Listening Opened My Eyes
As a high school math teacher, I have spent the last five years trying to meet the challenge that I face daily. The challenge of teaching students mathematical concepts that most of them will never use, with context they know is contrived, mostly because the state requires them to pass a test and meet a core requirement so they can graduate. To really ramp up the task, in choosing math, I chose a subject that the vast majority of my students hate long before they meet me.
As a new teacher, I set out to use inspiring stories, cool videos, state of the art technology, and innovative, research-based instructional strategies to hook my students and show them that math really isn't that bad and that they were all capable of doing it. After my first year, I realized that my supposedly compelling lectures and class demonstrations were nothing more than a dog and pony show designed to get me good teacher evaluations without ever really considering whether or not the students were actually learning the material (and I mean REALLY learning ... not just performing on a test).
I decided to give my students a college-esque teacher evaluation sheet (link at the bottom of this page) to be filled out confidentially at the end of the year. As I poured through the student reflections, I realized, none of the responses mentioned any of the compelling lectures I had given, the cool homework we did, or the well designed tests I gave them. However, several of the responses referenced projects we had worked on, products we had produced, and discussions we had engaged in.
After three years of similar responses, it finally occurred to me that I needed to listen to what they were telling me. Whether AP Calculus or repeater Algebra, my students were clearly telling me that they understood things they actively participated in. They engaged in things they did. They needed an expert in the room to help guide them, to provide them with the tools necessary to complete the next task, to answer questions when they got too far off base, and to hold them accountable to reaching the goals, but they did not like, nor did they retain anything from my thoughtfully designed lectures.
This is not a new concept. For at least a decade, research has suggested collaborative, immersive techniques are are more effective. However, when I observe teachers, and when I reflect on my own classroom, I realize just how easy it is to fall into the trap of regurgitating my learning experience as a student instead of innovatively teaching for true learning. I realize that I am often guilty of making sure my kids can pass a series of tests but routinely fail to teach them how to actually learn. I spend too much time thinking about ancillary school things and not enough time planning quality units and lessons that truly inspire deep, meaningful learning.
To break this cycle, I have forced myself to take sometimes grueling feedback from my students and listen to it. I have started designing my lessons with the end in mind. Focusing on what it is I hope my students can actually do instead of hoping they can perform on some test. I have come to understand that the test scores take care of themselves. It's a giant leap of faith, but I now truly believe that if we teach for deep, meaningful understanding, we don't have to do much in the form of test prep to have good scores. Of course, this type of teaching produces much more than good scores on arbitrary, mandated tests. It produces students who are self-directed, self-sustaining learners who are eager to prove their mettle instead of eager to find a good reason to avoid my class.
My mother is an accomplished pianist heralded for her "ear for music." Playing in churches all of her life, my mom developed a unique ability to fuse jazz chords with gospel syncopation to create beautiful versions of classic songs. As a stay-at-home mom, she took several years off before working to finish her undergraduate degree in music. By the time she went back to school, I was already looking for colleges for myself. In her late thirties she changed her major to music and started back to college. She thrived in the music classes (even theory which she had previously not been exposed to). However, my mom is now nearing retirement age and has still not received her degree. The problem? A College Algebra requirement she simply can't pass.
I am exactly opposite my mom in many ways...especially academically. School always "worked" for me. At a young age I realized I was above average at math and science and that I was good at logic driven exercises. However, I also wanted to be good at music like my mom (and the rest of my family). I took several years of formal piano lessons and listened for hours as my mom would play and try to explain some of the things she was doing. I never got it. When I sit a piano today, I can't play a single song. Though I have had nearly four years of formal music lessons, I still cannot read sheet music (even the simple grade-school books). I am just not wired to "get" music in that way...certainly not on the same level my mom does.
In 21st century education circles, it has become increasing popular and acceptable to claim that every student is capable of being accomplished in STEM related fields. While I do not disagree with this concept, I staunchly oppose the pigeon-holing that has emerged. It would be deemed outlandish for a stakeholder to host a press-conference and claim that every student in the country is capable of becoming a concert pianist, but politicians, educators, and directors are heralded for claiming that every student can be an engineer, architect, or computer programmer. Not only is this absurd, it is crippling. As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, it sends the message to students that if you don't excel in STEM related fields, you are not "smart." I am called smart all the time, but there are tens of thousands of people who are much more advanced than I am in math and programming. I'm just better than average in those fields. Conversely, my mom is rarely referred to as smart, but many would argue she is nearly genius level in her natural musical abilities.
As a teacher, I believe it is my job to find my students' genius and make my content fit. It is my responsibility to tailor my content to their innate strengths in order to help them develop their whole mind. However, I also believe we have a problem entrenched in American education. There is no good reason every student needs to pass Algebra 2 to indicate they are ready to excel in college. Why do we require students with non-STEM genius to prove themselves in STEM classes? Math came easy for me so this wasn't an issue. But, if you told me I would have to acquire 4 piano, or 4 art, or 4 drama credits to graduate, not only would my GPA have cost me scholarship opportunities, it might have kept me from getting my diploma. Surely we can revamp this system and celebrate student strengths equally (whether deemed valuable by manufacturing/tech industries or not)!
--Comments, opposition, questions are always welcomed...that's how I learn best :)
NOTE: I intentionally mention STEM related fields and not "STEM techniques." I do believe that with modern technology demands, all students need to develop learning strategies that align closely with the STEM movement. I am referencing STEM as the basic acronym Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
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