Guest post by Gina Ruffcorn, 5th-grade teacher, and author @gruffcorn13

One day while scooting around a teacher website, I encountered a request from another educator looking for a partner class for a mystery location session. The concept: our two classes would join on a video call. The teachers would know where each class was located. But the students would not. (Hence the mystery!) Once the call was connected, the students would ask each other yes/no questions back and forth about their geographic locations until they could guess them.

I thought it sounded like an interesting idea. I was excited by the idea of flattening the walls of my classroom and making connections with other classes and educators. I did some background research and prepared my students for the activity. The day of the session arrived and we eagerly launched into the mystery of locating the other class. We epically failed. My students really struggled to ask questions and guess where the other class was located. The other class didn’t have nearly as difficult a time as we did. In fact, it was the least fun I had ever experienced in a classroom. It seemed the call was never going to end. As we said goodbye to the other class, all I could think about was how much I never wanted to be in this position ever again. I felt completely ineffective. As far as I was concerned, this was the one and only mystery location activity we would ever do.

Once the kids were back in their seats, we began to talk about the session. I apologized for getting us involved in something I clearly didn’t know enough about. I explained how helpless I felt as we tried to work through the activity. I promised the students that we were not putting ourselves in that position again. Surprisingly, as I looked around the room at the students, they didn’t seem nearly as freaked out as I was. Instead, they talked excitedly about the fun and the challenge of the activity. In fact, they wanted to try another one. I wasn’t sure what to do. I openly admitted to the kids that if they wanted to try another session I’d have to think about it. It was truly that uncomfortable for me. I felt vulnerable and incompetent, both were new feelings for me in a school setting.

I went home that day haunted by the knowledge the mystery location activity had brought to my attention. My fifth graders had no critical thinking skills. They had struggled with analyzing and evaluating the information on their own. They lacked the problem-solving skills necessary to make independent decisions that could be supported by newly learned data. They had no idea how to collaboratively approach a large problem, assess it, and then work together as a team to systematically solve the problem. More importantly, I had no idea how to go about teaching those missing skills to them.

The students and I had an extensive discussion about our thoughts and feelings regarding the failed mystery location activity. They were eager to schedule another session. I was the one with a bruised ego. I had to openly admit that I had no idea what to do or how to help them learn the necessary skills to be competent opponents in a mystery location activity. I distinctly remember saying that I would have to learn right alongside them. They were determined to try again. The next attempt would genuinely be a student-driven activity. The kids would be completely in charge of all aspects of locating the mystery city. I had to learn to be comfortable with giving the session over to the kids and stepping back to the sidelines. Expressing my confidence in the students as they undertook the challenge would let them drive the activity. I put my faith in them and they began to make plans for the next mystery location call. Out of respect for their tenacity, I set up another session. With the students leading and me watching from the sidelines, we took the risk together.

The students’ skills got better with each session. They were developing characteristics that lead to resiliency and self-reliance. As my comfort level grew, I was also gaining a new appreciation for classroom activities that led to a stronger student-centered environment in order for children to become active participants in their own learning. The kids loved the challenge and as it turned out, so did I.

That first mystery location session was an eye-opening discovery for me as a teacher. Feeling inadequate and obtuse wasn’t a normal classroom experience for me. Being uncomfortable made me utterly vulnerable in front of my students and I didn’t like it. I wondered if this was how my kids were feeling in content areas when new concepts were being taught. If so, that was awful. I expected my students to take chances and risks as they learned new things. But, I wasn’t open to taking those same risks when it came to an activity that I didn’t understand. Suddenly it felt hypocritical to expect things from the kids that I couldn’t do myself. Reflecting caused me to begin to closely examine the way I was teaching.

As an educator, was I too scared of taking risks to make changes in my own classroom? Was I willing to give over the control of my classroom to the students in order for it to become a more student-driven learning environment?

I discovered that being open to changes and stepping out of my comfort zone was difficult. Implementing new and different ideas into the classroom required a shift in my attitude.

About the Author

Gina Ruffcorn

Author of “Our Class, Our Voice: Creating Choice and Amplifying Autonomy in the Elementary & Middle School Classroom”

5th-grade teacher, West Harrison Community School, Mondamin, Iowa

Twitter: @gruffcorn13


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