“Ms. Robinson, why do we need to know this?”

October 21, 2016

How many teachers hear this phrase on a day-to-day basis? When I first started teaching, I was thrown into a classroom with little more than a pacing guide and a projector to keep my head afloat. I was 23, a neophyte, and barely able to stay ahead of my students during instruction. I found that this question became more recurrent as I continued teaching. Many students severely criticized the curriculum, often noting that it “didn’t matter” to their lives and their goals. Why should they learn grammar and punctuation if all they will ever have to write is a maintenance report? Why learn algebra if they just need to calculate taxes?

At first, I felt that these student inquisitions were attacks. I assumed that, because I love my subject (English), that they should love it. After all, in my mind, the very foundation of everything that we do and are is surrounded by the written word. After a particularly heated incident with a student, I wondered: how do I reach the unreachable kid? What is it that I actually want them to get from this?

It was a hard pill to swallow. Like all paradigm shifts, change is difficult to achieve if you live in a world of perpetual stagnation. When I looked at my curriculum, I had to really examine if my teaching methodology was leaving the students with anything outside of a quiz, test, or assessment. Honestly, I don’t think that my students felt that what they were learning was valuable for anything other than a passing grade: a stepping stone to getting out of school.

When I shifted my focus, I changed the very thought process that went into my goals for students. I threw out the old curriculum and started with new questions. Rather than inundate students with pronouns, grammatical constructions, and questions, I changed to an inquiry-based dialogue focus. I really struggled when I began this process. I thought of student learning as a system of osmosis. If I stood up in front of the class and spoke, then the students would absorb it.

Then, I did the unthinkable: I gave the power in the classroom to my students. During a discussion on To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic by Harper Lee, I attempted to do a new system of dialogue. Many students had read TKAM before, so we used it as an anchor text, and each table group was assigned a different text dealing with issues of race and identity. They had to have small group discussions, followed by a large “pinwheel” seminar of all of the texts in conversation with each other. They responded to an essential question that all of the texts could relate to. I took the plunge and let go of the control.

At first, it was chaos. People were talking, I had to do a great deal of planning up front, and, worst of all, I had to keep my mouth shut. I became a facilitator, not an authoritarian. There was noise, movement, bustling, and I was sure that I had failed. I had let my students run my classroom into debauchery. However, much to my great surprise, something amazing happened. Students were the ones asking questions. They responded to each other, pulled evidence from the text, and discussed the reading. They came to new, profound, and insightful ideas about each book without me guiding them. When they had a seminar, they asked the questions, identified common themes, and discussed social justice issues in relation to their books. I realized that they just wanted a level of ownership in their learning, and when they were able to harness it, they could come up with astounding ideas that they couldn’t have achieved if I lectured or questioned.

When it comes to student learning, it is very easy to determine that the teacher is the leader, the lecturer, and the knowledge-bearer. However, I feel that we have lost sight of what real student learning is about. Student learning is about taking something that they see in school and finding connections to their everyday lives. If my students saw the connection between their novels and social justice issues in the contemporary world, then they have learned something more valuable than plot points. Making our learning relevant is one of the basic keys to student success.

Ariel Robinson, NBCT

Ariel Robinson has been teaching for the past eight years in Western North Carolina. She has been teaching for the past four years at The School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville in the heart of the North Carolina mountains. Before that, she taught in Madison County Schools on the outskirts of Western North Carolina. She is a graduate of UNC-Asheville and Western Carolina University, and she earned her National Board Certification in 2013.