Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Students have the answers - but is anyone asking the right questions?

Throughout our time here in the ASTL program, I have been amazed at how often the texts we are assigned seem to relate seamlessly to whatever I happen to be feeling/thinking/seeing in my own classroom, my students, and myself. I constantly find myself nodding in agreement as I read, highlighting words and phrases that I swear I have thought of before in my head - and Ayers' To Teach: the journey, in comics was no different. I feel like although I have been "teaching" for several years now, each year is a year of firsts for me. My first graduating seniors during student teaching. My first long-term sub position. My first long-term sub position in an urban school. My first real, permanent (albeit part-time) position. My first year starting school on the very first day. So much of Ayers' teaching philosophy aligns directly with mine, with the students and their learning right in the center: "We must open our eyes, always, to the true children before us: dynamic, 3-dimensional, trembling, and real" (19). So many times, even in the past few years, I have heard warnings and cautionary tales about certain students...and each time I hear one I can't help but think to myself that maybe, just maybe, there was something missing from the equation. Maybe, just maybe, there was a learner underneath all of the labels and student database comments. Maybe nobody knew how to get down to the center of that one student, maybe nobody knew how to interest him in the learning or knew how to figure out what kind of learner he was. Maybe nobody wanted to think about that student's "specific, individual world" (11). Maybe nobody ever tried.

There have been numerous times that I've talked with other teachers that share the same students. Occasionally, I'll have learned something really interesting or shocking about that student and ask, "did you know...?!" Usually, it leads to a reply of disbelief - "there's no way" that that student does that after school. "There's no way" that the quiet girl who barely says two words all day plays on the boys' football team. "There's no way" that the class clown who never stops cracking jokes wouldn't let his sister go to the bathroom by herself, but walked her there and waited at the door, after reading a book about a young girl that was abducted. "There's no way" that that obnoxious student who just walked out of your classroom in the middle of your lecture has been sleeping on his best friend's floor for two months.

But there is, and the sad part is that we are so caught up in the paperwork and labels and data that sometimes we overlook the most simple act of what we do - or what we should do - as teachers: we learn and we love. We learn for our students, but we must also learn about our students and with our students. We love what we do and we love why we do it. Much like Jenny mentioned in her blog, it is critical that we consider ourselves as "explorers on a journey full of discovery and surprise" (2). Each day really is like an adventure...and we need to be willing to take those steps with our students rather than watching them take the steps alone. I know that we, as cohort members in this program, are willing and ready to do this, but how do we ensure that this adventure is a piece of all classrooms? How do we ensure that we are adapting our curriculum to each individual learner, without getting bogged down in hoards of paperwork and labels and files?

"To name oneself as a teacher is to live with one foot in the muck of the world as we find it - with its conventional patterns and received wisdom - and the other foot striding toward a world that could be but isn't yet" (11). I couldn't help but think of Frank Smith as I was reading Ayers, his voice popping up within the dialogue boxes or text in between. When Ayers described the way kids experience school (36-37), all I could think of was the classic and official theories of learning that Smith explained. These are the conventional patterns and received wisdom that are passed down from generation to generation - the students who can collect the most chips tend to be the ones who do best in school/enjoy school, and then become teachers themselves, unintentionally passing down the same values to their own students. 

But how do we move further? How do we get closer to the "world that could be but isn't yet?" I was always a good student, and I'm sure I had quite the stash of chips - perhaps I still do. Through this particular part of my teaching and learning journey (the ASTL name just made COMPLETE sense to me, by the way, wow), I really want to start focusing on how I can help all of my students, including (especially) the ones that don't have as many chips, the ones that seem to be the most disinterested in learning, the ones that no one else tries to understand. What is their connection to learning? How can I make it accessible to them? How can I ensure that they're along for the adventure? How can the students that have a lot of chips be pushed even further, out of their comfort zones? How can I ask the right questions that they can answer, or want to answer? How can I be the best teacher I can possibly be, so that the most learning that could possibly take place actually does?


  1. Tina, I loved the quote about having one foot in the muck and the other striding forward! I think it captures the essence of what we do so well. Definitely something that will stick with me.

    I also like that you included the "What my friends think I do/What my Mom thinks I do/etc" meme. One theme in the text is the way that perspective impacts thoughts/actions. When I taught my kids about different perspectives last year, I had them create these same memes for themselves. So rather than getting bogged down in what other teachers' perceptions are of the students, it's an interesting way to give them the space to define themselves.

  2. Tina,
    I was also drawn to the foot in the muck comment, although ultimately I blogged in a different direction, but the image of one foot being in what is not but could potentially be, is truly one I keep with me every day. We need to see our students for what they can be, without limits. One of the things they first learn from us is to limit themselves because of what we and others see in them, rather than what they see in themselves.
    I had a different experience than you in my elementary and high school career, I was not an exceptional student, and I did not look forward to school. I was acutely aware of how academics failed to hold my interests and instead of courting high grades, I courted social acceptance. This affects my practice, in that I strive to maintain a high level of student participation and interest, and according to my LSI last week, I do this at the expense of the type of student that learns best from traditional "official" practices. I think it is important to honor those type of learners as well as those who have other styles, and optimally to have a balance of opportunities.

  3. Tina,

    I have to say that this program has really deepened my thoughts about teaching. I know you said that you are a new teacher, but I am sure that you have already surpassed me in other ways.

    I was thinking about the quote you chose. "Each day really is like an adventure...and we need to be willing to take those steps with our students rather than watching them take the steps alone." I completely agree here. I feel like this is what I live for. I feel like every time I deliver a lesson, I feel like I am learning the process with them, rather than being a step ahead of them. Students like the fact that I play like I don't know the material yet and I am discovering it all on my own. This is my comfort zone when I am with them.