I am writing this as an introduction as we begin our quest around student-driven, high expectation instruction that does not approach student’s needs from a deficit perspective. For those of you who may be skeptical or confused about how this type of teaching is possible, I would say that used to  be me. And by taking the leap of faith to try it, I have realized how amazing it is and how paradigm shifting it can be. There are two components of this framework that have illuminated assumptions about education and instruction that I held and had not previously realized.

The first is how imperative the belief that students are capable of doing this kind of work. I know that sounds silly, but the majority of time that I have had to explain the course or how we teach… people are confused… teachers are confused…

But what if the kids don’t want to do it?

What if they refuse?

How do you get them to comply?

(The underlying assumption with these is that students do not want to read, think or do work- either as a group or independently)

How do you ensure that they are learning?

What is the objective?

How do they learn if you don’t teach a lesson?

(The assumption with these questions is how are you teaching/beliefs about what good teaching looks like)

It’s not a complaint or a judgement, these are the same questions I asked when first introduced to this model of instruction, and continued to have for some time.  And the reality is… I’m not teaching. Not in the traditional sense anyways. I am not the authority figure with knowledge about reading, ideas and information that is passing it on to them, rather, I am a guide to help them through the process of their own thinking, analyzing and synthesizing information about life and the world after they have read and drawn their own conclusions. It has taken me time and experience with this method and my own application of it in the classroom to appreciate and believe in it as profoundly as I do now.

The second assumption about education that this approach has forced me to confront is how the process of schooling has actually been teaching students that the way school works is that the teacher tells you what to do and how, and if you can follow directions and complete it in the expected form, you will get good grades. Fill in the blanks, worksheets, organizers etc. are all looking for students to complete an activity in a specific way. Failure to follow form, directions or structure results in the conclusion that the student is not proficient.

This forces the child to cut off and ignore their own instincts about their thoughts and thought process. The illusion of singularity of a correct answer drives the narrative in schools of being “right” or “wrong” (which is determined by the teacher).  Therefore, we as teachers must reflect on the difference between education and schooling. We as the teacher often look at planning units of study, questions to check for comprehension, and graphic organizers as being helpful to students. We are told and instructed ourselves that these things make us good teachers.  Guiding them towards important parts of a text, helping them think about the characters and storyline. But that is the exact problem with such activities… we are guiding them towards what WE THINK IS IMPORTANT and do NOT allow them to determine  for themselves what THEY THINK IS IMPORTANT!  

Our students are people, with their own intelligence, capacity to reflect and draw conclusions without us, the teacher.  The more I practice with this pedagogy, the less I want to guide them and the more I want to hear what they think when reading about a topic.

These are two different sides of the same coin. On one hand as a teacher, having faith in the students to engage in the “work” of learning and in order to do that, I have to give up control and step back and allow them the space to speak, the freedom to try, fail and help them figure out how to try again. On the other side, we must confront our understandings and beliefs around education. Teachers have to critically evaluate- how much are students really learning? And are students learning not only content, but the skills to engage with a text or an activity without being overly dependent on the support of the teacher? Students themselves have to internalize that they  are able to think, reflect, draw conclusions and articulate a perspective independent of me- that I am not the end-all-be-all for their learning. Students have to un-learn schooling and think about learning and education in a new way. It takes so much time just for them to acclimate to the fact that I want to know what their thoughts are and what they think about what they are reading. Until they are used to it they continue to turn to me when they are down reading and look expectantly for me to tell them something or direct them in someway.

Reading this back, I realize the irony of my words. If you had shown me this letter 2 years ago I would never have thought that these would be my words. Two years ago I was still asking all those questions listed above and more. But with mindfulness, reflection, an amazing coworker/department leader (Mac)- I am in love with teaching again, in love with my students and their beautiful minds. I hope that you enter this with an open mind and open heart in order to gain all that is possible from this approach not only for you, but for the young adults you will be working with, your students.

-B. Marie Fertitta