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How Do You Help Young People Care About School?
By Sam Chaltain
This article was a fantastic read. It talks about a project in Baltimore called “Incentive Mentoring Program” which takes students who have been basically swept under the rug and ignored in normal systems and draws them in to this program that helps them see value in being at school. The keywords here are “never, ever give up.“
I love it. So many students get swept aside every day, discounted as unable to be helped. Much of the time, it’s because something is missing in the things that they need to feel like school is more rewarding than the other (often not so great) choices offered out in the world. Sometimes it is as simple as knowing there is someone who cares enough to check on your progress. Sometimes the needs are greater and require a bit more effort from those involved.
In either instance, this is a fantastic example both of what I think of as Humanism, and Reconstructionism as well. After all, they are taking kids who had otherwise been discounted and telling them that they are worthwhile. They are creating a community where these students are valued, and thus value the environment of the school. I think we need more of that – giving reasons for students to actually want to attend, rather than punishing them when those reasons don’t exist.
Yesterday, and the day before, I wrestled with a great deal of frustration surrounding the final science inquiry session with our students. Because we had spent several sessions giving students the chance to mess around, and because I also believe that writing and literature should be an important component of any lesson, I wanted our last session to be a wrap up and share out style of lesson.
We had spent nearly 3/4 of the sessions just building airplanes and testing them. Over, and over, and over. Though we had notebooks, we had spent no time really setting up a system of recording that was organized, so much of what had been written was all over the place.
For our last session, I had the idea of having students write down individual things they learned and wanted everyone to know on post-it notes, and pasting them onto an airplane cutout. They had several weeks of experiments, 7 different pages in their notebooks where they had taken notes, a KWL chart, and their prior knowledge to draw from. After a few minutes of this, they would pair up and pretend to be the Wright Brothers. This would give them a chance to tell the class all about their fantastic airplane experiments and what they learned.
My lesson was struck down, as I was told that the kids didn’t like to write (of course they didn’t, we had not provided them with enough books, no purpose for their exploration, and just gave them a handout to fill in!) and should experiment again to create a final airplane. So that’s what we did, again.
My frustration, and the reason I am analyzing this is because I look at my lesson, and the one that was ultimately decided on and I question not only if mine would have worked (I still think they would have enjoyed it), but also how the two compare when it comes to constructivism. Some would say that because the experiments were hands on, they are “more inquiry” or “more constructivist” but didn’t we learn that a lesson can fall under those categories while still having structure and purpose?
I don’t really have a wrap-up for this post, but I needed to take a minute to examine what the options were, and if perhaps I was wrong in my beliefs. Having done that, I still hold firm in the lesson I proposed and wrote, and think that it could have been a very engaging way to wrap up our time together while providing evidence that something was learned. Maybe I am misunderstanding how this philosophy works, but somehow, I think not.
I’ve mentioned constructivism quite a bit so far, but I haven’t had much of a chance to speak on Humanism. I’ve been using this blog to reflect my own thoughts and experiences, and while we often talk about philosophies in a “bigger picture” idealistic type of way, often times it is the little things that can make a difference in a child’s day.
As mentioned before, I’ve been substituting for several years now. And while I enjoy being in the classroom, I often am placed in situations where there are behavioral plans or classroom management plans in place that I have a hard time agreeing with. That leads to a little bit of classroom confusion, as it also means that my own personal style of dealing with students is different than what they are used to.
In one instance, I was stuck making sure students did several problems from a book assignment. They weren’t engaged, and in this school I did not have a lot of freedom to move away from the script to make things more interesting. So, as children are wont to do when they are frustrated and bored, they act out. For one little boy, that meant that two students at the table where he was assigned to sit were spending their time harassing him instead of being productive. He did not say much, in fact it was only brought to my attention because one of the students who was doing the harassing tried to draw me into it!
What I encountered when I came over to see what was going on was a little boy with his fists clenched in anger as he tried desperately to hold back any negative response to these students who were intent on drawing one out of him. He looked up at me with eyes that pleaded for me to understand, as if to say “can’t you see I’m trying?” All I could think of, in that instance, was my own brother as a child having the same reaction to my father’s prodding that he work harder on his homework, his own blue eyes pleading for me (who was trying to help him) to please explain that he was trying so very hard and only needed a little more patience than what he was being given.
When I pulled the little boy away from that table, it broke my heart to see how upset he was, fearing that he had not been able to hold his emotions in enough and was in trouble now. I assured him that he was not in any trouble at all, and I only wanted him to be able to work in relative peace. I asked if he would like to work on the other side of the room for awhile, and I swear the look of relief and joy on his face nearly brought me to tears.
From that moment on, that little boy was the most respectful student to me that I think I have ever seen. He finished his assignment quickly and read quietly, grateful to be in a place he felt more comfortable (I ended up allowing him to stay there for the rest of the day. I wasn’t about to re-seat him with students who were bullying him. For those two, a note was left for the teacher as I was not allowed to do much more).
THIS is what I want to be. I want to be the teacher that my students trust to understand, who they know they can come to me if they are fearful, or frustrated, or just need someone to listen because I won’t react in punishment but in caring. I can still see that little boy in my mind, his whole body tense with anger and fear, preparing himself to get sent to the office before I had even kneeled down to find out what was wrong. I never want to see that in my own room, because if it ever gets to that point, I’ll know I have gone wildly wrong somewhere and hurt someone innocent in the process.
Often when I enter a classroom as a substitute, my hands are rather tied as to what I can do with the lessons given. Sometimes, however, I’ve found that with a little bit of thought I have on occasion been able to turn a very dry lesson read straight from a textbook into something that students feel engaged in.
My favorite, albiet short, example of this was a fourth grade class several years ago. The class schedule was set up rather traditionally, so on this day they were reading aloud from a textbook about the Siege of Fort Vincennes. The book described the battle in a context that the kids had no real way of understanding. See, this was a battle from the American Revolutionary War – back when battles were fought mainly on foot. They didn’t have advanced weaponry like they do now, and war looked nothing then like it does in today’s video games. So as we read aloud, most of the students looked utterly confused.
One of the students, determined to understand, raised a hand and asked me to explain what they had just read. And this was when I grinned, excited for the chance to put my educational philosophy in place long before I ever knew what an educational philosophy was. I started out by explaining that, back in this war, people fought battles in units. “So,” I continued, “let’s think about those units like they are classes in this school. Your class gets to be the unit we are reading about in the book.” I explained that in these battles, every unit, or class for our example, carried a flag.
This is the part where the fun began! I grinned widely, and called on the student who had first asked the question. “Now, we don’t have any flags. So let’s say for our example the person in each class that would have a flag instead yells out. So, go ahead – please be the flag for your class. Yell out for me.” For a moment, the student stared at me with wide eyes, amazed that any teacher would ask him to yell in the middle of class. With a nod, I encouraged him and he excitedly ‘waved the flag’ for his class. “Now, if we know that there is one flag person yelling for each class, and you hear that voice – how many classes do you think there are?” The class as a whole agreed that it would mean one class was around.
I then went on to explain that what made this particular battle special was that they split into smaller groups and instead of only having one flag for the unit – meaning 100 people, they gave 10 people flags and made it look like there was 10,000. Continuing with the example, “So let’s say we are all on the playground, and want to make people believe that there are more classes in our school than there actually is. How many people yelling would mean one class?” They reminded me that would be one person. “So, let’s see what happens if I ask all of you to yell.”
I don’t think the class actually believed at first that I was asking this of them, because I actually had to encourage them to raise their voices. Still, after a second the whole classroom was yelling out in glee. Once we all settled and quieted again, I asked them how many classes they would think are in the school if they heard that amount of yelling. Animated and engaged now, everyone agreed that it would me there are lots of classes, not just the one. I then redirected them back to the lesson itself, and asked someone to explain how what we had just done compared to what we read.
I was so pleased! Everyone in the class seemed to understand now!
While I can look at that and understand that my example isn’t entirely constructivist, I think that it represents how – even before I had started training to be a teacher – I had ideals and preferences for my classroom teaching that engaged students in their learning. I have never desired a quiet classroom, and knew even then that if students are going to gain anything from their lessons, they had to be a part of what they are doing. I had never even heard the terms “passive” and “active” learners, but I knew then even as I know now that I could never be content in a classroom full of passive learners.
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While searching for something entirely unrelated, I came across this word cloud today. It is from the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) and is featured on the bottom of their teacher preparation page. I stared at it for a moment, just exploring the words that it features and how I felt about each set and size. The thing about a word cloud is that the size of a word in that cloud reflects the value given or the frequency mentioned.
Take a moment to look at this cloud. What are the three biggest words featured? “Science” Makes sense, it is the NSTA website. “Students.” Of course, very logical. “Assessment.”
Assessment. As I paid attention to this word cloud in greater detail, I realized just how greatly it bothered me. Look out large Assessment is! It is nearly as large as Students, and Science. And yet, there are so many better words listed that you almost have to squint to read. Reflect, for example. Or perhaps ethical, evidence, engage, fair, equitable (which is SO tiny!), effective, activities, content, inquiry… I could go on.
Equitable is in fact so small that I nearly missed it. Fair is so small it is nearly blurry and unreadable. Yet Assessment is so large that it juts out of the word cloud awkwardly. This bothers me a great deal, because while a word cloud is a bit abstract, it is still a very solid piece of evidence that reflects the values of the document that created it. So assessment is considered an incredibly valuable thing. That, in and over itself, isn’t the worst thing in the world. In the teaching environment that we are in now, it’s understandable that it would be mentioned frequently.
No, that isn’t the issue I have. The problem I have is the fact that Fair, Equitable, Ethical… all of these are given hardly any credence at all. In relation to assessment, that’s highly problematic to me. Part of the HUGE problem with the testing system as it stands is the fact that many tests are written in a way that pushes out students who either haven’t been specifically prepared for those tests, or those who have a different set of social experiences and thus a social capital that isn’t reflected in those tests. This is from a document that talks about preparing teachers – so should we not be preparing them to be equitable? Fair? ETHICAL?
I have been asked, for a class, to explore my personal teaching philosophy. If I am to go by the book and the numbers, I would call myself Constructivist and leave it at that. However, we all know that numbers are only one aspect of understanding a person. I am Constructivist, yes, but I also hold beliefs that fall under other categories. I am Humanist, and believe that children have value and should be given a voice. I am a Social Reconstructionist, and believe that positive change can come from anyone, and that it is important to examine social and societal norms even when they are uncomfortable to do so. I am also somewhat Progressive, and feel that it is our job to be good people who care about our world and the betterment of society.
I expect that this will be an interesting journey, especially as I continue working with students as an intern and finding whether or not what I currently believe as true holds up or not. I strongly suspect that it shall, as I have felt many of these things for awhile now without having a name to put to them. However, I feel it is important for personal growth and understanding to examine one’s beliefs even if what you find at the end leaves you in a different space from where you began.
So, shall we begin?