Developing A Sense of Purpose Leads to Deeper Learning
As a teacher to brilliant, talented, and resilient human beings, I have one significant purpose: I must teach my students to read, write, and think in a way that allows them to access power and helps them transform their lives and the world. I cannot fail, so I must make every lesson count.
I am not alone. At my school, I am surrounded by quality teachers who consistently work through lunch breaks and weekends, devoted to this same purpose. However, even we as teachers are not the only ones committed to learning. Our students also come to school with strong sense of purpose and responsibility. Many of them are older siblings conscious of being role models to younger brothers and sisters. Some are first generation immigrants, almost all are from low-income families, and most will be the first in their family to have the opportunity to go to college. As a result of these facets of their identities, they have an intrinsic purpose for coming to school: to make a difference in their lives and the lives of their families; to change their future prospects for the better.
Some teachers who work with students from similar backgrounds lower their expectations. Rather than seeing students as young people with potential to be explored, they see deficits or excuses for why these students cannot or should not want to learn. Such teaching practices are not a deliberate attempt to further disenfranchise students. On the contrary, teachers think that having low expectations is compassionate, that by lowering the bar they are being understanding and caring. In reality, lower expectations keep students from deeper learning. It prevents them from accessing the lessons and skills that can have the most significant impact on their lives, from using their sense of purpose to achieve their goals.
I recently spoke to a colleague about her visit to another high school where she had hoped to observe high-quality mathematics instruction. Instead, she found teachers telling a narrative that depicted their students as individuals who "do not care about school." Teachers who engage in this kind of rhetoric about young people fail to see the potential in their students and do not realize that the students' presence exhibits a promise for achieving purpose. When students show up, they simply need adults and teachers who can ignite their intrinsic motivation and sense of responsibility by having high expectations.
Recently my students began reading the Greek tragedy "Antigone" by Sophocles. At this point in the year, we had already read whole-class common texts, including memoirs and short stories. However, "Antigone" would prove to be their biggest feat yet. Most students come to my class reading well below grade level, and anyone who has read "Antigone," even the translations, knows that it can be tough. I am unequivocal with my students that, regardless of difficulty, it is vital that they master reading strategies that will help them navigate challenging texts. Because the themes and conflicts in this play are particularly relevant and relatable to my students, I knew it was the perfect play to have them grapple with.
On one particularly challenging "Antigone" day, I asked my students to identify important phrases from the play using an Essential Question. Many struggled with this task because the challenging text made it difficult to understand the story. At the end of the day we regretfully assessed that we had not achieved our purpose: we did not engage with deeper learning strategies that would have allowed them to tackle Antigone. This was my opportunity to lower expectations. I could have changed the assignment, told my students that the task had been too difficult. I could have forgotten my purpose.
Instead, after their reflection, I shared my assessment of what happened. I reminded them that they were not using their reading strategies--tools they already had to help them break down difficult texts. Recognizing the significant challenge, I still held them accountable for giving up and not trying harder. My students didn't like how it felt to not achieve their purpose--not only because they had struggled but because I explicitly told them that they had failed to utilize skills they already had. They needed this reminder: they could do better and had a responsibility to do so.
As a result, my students approached the next class session with a higher level of engagement. They read deeply, collaborated with other scholars, and truly understood what they read. In small groups, they participated in ongoing dialogue about the play, clarified for each other the language of the text, and pushed each other's thinking. All activity was student-led and student-paced; I was able to move around the room to further push their thinking and understanding, offering positive feedback to keep them motivated. At the end of class, even my students who struggle the most had a positive experience with literature once again. One student proudly pointed out that this time, we had met our purpose. Most importantly, every single student felt as though he or she had achieved.
As teachers, we cannot neglect the fact that, just like us, students have a profound purpose to fulfill in our classrooms. Unless we are able to tap into that purpose, create support systems, and hold them accountable for achievement, we are committing an injustice and failing at our own important purpose. All students deserve to be honored for being present and reminded that they are capable of fulfilling their potential. And they deserve teachers who both recognize their students' sense of purpose and hold them to high expectations in the classroom.