One of the first meaningful teaching experiences I remember is the day my building principal informed me that he’d be spending the next two weeks in my classroom teaching a unit that I would create with his assistance. The unit, he said, would show me the kind of teacher I could be, and when we were finished, I wouldn’t teach the same way anymore.
The unit we created was classic Roger Taylor stuff: video clips from public television and Hollywood, documentary footage from Peter Gabriel’s Witness.org, and a bevy of sources that we could inundate the students with to surround them with information. Our goal was that if we attempted to match student curiosity with a resource that matched it, we could nail down passion and send it marching furiously toward a meaningful educational experience.
The end result was a group of students that cared enough about our topic to raise over $500 for Burmese democracy.
He was right, the building principal. One of the things he kept throwing at me was the the idea, and he accredited it to John Dewey, that our role as educators is to successfully democratize our students. When piecing together the unit, I remember thinking that connecting the study of Aun Sun Suu Kyi to the Constitution was going to be a daunting task. After guiding the students through even a brief overview of the Bill of Rights and the cursory examination of Locke’s ideas on Natural Rights, the plight of this Burmese woman, coupled with documentary footage of Myanmar’s abusive policies towards political freedom and primary source documents about the plight of the Burmese people, I began to see where our role as educators lies.
I picked this up from Wes Fryer’s Blog:
“Education” is the process by which people become responsibly mature members of their communities. Or put another way, “education” is the process by which a community points the learning of its members towards its conception of “the good.” It is not some thing an individual “gets,” but an activity in which a community engages in order to preserve and improve itself by developing the knowledge, skills, abilities, and character of its members. In a democratic society, education is “the work of the people.” (Hildreth, p.40.)
Our responsibility, more than all else, is to successfully democratize the youth of the specific community we work in. How we do that, through our delivery and our design, determines the likelihood of success or failure of that participant in said community.
I am asked all of the time by parents and interested friends whether or not the tests that NCLB has mandated will accurately assess the students of today. I juxtapose that with the recent spate of articles concerning the “21st Century Student” –are the right questions being asked? What are our new literacy skills?
Are we about grammar skills and math problems? Are we about lists of outcomes to be covered? If so, no wonder kids have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to crawl through our doors. If we are about hundreds of discrete skills that have absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives; if we attempt to fill their heads with facts they just might need some day, it is no wonder we are losing the attention, the concerns, the hearts of our students.
Classrooms need to be about passion.
Classrooms need to be about inquiry.
Classrooms need to be about connections and the stories these bring into our lives.
Clarence Fischer asked these questions recently, and I had to include them here. Can we look at ourselves and legitimately answer them?
When that building principal came to my room for 14 straight days to teach the unit, I took notes. The reason why the students grabbed onto the lessons and remembered the unit had nothing to do with the fact that there was this woman halfway around the world suffering. While that might seem noble to believe, the real reason is that he and I used our resources to make it real. At the time, we used media that brought her plight into their living room, so to speak.
What we present must be able to be acted upon. If we are teaching history, or math, what says we cannot take it into their living room?