It can be a scary thing to reflect upon, but every move made in the classroom by the teacher can either heighten or hamper the humanity growing in each student. In every decision, I make I can uplift a student, perhaps just one little step towards actualizing the potential inside, or I can leave a student static in their development. Or even worse, the unjust decision can rob students of their dignity.
The power and authority in the classroom resides in the teacher by default. Students are conditioned from day one of school to respect their elders, their teacher. We are addressed as Mr. or Ms. I suppose all of that is fine. Respect is a beautiful foundation upon which to build the classroom environment. What troubles me is when that respect is then used to instill authoritarian compliance and not as a way to build communal classroom rapport.
The question I am pondering upon presently is this: Is it respect that teachers call upon in asking student to comply with classroom expectations, or is it rather from a position of power? Take your seat. Open up your binder. Put away that. We ask for compliance. We demand it. Are we demanding obedience? If so, we are hampering the humanity growing in each student?
The teacher must wear many hats throughout every school day. Must one of the hats be the boss? The factory manager supervising working students? Students, then like employees, who have no democratic protection to question task or process? Or, must teachers wear a badge like law enforcement? A potentially even more vulgar display of power.
The teacher might choose to wield power in order to advance through learning activities and objectives. In thus using power as an instrument for control, the student cannot grow upward and outward, letting the beautiful individual within reach out like blossoms upon a thousand branches. Instead, the student grows tethered and tied, straight, bound to the position of yielding through the teacher-student power struggle.
The teacher must reconcile this. In what ways can we create social and behavioral accountability in the classroom, in a way that flows from and feeds into mutual respect, without resorting to wielding power as a hammer for compliance.
My students call me Mr. But I would prefer they call me Brother before ever calling me Sir.
Democracy and education go hand in hand. I read that somewhere.
For democracy to function, the public-school system must teach students what democracy is, why it is essential, how to participate in one, and further how to understand the role we each must play in the preserving of democracy.
It is easy to envision how to teach about democracy to our students. What is more complicated is how to teach students democratically. What does it mean to teach for democracy? This requires educators to reimagine and re-envision the role of schooling and their specific philosophies of education.
Teaching for democracy requires educators to focus on the importance of questioning in the classroom. A democratic education cannot be a one-way transfer of information, from the mouth of the teacher direct into the empty information receptacles in our students’ heads. Democratic education requires two-way transfer. Two-way transfer requires teachers to commit to the role of questioner, and in turn teach students how to also grow into this role.
Through asking questions, the teacher invites students into the class, into the learning community. But what questions are asked? They cannot be closed-questions that seek out only one desired response. Questions that serve to only confirm the perspective and the authority of the teacher. Questions that only warrant one correct response force students to all accept one avenue of thought. Any divergent idea must then be wrong. This mode of questioning does not promote democratic education. It does not validate creative, expressive thought. It is not democratic.
When a teacher asks a question, seeking to hear only one “right” answer, that teacher is conditioning students to think like the teacher. It does not validate a student’s perspective, should that student not see the answer the teacher desired. It says to the student, You are wrong. Now learn to think like me.
Thus, teachers should pose open-ended questions. These questions are not concerned with the need to have a student repeat a factual bite of information presented prior by the teacher or textbook. Instead, the question should promote thinking and further the student’s reasoning. It should welcome students into a prompt and allow for interpretation. Open-questions don’t live in the Who/What/When/Where world. They reside in the How/Why/Would/Could/Should land.
Most importantly, open-questions promote dialogue, and dialogue is a critical component of democracy. Teachers pose the question (though, this locus of control should also be released to students after they have learned the technique of forming their own open-questions), allow time for students to think first, then share ideas. This sharing could be done with partners or small-groups first. This way, all students can feel prepared to enter into a whole-class dialogue, feeling more confident in their own responses, or sharing an insight they gained from a partner. Dialogue has moved from the teacher to the student, to student groups, and then back to the entire class. The most important task of the teacher then is to keep the discussion flowing and by responding to students, asking students to respond to each other, and posing further questions.
In this sense, the teacher sheds a bit of the educational authoritarian role. Yes, the teacher posed the first question, but then must become the facilitator of dialogue. Which is a skill that takes much practice! How does a teacher, with very specific learning objectives for each day’s lesson in mind, then lead instruction that delivers content without lecturing at students for extended time lengths? The skill, which takes practice as does everything worthwhile, is for the teacher to be able to form open-question prompts and classroom discussion routines that bring students into the content and drive student thinking towards learning objectives. Then uses further questions and student responses to guide discussions to meet and exceed the objectives. Democratic education in action.
For democratic dialogue to be utilized effectively, it must become the norm of the classroom. Set routines and protocols should be put in place. A classroom culture of community and discussion does not just appear; it must be cultivated. Once this culture is established, discussion becomes the norm. And once discussion is the norm, the willingness and the confidence of students to take risks by answering the open-question prompts posed by the teacher, or by their peers, grows and grows.
Each teacher must develop a system for open-questioning and discussion that works for them. Here are some routines that work for me:
*Daily Warm-ups. Each day of class begins with an open-ended question that students discuss together in partners for a few minutes as a rehearsal for a whole-class discussion.
*Begin every activity with a question. Let this question be the hook to grab student interest in an activity, or to determine/activate students’ prior knowledge.
*Discussion Days. In my class, every Thursday we engage in discussion of a worthy reading they’ve been assigned for homework. Discussion begins in partners as a way to rehearse for the formal discussion.
One of my biggest goals for this new school year was to really develop ways to transform my classroom from one where discussions helped students complete their activities, to one where activities helped students engage in discussions. Big discussions. Critical discussions. And, little, low-stakes ones, too.
This year, I’ve rethought almost every aspect of my teaching. Three quotes that I keep close to my teacher’s heart guided me:
“Education is a social process.”–John Dewey
“By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own…The teacher must adopt the role of content facilitator, not content provider.” ―Lev Vygotsky
“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”―Paulo Freire
Perhaps the third quote fits into this little ramble most snugly. This year, and beginning in the summer before, I rethought every. single. move. I make in the classroom. How can I bring more opportunities for dialogue into this activity?
I’ll focus on just one of these opportunities here.
Each week, on Monday I assign a reading. Not a textbook reading. Something much powerful. Something with perspective. Something with some stakes. Something with a bite. But most of all, something that is worthy of discussing together.
I don’t assign any comprehension reading questions with it. I only ask students to read the text closely and annotate in any when that they are comfortable with. I want that first read to be very open.
Each Thursday, a large portion of our class period is dedicated to discussing the text. First, as a Warm-up, we open class by giving students the opportunity to reflect on what they found to be the most interesting or the most confusing about the reading. Next, I show students a few discussion questions I had crafted about the reading–the things I most want to discuss and leave open the opportunity for the students to pose a question of their own to the class. I then give the students six minutes to talk with their table partners about the discussion questions, as a way to prepare for the whole class discussion.
I have this whole process that I’ve developed this year for how to facilitate the whole-class discussion. It’s pretty innovative (according to me). But I know it would be difficult to explain the process in words here. Trust me though, it works. Perhaps it really works because I made participating in the discussions an actual part of the students’ grades. Each week I enter a grade for their participation in our discussions. For the students who don’t get the opportunity to talk (my “small class” has 39 students!), they can receive their discussion points by answering the discussion points in writing. I use the site Edmodo for this. See below:
Essential Question Quickwrites
Part of my core philosophy for teaching is that students need frequent opportunities to engage in all types of writing—low-stakes, medium-stakes, high-stakes. Writing must become a daily part of the classroom routine and of the classroom culture. One way to achieve this is open topics/units of instruction with an Essential Question Quickwrite.
*Help build student interest in the topic
*Give opportunity for quick, on-demand, low-stakes writing
*Connect historical topics with larger, and contemporary, issues
*Provide an opening for an introductory class discussion
- Craft an open-ended and thought-provoking question to serve as a way to get students to understand the importance of a topic.
- Present question to students in the opening of the unit/topic of instruction
- Allow five minutes for quiet drafting time then open the class up for discussion by asking students to share their responses.
- This can also be repeated at the close of the unit/lesson (with the same question) to serve as summative assessment of the topic.
“Is an act of protest ever too small?”
I use this question as an opening to our exploration of the methods employed during the Civil Rights Movements.
I began my teaching career at the middle school level where the first thing I learned (the hard way!) is that students need structure. Students need routines in class—especially for daily class opening. Students misbehave when they do not know what they are expected to do. Class should begin in such a way that clear expectations for behavior and activity are understood by the students and modeled by the teacher.
*Focus students on an engaging task as soon as they enter the classroom
*Establish the classroom culture that we begin work before the bell rings
*Get students thinking about concepts for the day’s lesson before the lesson begins; or, have students reflect on the previous day’s learning and make connections
*Build a system of accountability in students for daily participation
- I project the Warm-up for the question for the day using an LCD projector connected to my laptop so students clearly see it as they enter the room. But in years past I have also just had the daily Warm-up question written on the white board. The Warm-up question can go in different directions:
- A question to review concepts from the previous day as a way to check for understanding or reinforce key ideas
- A question meant to gauge and/or activate prior knowledge concerning the topic of the day’s lesson
- A metacognitive question designed to have students reflect on their own learning and content or historical thinking skill understanding
- Students are given three minutes to answer the Warm-up. I have students answer in their history notebook or binder that they use for my class only. I use a timer I found online and hit Start when the tardy bell rings.
- I stress from the beginning of the year that these three minutes are not meant to be silent time—I want the students talking with each other, sharing their thoughts concerning the Warm-up question. This is how I model from day one, that my class is discussion-based. I not only encourage partner and small-group talk, I expect it!
- When the three-minute timer has sounded, I greet class and devote our attention to the question. I utilize a random student calling method as a way to build student task accountability in my class. Each student desk has a number on it and I made a numbered deck of index cards of my own. I pick a card at random, call out the desk number, and the student at that desk shares with the class their response to the Warm-up. It’s key here, as the teacher, to always validate the student’s response, even if the answer seems off-track. In order to encourage and value student participation, the teacher needs to appreciate all responses students offer. With a degree of careful skill and much practice, the teacher can use any student Warm-up response as the springboard into an opening discussion for the historical topic and learning activities of the day.
This was an idea I posed to my US History classes yesterday:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
Here’s some context.
I wanted to put together a lesson to give my students a new window to examine the LA Riots of 1992, an event most of my students (all angelenos) had heard about, but not ever really examined. But I didn’t know where to begin. I had trouble coming up with the angle for this lesson. The objective I wanted to reach. In what way would I frame this lesson?
A quote I love from MLK danced in my mind:
“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years…”
King was speaking after the Watts riots. That line. The language of the unheard. That stood out.
It gave me the idea for how to frame this lesson.
I opened our class period by asking students to offer aloud what they already knew about the LA Riots. Most students knew the very basics. They had heard of Rodney King. Being angelenos, the topic of police brutality is not something they are unfamiliar with. But I wanted to show that the riots cut deeper than just Rodney King, the beating, and the acquittal of the officers. That was juts the spark that lit the fuse of all of the socio-economic troubles that Reaganomics and systemic racism had wrought on communities in Los Angeles, such as South Central.
I asked students to respond to the MLK quote. What does that mean: The language of the unheard? What did it mean to be “unheard?” How can we connect that to South Central. An area my students are familiar with. Several of my students live adjacent to Normandie and Florence. But they had no idea what had taken place at that intersection on April 29, 1992.
Next, I showed the class a clip of the news coverage, helicopter shots and white anchors talking over it, of that intersection on that volcanic day. The class had never seen this footage before. Footage of their community. Their Los Angeles. Burning. After the eight minute clip I asked students to discuss with their partners these two questions:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
What is the story that the media is telling about your city? What is the media leaving unheard? The students shared some very profound responses.
So, I wanted to practice this way of thinking a bit more. Around the classroom I had hanging photographs I had found online and printed out from those six days of rioting. Students were asked to walk around my “gallery” of photographs, while I played the song “April 19, 1992” by the Long Beach band, Sublime. When the music stopped, students were asked to go to the picture that they were most intrigued by, take the photo from the wall, and return to their seat with it. The task was now to revisit those two questions again:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
I asked students to write two short creative paragraphs. For the first one they had to take on the role of the media, a photographer on the scene in Los Angeles, but not a member of the community and describe the story that is being told by the photograph. For the second paragraph the students had to imagine a story to go along with the photo–a story the photographer would not understand. The story that was left unheard. The students were given the chance to rewrite a narrative about their community in the midst of an eruption. An eruption as a riot. A riot as a call. A call of the voices unheard.
Their paragraphs are due on Friday. I can’t wait to see what “unheard” stories they come up with.
Disclaimer: This idea was totally borrowed from Wayne Au of Rethinking Schools. And it worked brilliantly.
A few weeks ago we were in the middle of our Civil Rights Movements unit in my US History classes. The third week of the unit focused on guiding students in critiquing different philosophies for action of different civil rights leaders. First we looked the evolution of SNCC, from its nonviolent approach early in the 1960s through to its embrace of the rhetoric of Black Power by 1966. Also, we read the essay the “Power of Nonviolence” by Martin Luther King. Additionally, we read “Message to Grassroots” by Malcolm X and listened to the “Ballot or the Bullet.” Finally, we inspected the 10 Point Platform of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In the end, students had to write an argumentative essay centered on the philosophy they determined to be the most effective.
But I wanted to add an extra layer into this week. An opportunity for students to make an even more personal connection to these philosophies. In particular, we concentrated on the Panthers.
To open the class period which was devoted to the Panthers, students had a few minutes to create a list of some things they would like to see changed about our school. They were excited to share their ideas, obviously. But after each student shared an idea for a change, I pushed them to go further by asking Why? Then I would prompt them to finish the statement, Because I believe that… Quickly student responses evolved quickly from just saying school should start hours later and end hours earlier, to more substantive responses that were critical over graduation requirements they felt were unnecessary, or how the school needs a better counselor to student ratio, etc. It was easy fro them to connect their “want” to their “belief.”
The reason why I wanted students to frame their responses into “wants” followed by “beliefs” is that this is exactly how the Panthers formatted their 10 Point Platform. Eat begins with a “We want” followed by an explanation that begins “We believe that.” After devoting a good chunk of the class period to reading and digesting the socialist philosophy espoused in the platform, students were ready to write their own platforms.
The instructions were simple. Choose a topic. It could be school. It could be your community. Your country. The world! The students then had to brainstorm what changes would constitute their platform. They had fun with this. I allowed them the freedom to think far outside of the box. Some students needed guidance, though, crafting the “I Believe” statements. I needed to show them that without a strong explanation of belief, their list (especially if focused on school) could sound just like a list of complaints. We wanted something much more forceful than that.
The students dreamed beautiful lists that rang of social justice. What I treasured most was then reading their belief statements to get a clearer picture of the issues that mattered most to each of my students. Powerful stuff, indeed.