Fighting for our children's future
In my last post about teachers’ roles, I defined teachers as guides or facilitators to students’ acquisition of knowledge. Truly, what else can we be? Teachers don’t have all the knowledge anymore. Back before the internet age, teachers were expected to be the experts of their content. In conjunction with the textbooks, teachers dispersed all their wisdom to their students, which was obviously limited, but that’s all they had available. But now, for teachers to pretend that they know everything there is to know about their content area would be ludicrous. I know some incredibly intelligent people who have a wealth of information stored in their brains, yet there are things they don’t know.
Fortunately, we all have a world of information at our fingertips, literally. With a click of a button we can see the beauty of Prague, read its history, and discover its literature; we can access information about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System or research Nelson Mendela’s influence on South Africa. With all this information available, teachers must be facilitators in the classroom, encouraging students to search for and discern between good information and faulty information.
My favorite term I’ve heard so far is that teachers are “learning architects” instead of teachers; we are master builders of our content area. We need to plan, organize, and help students implement our designs. In order to do this well, we have to help students see the relevance of our content and the end product of their education. How will our content make them better people and citizens of this country and world? What do we envision our students being able to do? In my previous posts, I touched on the relevancy issue. Everything truly comes down to a context issue, not a content issue.
So what does that look like in the classroom? I can only speak about my own classroom experiences and what I’ve gleaned over the years. I encourage other teachers and students to chime in with what a 21st Century Learning Architect’s classroom looks like from their own experiences.
The Architecture of the Classroom
Learning needs to be fun, interesting, and relevant. I make my students two promises at the beginning of every year: They will laugh every day, and they will learn something new every day (or at least a deeper understanding of something they’ve already learned). I want them to enjoy being in my classroom, but it doesn’t stop there. They also need to increase their knowledge, deepen their thoughts, and apply their knowledge to the improvement of their lives.
My students appreciate my classroom atmosphere and thank me for it often: “Thanks for making English fun; time goes by so quickly in your classroom.” Another student told me recently that she has never learned so much applicable knowledge in her life. I also had a former student who was on her way to graduate school tell me that I started her on the path to success with my writing and grammar instruction. I was floored. How many college graduates remember their high-school, freshmen English teacher, let alone go out of their way to thank that teacher for the education they received?
I must be doing something right, so, for what it’s worth, here are the specific and general ways I run my classroom.
Just the Facts–that Matter
Students should not be expected to learn discreet pieces of knowledge; on the contrary, they should be presented with important information that moves students forward in their ability to think logically.
For example, in the Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men, asking students to regurgitate the fact that George found a can of lice spray in the bunk previously occupied by another migrant worker is truly irrelevant information compared to the mind-altering, philosophical discussion of George’s decision at the end of the novel. However, students do need to know the facts behind the setting of the novel (time period, location, historical relevance) in order to become deeper thinkers. Students research the time period, analyze the photographs, and write about the lives these people endured before reading the novel, so they understand the facts of the time period. The memorization of these facts is crucial. How can students truly understand the plight of migrant workers without knowing about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl our country experienced in the 1930s? If they have never looked into the haunting eyes of the people who lived the devastation, if they don’t understand the time period and the mental and physical state of the people, how can they make legitimate judgments about George and Lennie’s relationship? How can they evaluate the morality of George, thereby evaluating their own morality without knowing these facts?
This kind of knowledge increases students’ thinking skills. Unfortunately, many teachers have either thrown all rote memorization out the window, or still concentrate on discreet pieces of information for their unit plans. Teachers need to be discerning on what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t in their subject matter.
A Teacher, but a Human Being First
Teachers also need to show their humanity. The best way to do this is to use personal stories that illustrate life lessons. Students enjoy learning from an individual who is passionate about his or her subject matter and can use story effectively. Students also appreciate the opportunities they have to engage in real world issues. When students are excited about the teacher and the content, they learn better. Students lose interest if they don’t trust the teacher or they don’t think the teacher has passion for the content. I try to create an atmosphere where I am the “host” of my classroom, like Oprah, guiding my students through the content while entertaining them with anecdotes that give them a deeper understanding of the big lessons in life.
When we read literature that shows a bully getting his or her just deserts, I share with my students the middle-school fight I got into on the school bus, so they understand that childhood pain comes out in many ways and that compassion is always the better choice. When we discuss characters who feel trapped, embarrassed, or unloved, I share my worst-first-date-ever story, so they see that I survived an unbelievably embarrassing situation with a boy I really liked; I can laugh about it now, and I’m a better person because of it. When we see adults behaving badly in fiction, I share how certain teachers embarrassed me while I was growing up, but I used those situations as motivation to be the teacher I am today; I refuse to wallow in self-pity and prove those negative teachers right.
My students connect with me; they connect with the material; they see how much I care about them–enough to reveal my imperfect life so they can embrace theirs. In a world that is quickly becoming impersonal through technological advancements, my altruistic lessons connect students to their world at a personal level. Literature becomes more than entertainment; literature becomes a way to analyze our individual and civic duties.
Do as I Say and Do
I teach students how to write and how to write well. Grammar is the foundation of my instruction; I love teaching the logic and beauty of the written word. Not only do we analyze sentences for writing instruction, but we discuss authors’ grammatical choices to infuse deeper meaning into their writing. For example, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the sentence “He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible” breaks the item-in-a-series grammar rule. Without a conjunction, the three adjectives have equal weight. The man can be all three at once, which adds to the subject’s intrigue. Grammar instruction at this level teaches students that grammar rules can be broken, purposefully, adding depth to their writing.
It truly amazes me that I work with many English teachers who cannot see the connection between grammar knowledge and writing well; therefore, they refuse to teach grammar. If one stops with the parts of speech, the art of communication can never be explored. However, delving into the essence of thought–the two-part structure of subject and predicate–now that creates expert communicators. Yet, students have graduated from high school without knowing what those two things are. Their English teachers have done them a disservice. Who else but an English teacher can teach the beauty and importance of grammar?
I think we’ve all seen the consequence of that kind of thinking: T-shirts being manufactured with “Your the best!” printed on them; journalists confusing it’s and its; news anchors saying that the losers of a contest will receive “a nice constellation prize.” Our country has become functionally illiterate at increasingly higher levels.
Also, in order for me to feel confident as a teacher of writing and grammar, I have to put into practice everything I teach. I analyze every sentence I write to make sure it’s grammatically sound and communicates my thoughts clearly. If I make a mistake in my oral communication, I draw attention to it, so students know how to correct their own mistakes. I am also a writer within and beyond the classroom: I write responses to every prompt I give my students before I give it to them; this practice makes me a better teacher because I understand the skills the students will need in order to be successful with the prompts I give them. But I am also a 21st Century communicator as a blogger and story-teller; I know, first-hand, how important it is to write well and to join the community of writers who have found strength in sharing their thoughts.
The Learning Architect
As a learning architect I present information that is essential and improves students’ abilities to think analytically and logically; I remind students of our humanity, so they don’t get lost in the impersonal technological age; and I practice what I preach, so students see the relevance of my instruction.
What are your thoughts on teachers as Learning Architects? Do you have any examples of what a 21st Century Learning Architect’s classroom looks like?