Only the educated are free- Epictetus
Arising in part from my experiences working with children in settings other than an academic classroom, my teaching is predicated on the belief that all students have strengths and knowledge that they bring with them to a classroom. Academic learning does not exist in isolation, and recognizing this allows for the understanding of a student’s identity and the ways his/her sense of self may be shaped by factors outside the classroom. By noting each student’s abilities and experiences, educators can better help students integrate the culture of home, community and school. Furthermore, when students are able to make connections to their lives outside the classroom, academic learning becomes more meaningful- students are given a sense that knowledge and learning have a greater purpose. Lastly, recognizing strengths in students creates a safe environment in which risk-taking is encouraged and rewarded. For example, in evaluating a written piece, I don’t merely catalogue misspellings, incorrect punctuation, or generic wording; I ask myself “What skills does the student demonstrate in this piece?” This does not mean that shortcomings are ignored, but they are addressed within the framework of using the student’s pre-existing understanding to help the student work towards proficiency.
Related to this, inquiry in the classroom is of the utmost importance. If a teacher merely recites facts, dates and numbers and then expects the students to recall these, one may ask “What learning has occurred?” Information means nothing if students do not develop the critical thinking skills to make sense of the information. Inquiry allows for students to engage with the material: to analyze, to synthesize, to compare, and to evaluate. It also allows an educator to honor the perspectives of a diverse student body. Instead of providing students with questions, one may ask “What questions do students bring with them?” Have they ever wondered whether silly putty is a solid or liquid? Have they noticed the beads of water which form on a cold glass on a hot day? Simple questions based on observation provide a bridge to making sense of the world through arts, humanities, science, and mathematics.
This combination of focusing on student strengths and valuing inquiry leads to approaching learning from several different angles. Although I will use a textbook when appropriate, there are other ways to investigate curricular questions and the questions of students. Towards this end, I attempt to incorporate different ways of knowing and understanding. As mentioned before, I determine what kinds of questions students have and, if possible, how they have answered these questions. I encourage students to talk with each other, to construct meaning with their classmates. For example, while working on biographies, students are encouraged to interview their peers, creating an ongoing dialogue about who they are. Or in math, we may work with algorithms, patterns, tables, number models, or manipulatives. By addressing a concept in several different ways, students develop an appreciation for the various ways of knowing and begin to see how these ways of knowing may be related across disciplines. Furthermore, I regularly encourage students to discuss what was going on the classroom. As a class, we share with each other things we have discovered: we read, write, observe, discuss, model. The creation of meaning is not abstract, but occurs in a social, interdisciplinary context.