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.

Third time’s the charm…and sometimes the fourth is even better!

We’ve all heard that internship teaches you a lot. We’ve all heard that interns make mistakes and learn from them. We’ve all heard that there can be a lot of stress, and even tears, during internship. We’ve all heard that internship is challenging and some days you feel like you hit a wall. We’ve all heard that it can be a tough four months, but we don’t always hear the rest of the story.

What we don’t hear about is HOW interns learn, and what that process looks like.

Let me start out by saying that I’ve been really enjoying my internship. I have a great class, a wonderful co-operating teacher, and have been having a lot of fun. Sure, some nights I’m up quite late (or is it early…) planning things and making sure my lessons for the next day are just right, and sometimes I’ve stressed about getting the curriculum covered the way I think it should be, but overall it’s been great.

Now to the story…

Last Tuesday my advisor visited my class to do an observation of my teaching. I was beginning a brand new unit in subject I’d never taught before, social studies. I had worked with my co-op to make a great outline of the unit and I had a great concept for my first lesson. It was going to get the students excited about the unit, introduce the concept and be a lot of fun. Now, my class schedule is a little funny and on this particular day I had all of my students for half an hour and then the grade 6s went to band while the 7s stayed for more of the same subject. I thought the first part of the lesson went great. I did a bit of a modified think-pair-share concept as we explored the topic of our unit of inquiry, and all of the students were so engaged in the conversation. It was maybe a little noisy, but I don’t mind a kind of excited topic-related noise in the room. After the first half though, when I just had my 10 grade 7 students is where things started to go sideways.

I’ve struggled with management of my 7s before. They are just a loud and rowdy group; always blurting things out (subject related or not), and keeping them in check can be an issue. I moved them to a central point (which is usually a must with them), and we carried on with a deeper conversation that we had started with the whole class. For some reason though, my 7s thought that this period was one where they could just be silly and blurty and disrespectful to everyone in the room. I tried all my usual tricks – moving students, removing distractions, re-setting the focus of the class, and nothing worked. But hey, my advisor was there, what was I to do? So I tried to push on with the discussion, continually battling with a few students who were struggling to stay focused and on topic, and what should have been a 15 minute discussion took the entire 30 minute period.  I was exhausted. I knew I should have stopped, really addressed the issues, and then tried again to re-set the lesson. But I didn’t, and I felt so terrible.

Photo Credit: cyndisuewho Flickr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cyndisuewho Flickr via Compfight cc

Following my lesson, as it was the end of the day, my co-op and I sat down to de-brief. I knew I could have and should have done better. I tried to be strong, and explain why I did what I did, but I knew there was more I wanted to do. I tried to be brave and hold back my tears of frustration, but they came anyhow. I let it all out. Through it all though, my co-op and my advisor reminded me that I have the power in my class; I’m in control. I can stop things. I can start again. I can require my students to listen. I think the tears came more because I knew this was totally true.

Ironically, my unit and my lesson are all about power. Who has it in different situations and how we must work within a system of power and navigate amongst the good and the bad sources of it. I have the power in my classroom, and I need to use it. My students know that teachers have power and the authority to use it, I just have to have the courage to show it.

So, after 90 minutes of tears and realizations I tried to regroup and make a plan for action. Should I have used more power? Yes. But were my students still acting irresponsibly? Yes! So I made a plan for my next lesson to be about social obligations to others, about respecting those who have rightful power and authority, and taking ownership for their actions. I took a cue from my good friend, Amie, who had a very similar experience a few weeks earlier. She had her students write apology letters and explain their behaviour, and I tried the same with my students.

Photo by Simon Howden. Published on 22 February 2009 Stock photo - Image ID: 1004778

Photo by Simon Howden. Published on 22 February 2009 Stock photo – Image ID: 1004778

The next class was a VERY different one for sure. We discussed the previous class, why the behaviour they exhibited was not acceptable, considered what could have gone better, and establish an understanding of expectations. We even took a “field trip” to view the banner hanging in the front of the school that showcases the values that we are to uphold: I am responsible, I belong, I want to know,  I respect. Students were very sombre, realizing that they were not upholding any of these values in the previous lesson. Upon our return, students wrote formal letters outlining what happened and how they hoped to adjust their actions for future classes. I applauded students for being able to reflect on their actions, and shared some of my own reflections also. This hour long class went by quickly, and really helped set the tone with my students.

Now, the next class, that’s where things really changed. Just this Tuesday I had another shot with my grade 7s all on their own, again after a half hour period with the entire class. This time though, was great. I took the time to totally re-set the lesson, outline the expectations again, did a fun dance break, and got into a topic that was a little different than what we’d been doing with the whole class. Was it the most exciting thing? Nope, not even a little. We were looking at some sources of power, had some really good discussions about what they would look like, and recorded some student-created definitions of some terms. The class was very respectful, engaged in the discussion, and we got done what needed to be accomplished for the period. I was very proud of them, and of myself, for the turn around in attitude and outcome.

Photo by Danilo Rizzuti. Published on 17 November 2009 Stock photo - Image ID: 1009981

Photo by Danilo Rizzuti. Published on 17 November 2009 Stock photo – Image ID: 1009981

When I started writing this post after my lesson on Tuesday, and now it’s Thursday, and I’ve had another hour long class with my 7s. I thought that 3rd class with them was something pretty great, but today was even better! Today’s lesson was a look into some organizational power and  the levels of government in Canada. We played games, worked as a team, watched videos, answered questions, had discussions, had some disagreements, looked up answers, played more games, learned new things, and ALL of it in a very respectful, calm, yet totally engaging setting! It was a wonderful way to end out the day. I was so pleased with today’s class and am so proud of both my students and myself for really coming full circle on the issues we had been experiencing.

I start my 3-week solo teaching block on Monday, and after today’s lessons I definitely am going into things feeling more confident in my ability to get things done, and not only done well, but done with the cooperation and engagement of my students. I thought the third time was the charm, but today really showed me that sometimes the fourth can be even better.