Several weeks ago, while coaching a new teacher in our new reality, I observed the use of a similar pattern or practice to instruction. The teacher would assign a vocabulary word as a part of the warm up or do now. Then, students would read a short passage - something from either an old New York State English exam or NewsELA. Finally, students would complete a series of comprehension questions with little or no opportunity to discuss the topics. Each time I observed the teacher, this was often the case. Interactions were typically teacher-centered with students looking to the teacher to serve as a source of knowledge. When I asked why she taught this way, she said, “This is the only way I can reach them. They just aren’t interested in anything we are doing.” In the same vein of thinking, she also added, “I remember my own teachers teaching me like this too and I turned out just fine.”
Inherent to this teacher’s thinking are two problematic topics. The first is that we as educators often have a propensity to emulate the same practices that were encountered or felt were “successful” as young learners (Ramkellawan-Arteaga, 2017). The second is that this teacher is utilizing coded language to imply that her students are (a) unable to tackle difficult concepts or tasks because they are not intelligent, and (b) potential confirmation bias as it relates to her students being interested in the topic or her class, period. What is notable about this reflection is the absence of the teacher reflecting on her role in educating her tutelage. What is her responsibility to creating creative learning spaces and experiences for her students? Why does she believe that prior concepts or methods of teaching from perhaps 5 or more years ago, might be effective now? How is she taking into account the interests and voices of students as well as authentic aspects of their lives?
Teachers are some of the hardest working people I know. This is a statement I affirm and adhere to based on lived experiences as a middle school English teacher and as an instructional coach. However, we often do our work in silos without asking for the perspective and input of those who receive our instruction - the students! Furthermore, our students are filled with innovative ideas around learning, not to mention greater awareness of pressing social issues due to their proximity to technology. If anything, there is so much we can learn from students as they can learn from us.
As a principal designer of the units of study associated with Elevating Voices, the goal was to bring awareness not just to talented authors of color who highlight authentic experiences of children of color, but to also create learning opportunities in which students were able to make substantive text to self connections. Ultimately, students should have the opportunity to reflect on the following:
- What common life experiences exist between the character(s) of these texts and I? In what ways are the experiences of the characters unique and different from my own?
- How am I privileged? In what ways do the texts remind me of the privileges I am afforded? In what ways can I begin to challenge and disrupt inequities that have an impact on others, but not necessarily me?
- What is my call to action? How might the learning experiences of the novel encourage or support a call to action that will push me outside of my comfort zone?
Posing these questions or learning opportunities through the units associated with Elevating Voices prompts the teachers to see themselves as more of a facilitator rather than a distributor of knowledge. In fact, aside from the copious supplemental texts provided to teachers in their planning process, there are several resources available to teachers that will assist in the process. These materials include but are not limited to: discussion protocols, sample formative and summative tasks, discussion questions, and professional learning experiences.
The intentionality of the unit’s structure helps educators pivot away from traditional methods surrounding English Language Arts education. Such methods are grounded in supremacy ideas as to what it means to “be an English teacher” as well as “what counts as good literature.” The units push educators and students to trouble their perceptions of literature and consider methods for recentering the experiences of others in the classroom. Such a shift is beneficial not just for those who identify as non-white, People of Color, but also those who identify as white. Exposure to diverse experiences has been proven to benefit students of all races and socio-economic backgrounds (Wells, Fox & Cordova-Cobo, 2016).
Our goal, as educators, is to support the development of the next generation’s drive to change the world. First, we must trust in their capacities as intellectuals. Then, we must be willing to provide learning experiences that move beyond our perception of best practice and into that which will disrupt inequity. After all, we are leading by example in our practice.
By: Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D