By Toni M. Poling
I value student voices.
My students have opinions, lots of them, about everything! It’s very to become dismissive of a teenagers’ opinions; they’re often not well thought out, well researched, or well stated. But if I truly value student voices, it means I not only have to provide a platform for them to be heard, but also provide them the opportunities to become knowledgeable about the topics they want or need to have an opinion about. For me, this starts with the articles of the week I mentioned earlier.
AoWs are on a range of topics and come from a variety of credible news sources. My students receive them on Monday and have the entire week to read/annotate the article, and then write a 1-page reflection on their thoughts and opinions based on the article. On Fridays, we turn in the AoWs (they’re worth about 25 points in my class) and we talk about what we learned. What surprised us in what we read. What we already knew. What we learned. We read articles about politics, science, technology, sports, and popular culture. We talk about the hard things because my students face the hard things every day.
From here, we take topics to our writers’ notebooks, we hold Socratic seminar discussions, we make connections to the literature that we’re reading. In my AP Lit class, we read The Awakeningfor summer reading. This novel is always a challenge for students because they approach it with their 2018 lenses on; they forget about everything that came before. In our discussion of The Awakening, not only did we discuss feminist in the pre-twentieth century south, but we also made connections to our modern understanding of gender roles, gender fluidity, social justice, and even the #metoo movement.
The other part is letting them have a voice in their own education. Last spring I was awarded a sizeable grant from a local university in order to conduct some action research in my classroom around the use of student-selected independent reading to increase students’ stamina, fluency, and comprehension. As part of that grant, I was able to purchase almost $3000.00 worth of independent reading material for our classroom library. As an English teacher and a book nerd from WAY back, I was like a kid in a candy story…or an English teacher in a book store? Anyway…I started my list of authors and titles I wanted to include in my library. Then I found myself stumbling over names like Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Jay Asher, James Dashner – authors named in the #metoo movement as men who did not always act with respect for others. I didn’t know what to do with those names; men who as authors create unbelievable works for art, but as human beings leave much to be desired. So, instead of deciding for my students, I invited them in to the conversation and I posed the question: “Can we, and should we, separate art from artist?” Essentially, I wanted to know if they wanted access to those books. We had an incredibly open, candid, and adult conversation that started with, “I thought you didn’t believe in censorship, Mrs. Poling.” Well…they got me there. In the end, they decided, and I supported, that they should have access to those authors and their books, but I shouldn’t makethose authors required reading and I should be open about what those men had been accused of. I put those authors on the shelf; some have chosen to read them, some have not.
I value creating a safe and authentic learning environment.
I believe in being transparent with my students whenever possible. Part of that is letting them see me making mistakes, own up to them, and correct them. Part of that is working alongside them, writing when they write, reading when they read, standing aside and letting them lead the discussion when it’s appropriate.
My students’ all have writers’ notebooks in the form of simple composition books. We write in them every day. When my kids write in their notebooks, I write in mine, under the document camera where they can see me. They can see me make mistakes, scratch them out, start over. They can see me sit and think while staring at a blank page when I’m having difficulty aligning my thoughts to the prompt for the day. They can see me when I’m on a roll and the words are flowing so fast that my handwriting is getting messier and messier. They can see themselves, whatever type of write they are that day, mirrored in my notebook under that document camera.
The first time I wrote in front of my students I was incredibly uncomfortable. There’s a vulnerability that comes with letting others see your processand not just your finished work. But there are two truths I had to face about this: one is that I make my students show me their process ALL THE TIME! I ask them to be vulnerable with me every day, to varying degrees of success. The other is that, as the teacher, I am likely the strongest writer in that room. If they don’t see me struggling with writing, how will they ever learn that struggling is part of the learning process?
I value the productive struggle of learning and a growth mindset.
In 2006, Carol Dweck literally wrote the book on mindsets. Her text explored the ideas between a fixed mindset: believing that one’s intelligence is fixed and therefore cannot be changed; and a growth mindset: believing that one’s intelligence could be developed and grown. Not surprising to any good educators, Dweck’s research found that students with a growth mindset outperform students with a fixed mindset. What might be a little more surprising to some, however, is that a growth mindset isn’t just about effort or how hard the student works. Though effort is key for students’ achievement, it’s not the only factor to be considered. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve. And that’s what good teachers provide.
Each day students file into classrooms and place their trust in their teachers. They believe their teachers will support them, respect them, mentor them, and teach them. They believe their teacher will come in every day smiling and willing to give each student 100% of herself. They believe in their teacher because their teacher believes in them. Research tells us that teachers have the highest school-based impact on student achievement, but teachers will tell you that comes from raising a students’ self-esteem at the same time we are raising their academic achievement.
WVCTE is wondering how you empower your students.