Monday, June 28, 2010

Classroom Communities

Many might doubt my reasons for using a pedagogy grounded in group work and student content creation as I am only teaching Nutrition. Why would any student need nutrition to be taught through a group process? They might say. For sure, anyone making a food choice has little to no reason to consult with someone else about their choice once they have made it. But as with most disciplines, the history of the decision is about as important as the decision itself. Before someone makes a decision whether about their food, politics, or money, they are in fact consulting an inner dialogue about their own values and beliefs about the impending choice. Now, if there choice is regarding a food and they don't think anything of nutrition, that reflects an absence of nutritional motives from their past. On the other hand though, you can find students who have had plenty of nutrition lessons, eating the worst kinds of foods. The point is that students are incorporating more than just your lessons of the value of nutrition into their decisions. There is a constant tempting of young people's attention in the marketplace. Through the immersion of values and beliefs of popularity, power, and sexiness into the marketplace, young people are convinced to buy all sorts of food products that will contribute little to their health.

It is the innovation and advertisement apparatus of the food industry that must be counteracted by student critical thought and action. Without a mind for their own demands they are totally vulnerable to a class of confusing food claims and vendors without a mind for a young persons best interests. Amidst a community of people not thinking of you, we need an outlet where we can care about ourselves and that which we put into ourselves. In a significant way I am building a community around the premise of critical thought, action, and reflection.

In the classroom, an educator can create a safe space for that same reflection again and again. Through such an engrossing and interactive process anxious ideas of nutrition are channeled into energy for the appropriate expression of culture, personal intellect, and creativity.

When all is said and done, I am working to create a critical community of young people. Through activities raising democratic dialogue and creativity, the students and I are progressing to a point where we care enough to talk at length about our hopes for the health of ourselves and our communities. If someone values their bodies enough and they value their community enough, they will fight to preserve and optimize it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reporting on the Classroom

I have realized that I am a great resource for... well, me. I am always looking for hints to understanding the mindset of students and their motivations, but where I have looked only slightly is my own reservoir of memories from the classroom. Proven to be great raw data I have seen teacher reactions, student morale, and communication between innumerable students and teachers, all of which can be used to make an accurate judgment of the state of a classroom. In other words, I can use first-hand accounts to piece together answers to big questions about contemporary students.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Even the Students in the Back

When the time comes to sit down with the decision-makers in my office I need to be ready to serve a strong case for changing the model of nutrition curriculum. I will need to be able to prove to those power players that the model we ought to pursue operates with a focus on student responsibility rather than teacher knowledge. By this I mean the foundation for classroom work must be the active participation of students with the curriculum work and the real world. At this intersection of theory and pragmatics we will find the way towards attracting students to the subject matter and student retention of knowledge, plus we will have the added bonus of greater critical thinking and an easier discipline model (divide and conquer with small group work). The following is a hopeful look forward to what I will say when that time comes:

Thank you for giving me some time to talk about the Students in the Back. And when I say that I am literally talking about the students being left behind (in the back) by curriculum and pedagogy. We have a tendency to forget about the students in the back. We have all heard about them, but very few of us have ever actually heard from them. This is the problem. The classroom is being treated as something like an experiment on the silencing of a generation. As you can imagine, most students do not enjoy this set up. They rebel without much of a cause. We educators must use our lessons to put students in a position they have most likely never been before: the front of the class.

It would seem that we have ample evidence of the failure of the Philadelphia School District's curriculum and classroom management (pedagogy included). I myself could provide testimony to the poor quality of the pedagogy and curriculum, the resulting misbehavior of the students, and the final mismanagement by teachers. My diagnosis, therefore, regards the education system as a system in failure that will remain in failure until the lack of logic is replaced with a foundation of critical thinking, empowerment, and group work all dedicated to teaching subjects grounded in the local culture. I have seen it work. I have seen students originally disengaged become excited and so interested in the work that they made sure they had a chance to get to the front of the class for a chance to report their work to the rest of the class. They wanted their voice heard. Changing the power structure in the classroom changes students. I can guarantee that if a teacher can put a student in a position to 'stand up' in the front of the class after having completed work they are proud of, you will have a student with a totally different perspective on education and whose responsibility it is to lead in the classroom. This new level of engagement is only heightened when you give local culture as context for the work. With radical change, comes radical results: student leaders.

Leadership and empowerment cannot be underestimated as motivating forces for young people of all ages. Instead of reinforcing the traditional classroom relationship of teacher (authority) vs. student (subject) we must invite students to the front of the class to present their work, thereby taking on a position of authority and sharing in the responsibility of the work. So, no longer am I the sole teacher in the room. In fact, every student has the potential to act as one in the front of the class even if it is only for a little while. Such shared classroom management communicates a level of trust students are reluctant to misuse and a seriousness about leadership that must be embraced and used to improve their lives.

Along with strong lessons, democratic dialogue (students presenting in the front of the class paired with group conversations about the work) and small group work, the class changes from a digression from the real word, to an inclusion of and progression upon work already done.

Group work is terribly important to the inclusion of students into managing the classroom. Traditionally, classroom work and classroom order is dictated by the teacher and what is correct or incorrect is based on the analysis of the teacher. If you can implement small student group work regarding somewhat open-ended questions, then the classroom work is dictated by students and the scale of achievement becomes who finishes the work rather than who is "correct". Rewarding students who finished their work with an appropriate prize, then student direction should move toward getting more and more work done so that more students can receive notice and prizes. Thus, any issues of order and discipline should decrease dramatically as students will want to focus in order to get the work done. This is incredibly important to communicating to the class that they do have agency and the classroom work can put them into a position of authority if they chose to use it as such. Combining orderly work with student presentations totally changes the dynamics of the classroom. It will no longer be the teachers "base of operations" for directing students, it will become a valuable safe space for critical thought and problem-solving.

Some veteran teachers I have spoken with have cited the massive amount of work this kind of teaching style requires, and at first I had agreed, but not now. Now I know that a classroom project (big enough and interesting to all students) must involve interdependent student forces and it is that interdependence which will lessen the burden of the teacher. A class-wide project can provide enough work for every student, satisfy student passions (thereby motivating), and allow time for teachers to guide lessons and correct student mistakes. There projects should be subject to periodic presentations to reinforce the urgency of work.

We have the chance to give Philadelphia school students a look at what project-based learning focused on critical thinking and problem solving looks like. We will impress them, even the students in the back, as we think seriously about what they would like to see in their neighborhoods. We will remind students of their ownership over the classroom and their communities. Make demands. For their own sake, they must demand an educational system that interests them and puts them in a position to make a difference in their areas. I know that if we structure classes more creatively and critically we will find young people thinking about school in a different way. And as students might have used to put their heads down to sleep before, in this classroom they will be too busy working on community based projects to sleep--even the students in the back.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Classroom-Team

Its difficult to judge my own work especially when the workshops with students go well. Its easy when workshops go poorly. I can pinpoint the source of the difficulty and solve the problem. But when the class does well, and all the students are engaged, I'm lost for problems to solve. As far as I'm concerned I had no problems. So, my math has to change. In order to progress and refine my lessons when classes go well I need to think about the group work besides the nutrition themes I am talking about. I need to think about the group dynamics: the foundations for teaching nutrition or any other themed lesson. If these foundational issues of group unity, group motivation, and group knowledge are not worked on and addressed in a healthy way, the group will not care to stand up for the moral lessons of your themed lessons. Thus, the group and I need to stop and think as the confusion subsides and we realize the foundation of society is cooperation and/or competition.

Because my company gives no feedback and provides no models for education to use as some guide for lessons, I need to do is develop a system of educational models. As I map out the many ways educators can aim to build a captivating, engaging, interactive, and educational lesson, with such a map any organization can begin to narrow in on a desired model as they rule out the models not meeting expectations. Thus, the evolution of an educator's style of teaching. Without a definitive model to work for, educators working to advance and improve their organization will be left with vague understandings of the desired lessons made more clear only by the random materials we are supposed to use for the classes. Worksheets and posters. All I have to work with to build a captivating, engaging, interactive, and educational lesson are worksheets and posters. I need to sit down. I'm confused.

But I have faith in myself. I have faith in the groups of young people I see. I've stopped in and failed and I've stopped in and succeeded. But, from now on I know how important working on the foundation of the group is. And now I know there is no more time to sit down and think. Now is the time to stand up for the others coming after, admit your vulnerability, and ask your students to join you to build a new group. How the new group understands there work is the concern. And the work isn't just nutrition. NO. From now on the work includes standing up, debating, and acting together. In other words: Democracy.