I've been rethinking and reevaluating my role as a classroom teacher quite a bit lately, often by posing questions such as "Would I enjoy being a student in my own classroom?" or "Would I teach the same way if my own child was one of the students?" These questions, I must admit, allowed me to see my own classroom from a rather perspective unusual.
A couple of weeks ago, I got even a better question. It happened during a professional development meeting where we were discussing a book on teaching grammar. In one of the chapters, the author posed this question: "What can I give my students that they cannot find on their own?" While the original question was asked in a different context, I immediately thought it would be a great question to ask about teaching in general. Certainly about my own!
"What can I give my students that they cannot find on their own?"
To a large extent, I feel that the answer is in what Will Richardson calls the "Age of Abundance". Honestly, with so much knowledge and information available to students 24/7/365 at their fingertips, what can I offer them that they would not be able to find online?
The answers I have come up with so far are - the guidance, vision, and practice that they won't easily find on the Internet, no matter what key words or phrases they use to search.
The following are some examples of the impact the questions made on my teaching:
1. Personalized approach to teaching and learning. It's certainly easier to have a "one size fits all" assignment, task, project, or textbook; if anything, the lesson planning will be less time consuming. However, will every student benefit to the same extent? With different backgrounds, interests, abilities, and majors, there are always some students who would benefit from a modified or altogether different type of a project. Here is an insightful quote from David Cutler's article called "What I learned from teachers who inspired me": "I might teach the way that's uncomfortable for me, but that's fine. My success comes from my students' success." He continued: "To foster greater success, I now strive to teach my students as individuals, not as collective..." Uncomfortable? Indeed! Individuals? Absolutely! How many times we ourselves, as both students and teachers, left a classroom or a meeting feeling relieved that we finally can go home or to our desks and do or learn what we want; something we felt was relevant at the moment. (At this point, I have to admit that I've been very fortunate to be working for an organization that fosters such personal interests of each faculty member!)
So, my practice evolved from assigning a topic (for an essay or presentation) to guiding students to find their own passions, topics of interest, or questions. Even though, sometimes it seems that students find being told what to do easier than finding a topic of their own. After years in school, sadly, many are trained to follow an order and do what they are told. Even college level students struggle when asked to find a topic of their interest! I find it inspiring to know that my classes enable students to search for and discover what excites them, what sparks their curiosity, and what they are capable of!
2. Giving ownership. By giving students ownership of their projects, I hope to give them a measure of control, which, ideally, should result in a greater level of engagement and, subsequently, retaining what they learned. Also, owning the project should increase the level of student motivation. Finally, being in charge of their learning teaches students how to manage freedom of choice and responsibility that comes with it. They make mistakes, but, as a result, they learn from their own (not my) mistakes!
3. Visualizing myself as one of my students (which resulted in a surprising discovery!) I might get excited over a topic as a teacher, but, suddenly, I found myself less excited over the same topic when put myself into my students shoes! It definitely was my aha moment! When I looked at several assignments, topics, activities, and materials as if I had to complete them as a student, they suddenly looked quite different....I admit, they suddenly looked less exciting, appealing, or relevant. The good news is that I then had to brainstorm for some new ideas or approaches in order to meet the objectives in a way that would also appeal to students. Indeed, "It's not what teachers cover, but what students discover!" Putting oneself into the students shoes gives a better picture of what they are to discover:)
4. EDTECH is my friend! It's natural to feel stressed out and anxious just thinking about having everyone doing his/her thing. Here is where edtech (not just tech!) is my best friend! This is the time when all my students can turn to their devices and search for all the available knowledge they need. I don't need to be the only expert in the room and make sure I transmit all my knowledge before they leave; in fact, they can learn by and for themselves, teach each other, and teach me!
5. See individuals, not the group. Again, by picturing myself as ONE of my students, I have developed the habit of viewing each of them as an individual, not collective. The personalities are many - extroverts, introverts, thinkers, talkers, listeners, just to name a few. Add their cultural backgrounds, age differences, and majors - it only makes sense to create a "special" learning environment that will foster each in a different way.
6. Prepare students for THEIR future. Yes, I might have some idea what their futures will be, but it is THEM who know what they want it to be! And in case they don't, just yet, I don't want them to wait until they graduate to realize that a lot of what they learned with me cannot be applied to their lives. I don't want them to wait until they graduate to be finally able to learn what is important, all because I found it more comfortable offering "one size fits all" projects and instructions based on my own passion.
The biggest reward I've got was countless "thank you" from my students. I also was happy to hear that they "finally" learned that they could actually come up with their own questions "about anything" and find some information! (I am talking about college level students here!) They were happy to learn about what was relevant to THEM, not to me. And, above all, my reward was to LEARN about my students that I would not have otherwise - their personalities, their dreams, their passions!
P.S. I facilitate my students' learning by discussing WHY we are doing what we are doing. We discuss the idea and importance of developing their driving questions. I guide them through their "trying" and "exploring". I encourage them to make mistakes and then reflect. I set up steps, stages, and deadlines that can be met. And I show examples.
P.P.S. My students always impress me. The other day, I was debating, again, whether to assign a project "Hero" to my 18 students or to let them choose the topics of their own. I went for the latter. Here are the topics they decided to pursue:
1. Social Media: how can we learn to use it wisely?
2. Procrastination: what strategies can help to overcome procrastination?
3. American vs. Saudi Education System
4. What are the benefits of being a vegetarian?
5. Green Peace: what do they do, and how can we apply?
6. Happiness: what makes people happy - religion, money, family, or something else?
7. Chocolate: why does it make people happy?
As always, I found myself in awe! What a great choice of topics - can't wait to see their presentations!