Voice and Choice in the Classroom
This post is by Anthony Conwright, who teaches humanities at High Tech Middle Media Arts in San Diego.
Before I started teaching I worked as an academic coach for a humanities classroom. After class one day, a Mexican student started to talk to me about history. He said, "Mr. Anthony, I know I'm learning history, but I don't think I am learning real history. My grandpa always told me that what we learn in school isn't the true history of Mexicans in the United States and I kind of want to learn about that."
This was not a student someone would describe as "high-level" or "hardworking," but that one conversation affected what I would teach when I became a teacher. Once I started teaching 6th grade humanities, I made it a point to teach about the Mexican Revolution, and show students how Mexico systematically lost land to the United States. Part of learning about the Mexican Revolution includes reading Esperanza Rising, a book deeply rooted in Mexican culture. After learning about the Mexican Revolution, I always think about what would happen if curriculum development were a democratic process that included student voice. I can't help but think about how my own education would have been different with regard to slavery, the civil rights movement, and LGBT rights and how much more of a diverse education I would have received if a diverse pool of people had input on what I would learn - including myself.
Listening to students' voices when it comes to curriculum has not been easy. There have been times when I did not know the answers to questions, and times when I felt uncomfortable talking about the history and culture of a group to which I do not belong. However, this is where the artistry of teaching lies. The mark of a good teacher is not in the amount of content a teacher knows, but the ability to teach content that the teacher may not know. Listening to the students has helped me focus less on what I know and more on what the students want to know.
Student choice is not synonymous with "no structure." Rather, student choice provides teachers with a different type of structure. Giving students the power to make choices in the classroom can get a little noisy, but the ultimate goal, believe it or not, is to have the problem of many students voicing their needs and choices.
As a teacher, I have been plagued with the anxiety of wondering if students are engaged and if they find my class interesting. One way I alleviate this fear is to ask students what questions they are interested in, which takes pressure from my shoulders because the students provide a blueprint for me to follow to capture their interest. Leading up to Black History Month, for example, I asked the students, "What do you want to know?" They wrote down all their questions, and we worked together to find answers. When I talked to my colleagues about having a Socratic seminar on the question "Should we celebrate Black History Month?" one replied, "I would not feel comfortable doing that." While it is easy to sympathize with that teacher's fear, it is also important to reflect upon the information his students are not getting and, more important, the lost opportunity for cultural dialogue in his classroom resulting from to his discomfort.
During a recent project I was unsure of what to do for exhibition. I wanted to find a professional audience to show off the student work because I, myself, felt pressure to have an authentic audience. I was worried about what my colleagues would think if I had an exhibition at school and not outside the classroom. I decided to ask the students whom they would want to see their work and who would make their work feel meaningful. For this assignment in particular, they all said, "my parents." I decided to listen to the students, and we had exhibition at school. For all the debate about the meaning of an authentic audience, I believe that it is not authentic for me to tell the students who their audience will be. The students are creating the work, and therefore should have a say in how, where, and to whom it is exhibited.
In the event, students were happy and parents were happy. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but the students were genuinely happy to show their work to the peers and parents.
When incorporating student choice in the classroom, you may encounter a teacher who says, "students don't know what they want." This, in some cases, can be true. When students arrive into a classroom, they may not be thinking they will have choice. They have to figure out what they want to learn, and they also need to practice exercising their voice. These processes give us a democratic classroom.
I have learned that my role as a teacher is not to simply give information but to facilitate discovery, which sometimes means I have to give up some of my control and hand it over to my sixth-graders. If we are preparing students for the real world, we must prepare them to be citizens in a democratic society, which starts in the classroom.