Learning With My Students

Each week, the Humanities 7 students write blog entries on a protected website about the books they are reading. I always write back, and love the give and take that can ensue as well as the chance to learn a bit about each student’s taste in books as well as her thoughts, values, hopes, fears, and more. It’s especially fun when other students join in. Usually, of course, they choose to read fiction. Occasionally, however, they choose non-fiction. Right now, I am engaged in a deep and fascinating conversation with one student over the book The Society of the Mind.

In her first entry, this student wrote about a core metaphor of the brain as a society. It’s a metaphor at once simple and profound. We know of research showing that groups of people solve mazes faster and more efficiently than do individuals, just as the individual cells of the brain coordinate. Her second entry expanded on this theme, and I wrote back to her: “The bit about the whole being more than a set of its parts always makes me think of the Beatles, truly incomparable when together as a group, but never quite hitting those dizzying heights in their solo careers (though most all of them had some great songs, and John Lennon in particular assembled an amazing number of songs that also stand up well today). It also makes me think of our class – I think each of you is pretty amazing on your own, but when you put your heads together, it can be almost magical. On a good day, anyway, which is lots of them.”

The author of The Society of the Mind just happens to be this student’s grandfather, and so this work is making her more aware of what her grandfather has accomplished and, in the process, who he is. She has spoken about feeling even closer to him, and more appreciative of all he has accomplished. It reminds me of a similar experience I had with one of my students six years ago.

In their unit, “What is Music,” this particular Humanities 7 class had decided to explore the related question “What does my music say about me?” As I had predicted, several students struggled to come to terms with messages they hated in the lyrics of many of the songs that they loved. Beyond those insights, I had assumed that, as always, students would be talking to their parents about some of the ideas we were bringing up in class. One girl’s father told her that he did, in fact, believe that his choice of music helped define, or at least show, who he was. “So,” she told me slowly in a voice that was becoming gradually more animated as the idea formed, “maybe he’s always wanting to share his music with me because he wants me to understand him better.” With the prospect of deepening her relationship with her father safely tucked away for the future, she turned back to her essay. I was left to wonder whether she ever would have come to this profound realization if she hadn’t been free to explore her own questions in her own way, and it was in that moment that I realized the full extent of the power of the democratic way. I knew I would quite likely never again teach by any other method.

Often, when I describe my Humanities 7 course to people, they ask how I can teach something I don’t know. The question summons up for me the cartoon image depicted in “Waiting for Superman” of students’ heads literally opening up and knowledge being poured into them, a commonly-held vision of what teaching is all about. I see two major issues with that model. One, the focus is on the teacher as an agent, not on the student; shift the focus from teaching to learning and this makes a world of difference. Two, were I to teach using that model, given that in no way could I ever expect to successfully transmit everything I know, my students would end up less knowledgeable than me (unless of course, and one might hope and pray they would, they learned more on their own than from me). To use one of my most frequently given examples, they would never have learned the answer to “Why does anyone care about the island of Dokdo?” (a theme question for one of the units of the 2008 Humanities 7 class). By teaching democratically, however, I open up the entire realm of knowledge to students. At that point, I can learn alongside them, both modeling for them what it means to be a lifelong learner and guiding them along that path. In the process, I can help them master the core skills of typical middle level English and Social Studies courses. But more importantly, Humanities 7 becomes an ongoing intellectual conversation. And when that conversation extends to include families, that’s just one of any number of delightful bonuses.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

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