By Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora, two teachers challenging classroom status quo
The world is upside down now, and the only hope of righting it is through education, but that can only happen when teachers move from the historical textbook-based curriculum to a global curriculum that calls for action as well as knowledge. It has to be a curriculum that challenges not only the students’ critical-thinking but their daily practices. Students must see that not only are their grades important, but that their life-decisions matter, not only to themselves, but to others and to the well-being of our planet.
Teachers, consider this: If we don’t do this work with our students, who will? Some teachers believe that other teachers have the perfect students who are willing to take risks and do the extra work, while they are left with the unwilling, difficult learners. Right. We all have the same students: students who are snarl, act aloof, and demand our attention–sometimes undue attention. Still, our students are endearing. They show up every year in varying body sizes, with different sets of issues and learning challenges, and invariably they change our lives as we equip them to take on the world.
Consider: the most valuable assets to bring about radical social changes are the very young people sitting in our classes, and it is our job to awaken and empower them.
Consider: teenagers make remarkable contributions to the world, and future contributors could be sitting in a desk right in front of you, albeit yawning or texting from a phone in their laps.
Meanwhile, they are who they are, and you are there before them: Teacher Incarnate (do you hear your theme music?) Work your magic!
In our experience, here’s what it takes to empower students:
- Expose them to authentic issues
- Teach them by focusing on their learning, not your teaching
- Trust them to learn deeply, facilitating and trouble-shooting the process
- Release them and stay out of the while still facilitating their learning
- Recognize and celebrate their work
Expose the Students to Authentic Issues: visiting Senator Winters and Senator Peter Courtney, Pattie’s students were challenged to prepare testimony on Senate Bill 425, one of the first pieces of legislation that targeted the “johns” and protected under-age victims of trafficking. The Senators believed that students’ informed passion for the cause demonstrated the needed urgency of the bill and its need for passage.
Initially, students were overwhelmed by the idea of becoming involved with such a daunting project, but Pattie assured them they could do it, and they trusted her to facilitate the process. She released them into uncharted waters. GULP!
Release Students to Learn:
We had never imagined that someone in the class would be responsible to give testimony on a bill, but we accepted the challenge by researching how to write testimony and how to present it.
The Teaching: Pattie realized that students’ assessment of formal communication was a mixed-bag of million dollar words found in a thesaurus. Pattie decided to teach students that the panel of elected officials were men and women who cared about clear communication as well as contributing to society. We cut, pared, and excised speeches until students accurately and concisely communicated their cause.
Applauding: excitement was building in the classroom, but Pattie needed to remind students of their task. They were undertaking what every citizen has the right to do, but one that very few citizens actually accomplish. They were demonstrating their right as an American citizens to be heard. They prepared and went forth with the enthusiasm and energy of focused, empowered young men and women. It’s important to guide them to reflect on their accomplishments and learning; share your observations and pride, notice the confetti falling from the classroom ceiling. (Do you hear theme music yet? Sometimes–actually, mostly–teachers need to applaud themselves because our colleagues are too busy to witness our work with students, and most teenagers don’t know how to applaud adults yet. We believe teachers are the ultimate self-winding learners, including knowing when to applaud ourselves).
Testimony in the Legislature is a dramatic moment, but there are other ways to impact change:
Students Brycen Dodds and Zenavie created a rap about human trafficking. They performed it when the classes presented at the middle school:
- Brycen and Zenavie’s Rap using their talents to raise awareness. Here’s the chorus:
When it comes to us we say, “U.S.A” / But when it’s other nations, / we just look away / We think it’s ok / that some of our things are made by slaves / It’s time to change
Teaching at the middle school:
- Consider a Market of Free Trade materials to support artisans and prevent them from becoming victims of trafficking
Through it all, students were active and involved. Pattie was involved, and we believe that every teacher and student can experience deep, transformative learning as we invite and allow our students to be a part of the global community.
Teachers can move the students into the 21st century by opening the classroom window and letting the world in. Senator Courtney was right about the students’ voices adding urgency to Oregon’s first human trafficking bill; it passed and was enacted into law. And through our students creativity and efforts, our world will be righted again!