities, and learn when it is and is not appropriate to call the class’ attention using “Give Me Five.” Patience is key with a student-led classroom because it is such a grand under-taking. It is important to provide students with supportive and encouraging feedback. However, the pay-off is worth the work.


Natural consequences have followed when students have forgotten to transition or make use of their time. If they forget to transition, then they lose time at the next engaging activity that the class has planned for the day. If they give a five-minute warning and transition themselves on time, then they will be ready and on time for recess, gamified social studies units, PBL science lessons, P.E., or whatever is scheduled as the following activity.

For example, on Monday morning of week 2, I sat at my desk while students filed in for the day and, rather than giving them a cue to start the morning meeting, simply watched and waited to see when they would take the initiative to begin it themselves. It took a bit of time. At first they chatted a bit, looking around the room for what to do, and hesitantly pulling their homework, until one student suddenly realized what we were all waiting for. The light bulb visibly went off on his face before his hand shot straight into the air and he stood to declare, “Give me Five! Ok, everyone, let’s read the morning message together and get this day going! We’re missing our Morning Meeting time!”

5: Students should learn how to set SMART Goals as a class: On Wednesday of the first week, the fourth-graders learned how to set short-term and long-term SMART-goals during daily class meetings held at the end of each day. For example, they first set class SMART goals to respond within 6 seconds to a “Give Me Five” within three days, and to transition from one subject to another quickly (within 2 minutes) in order to save time for the following day. They have since set SMART goals to monitor their behavior and improve in their student-leading. As the year progresses and their leadership solidifies, these goals may morph to be academic-based, or to address other social or personal goals of the class. For now, however, we are still honing in on the improvement of student-leading.

Setting SMART Goals as a class has allowed students opportunities not only to set a and work towards a collaborative goal, but also to develop discussion points and come to common agreements. For example, it has become routine for the student Evaluator (goal-setting facilitator) to lead the class in establishing a new SMART goal by asking, “Ok, so what does everyone think? Is it specific?” “How will we know when we’ve completed it?” “We know we can do it and it has to do with how we learn in class, so when do we want to complete it by?” Students follow these questions by asking their classmates whether they agree or disagree with their peers, and to provide reasoning as to why or why not they feel a specific way.

6: Student leadership and peer support can increase through the use of “responsibility partners:” As a class, we have held discussions about how to demonstrate both passive and active leadership. These discussions have followed natural occurrences in the classroom including when more than one student wanted to demonstrate active leadership and turn on the SMARTboard, for example, or when students practiced passive leadership by lining up at the door immediately to head to music class.

In addition, the class practices student leadership and support through the use of “responsibility partners” (Solarz, 2015). In this classroom ritual, each student is randomly assigned a partner. The pair is then responsible for sitting together, bouncing ideas off of each other while brainstorming, checking in frequently to ensure that each other understands assignments or tasks, and conferring with each other when they have questions. The partners can also redirect each others’ behavior by asking one another to do brain breaks, get a drink, move to a new location in the room, or put music on. Both partners are responsible if one of them is off-task, skips a direction, or is confused but won’t ask a question (Solarz, 2015).


Students work with their Responsibility Partners to complete assignments.


These partnerships, leadership developments, and collaborative opportunities have already benefited the classroom in just a few weeks of implementation. Now, three weeks into school, Miss Jezabel and I already spend more time walking around the room, observing and giving feedback. The classroom is not entirely student-led yet; occasionally we will step in to remind students how they can resolve conflicts independently or to set a tone of urgency when transitioning into work times. However, the fourth grade is making drastic gains towards this great endeavor. More and more frequently, we hear “Give Me Fives” for students to initiate changes in subjects, ask their peers for help or clarification, and to share discoveries with the class. The fourth graders have begun responding to their peers’ “Give Me Fives” within six seconds or less, listening to self-led directions, following those directions carefully, and working with each other to get tasks done. After just three weeks of initiating Solarz’ student-led classroom format, we have witnessed heightened motivation and a significant increase in student engagement from last year. We also spend less time redirecting student behavior because students’ self- and peer-monitoring have greatly increased. I believe that all of these positive changes have occurred because the students are truly taking ownership of the classroom. They truly think of it as theirs. As the year progresses, we as teachers aim to continuously increase leadership opportunities in the classroom by allowing students to complete tasks such as transition from recesses back to the classroom entirely on their own, teach increasingly in-depth mini lessons, and independently orchestrate global exchange and International Day projects.

As a teacher, I can still improve in letting go and giving students more control during discussions. Rather than recapping what students have said, for example, my personal goal is to consistently let the students lead the discussions entirely on their own. This also includes encouraging each student to have confidence in what he or she says, rather than looking to me for affirmation after making statements that initiate student action, redirect classmates’ behavior, or serve as key discussion points.

Meanwhile, the students aspire to accomplish these tasks to the best of their abilities, and are anxiously working towards earning their reward of a “Silent Day” when the teachers are not able to speak at all for the entire day and the students must run the classroom free of adult guidance, entirely on their own (Solarz, 2015).

Three weeks into the school year, students have the idea of what their student-led classroom entails and how they want their classroom to run. They hold the power. They are taking the initiative. The sky is the limit!


Burgess, D. (2012). Teach like a pirate. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Miller, M. (2015). Ditch that textbook. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Solarz, P. (2015). Learn like a pirate. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Solarz, P. (2015). Image retrieved on August 25, 2015 from


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