Old News, New Ideas: Teachers Are Trying to Change the World

What is the purpose of a teacher?

To educate?

…What is education then?

Learning about history, science, math, reading and writing?

…Can’t you just Google that?

Photo Credit: Bennilover Flickr via Compfight cc

As any “good teacher” will tell you, the purpose of a teacher is much more than that. Most will tell you that education is more than just “book learning,” and tests, and more than getting a diploma at the end of a public education. The real purpose of education is to help young people discover who they are, question the world, and find the courage, creativity, and inspiration to make their place in the world.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know I talk about this sort of thing a lot. So why write another post about the same thing? Well, for one, this one will become part of my semester work in ESST 369, Critical Literacy in Social Studies, and the other, more important reason, is that I’ve got more to say, and new ideas to add.

This week I read a couple pieces that got my mind going. The first, excerpts from A.C. Grayling’s “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”, and the second, chapter 21, “Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals” by Henry Giroux from Educational Foundations: An Anthology of Critical Reading.

Photo Credit: 13winds Flickr via Compfight cc

Grayling suggests that good teachers “inspire, guid and give their students a broader sense of life’s possibilities” by putting themselves in the shoes of the student, and digging at finding better ways to make content connect with them.  He hints that teachers are more than just studious book worms there to dictate texts to young minds and make them memorize things. Grayling seems to say that perhaps teachers have a great ability to take information from the past and apply it to create new thoughts and ideas, and that by doing so, this type of education can be beneficial for the whole of society. He suggests that this is the definition of a public intellectual, and that all teachers should act in this way.

Giroux’s essay further corroborates these ideas by saying that teachers need to be viewed as more than just technicians who manage students and implement curricula. He demonstrates how stifling the world of education can be, both in the ways we train teachers, and the ways that schools are run. So much focus is put on controlling student behaviour, and making sure that teachers are trained to know how to teach the things students are “supposed” to learn at each grade level, that the real problems are often overlooked. Giroux goes on to say that too often there is “no display of concern for stimulating or nurturing a child’s intrinsic desire to learn,” because teaching and teacher education is often too focused on just getting through the content, and using plans and curricula that claim to work in any classroom. In the end, what Giroux really gets at is the idea that teachers need to be transformative intellectuals, questioning what they teach and looking at the bigger picture and end goal of our students’ education. He believes that goal should be more about creating engaged citizens than making sure that students can sit quietly in their desks.

Photo Credit: theirhistory Flickr via Compfight cc

Straight rows and “good” behaviour are certainly things that I do not require in my classroom. The goals of my teaching are not to ensure that every page of the grade level texts are read. My students are not required to pass long exams to show their mastery of any part of the curriculum. Instead, I strive to encourage my students to show respect, kindness, and empathy, and that is done by creating a safe, comfortable space for learning. I use text books as sources of information, extra practice, and a companion in the learning. I encourage students to reflect on what they’ve learned in our time together, and in their time with other teachers, and mix them with their ideas and knowledge to projects and activities that help them apply it.

After examining Grayling and Giroux’s descriptions of a public transformative intellectual, and then looking at my own teaching philosophy it is clear that I am already embodying the idea that a teacher IS these things, and I whole-heartedly believe that teachers SHOULD be these things. Teachers play very real and large parts in the creation of our society, and that it is through the teaching of PEOPLE that our society can become a better place.

Photo Credit: rpalesca Flickr via Compfight cc

Giroux also discusses an idea of making “the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical,” meaning that education needs to allow students and teachers to examine sources of power, to help students see and find themselves in society, and to take a look at the world and encourage students to find out about things and have a voice. I really believe that this should be the case, and this mixing of ideas is something that I began to dabble in during my internship. I encouraged my students to look at real-world issues, and to dig a little deeper and find out what was going on. We looked at elections, social justice issues, news articles, and other media outlets, and it was amazing to see and hear the ideas and questions that these young minds began to have about their world. Was it easy? No. Did it come naturally for them? Not at all (for me either!). It took nearly four months for many of them to begin to really get in there and realize that they, just like adults, can have opinions, and can learn about what is going on in the world now, and how it has been influenced by the past.

Teachers are able to encourage the “enhancement of the critical powers of the young” (so says Giroux, and I agree), but it starts with the willingness to go there in the first place and really look critically at the world. We have to take curriculum and use it to guide our thoughts and planning, and to open the minds of our students and anyone else we can reach out to in an effort to really understand our world, our society and ourselves.

Spectacular Difference Makers

When I first heard about We Day a few years ago I thought it was a really great concept. Make an event to motivate kids to be involved in social activist-type projects, encourage students to create change, and reward them for doing their best work!  That’s certainly a goal of education isn’t it? Build a better tomorrow by motivating students to learn about the world and how to make a difference? Definitely! I think that teaching students about the world and the imbalances and injustices in it is important, and so is helping them find ways to make a difference, but I’m not sure that We Day is the answer.

My first concern with We Day is that it is somewhat of a contest to “earn” tickets to the event itself. While I don’t condone students having to work their way to the event, what’s troubling is that even if a student really puts in a great deal of effort trying to make a difference in their school or community, someone else in their class may have been deemed “better” at making a difference and gets the ticket. Is there not a way to reward all of the students who truly show enthusiasm and effort into changing the world around them? By handing out limited tickets, yes it may make them seem more valuable, and encourage “more” from students, but therein lies the trouble with any form of assessment when it comes to personal projects, because how does one person, say a teacher, assess how much that student feels they have transformed on a personal level while making a difference in the lives of others.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, I think that the actual We Day event is highly over-rated, and honestly quite counter intuitive. I had the pleasure (? not even sure I would call it that) of attending the Saskatchewan We Day last November. I was quite excited about it! The reality of it though was quite disappointing, and very similar to the arguments of the teacher who wrote this article, though, as I look back on the post I wrote, I think I’m better able to express my opinions on it now . It was loud, dark, and more like a concert than a way of honouring the work that the students had done to “earn” their way there. There were big name celebrities (ok, so not super big name since we were in Saskatchewan), motivational speakers, the founders of Free the Children, and other special guests, all who spoke about the initiatives that Free the Children was doing in developing countries. There were promotions about the We365 app, bracelets made by women in African countries, and other merchandise. These items were for sale at the event, and there is now even an online store where you can purchase them. Now, although these are all great things, and all support worthwhile causes, I find the idea of the glossy packaging that they are presented in to be quite counter-productive. For an organization to have to put on a flashy concert to get kids to make our world a better place seems to send somewhat of a backwards message.

I was also disappointed that at the event itself, none of those in attendance had the opportunity to share their stories, meet other kids, or to even really digest some of the good pieces that were being presented to them. Every person received a goody bag (again with the glossy packaging and corporate sponsorship!) that contained a really great journal that seemed to follow along with the set up of the day, however, it’s pretty difficult to write thoughts down in a dark and noisy concert venue! I just feel that the way it is all presented is very impersonal, when students are asked to create such personal connections in order to even get the opportunity to be there.

I certainly love the concept of having students take action to help aid developing nations, but I am not sure that We Day is the ticket (joke intended!). I think it speaks greatly to the society that we live in though, that organizations feel the need to entice students to act with rewards such as We Day. We tend to be a society that looks at “what I get” out of a situation. What’s MY reward rather than looking at what the reward to the global population could be from one’s efforts. I think that We Day plays into this ideology far too much, and that its concept could be presented in a much more suitable way. Yes, let’s get students looking for ways to create change in the world, but let’s not make it equivalent to a Justin Bieber concert. I think that’s the tough job for teachers – teaching children to go out and make a difference, or be themselves, or learn new things without expecting a parade in their honour when they do. Education is about self-fulfillment and empowerment, and making a difference in our world is taking that energy and finding opportunities to help empower others. I think that’s what We Day should really be celebrating.

Here’s a clip from a We Day event just a few weeks ago, with Prime Minister Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, addressing the youth in the crowd. Again, while the message is great, it comes in concert form.

So, where does that leave us? What would I do in my classroom? Participate in We Day? Perhaps, for me, it’s driving home the message that children can make a difference that is important as opposed to the message that if I do some charity work I can go to a cool event. What about you? What are your thoughts on We Day?