I am a ridiculously nerdy high school English Language Arts teacher in frontier America (Who knew?) who loves reading and learning. If I were independently wealthy, I would be a forever student, studying the social sciences and what makes people tick.
1. Please tell us about your teaching style and how it differs from the norm.
My teaching style is different from the norm in many ways, but it shouldn’t be. I strive each year, semester, quarter, week, even day to form meaningful relationships with my students and to meet them where they are. I am seen as the “mom” teacher in my building, and I am proud of that. I know that students can’t learn if they are preoccupied with something out of their control, so I strive to help them see that they can only really stress about things that are within their control.
I recently started working with one of my administrators to develop an in-service that reminds my colleagues about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and taking care of the whole student. Many of my colleagues feel that what is going on outside school shouldn’t be our concern, but I just cannot feel that way.
It is really important to me that everything we do in class serves the purpose of teaching the academic standards, but also teaching something valuable for EVERY student, especially that non-college bound farm boy in the back of the class who doesn’t want to read and write anything, let alone Shakespeare. I think most people would find that the “hidden curriculum” is not so hidden in my classroom, and helping my high school students become good, strong, productive grown-ups with their own ideas about the world is far more important than their desire to read classic literature (which I also have them do).
2. What practical methods do you use to get students to think for themselves?
I don’t know if my methods to get students to think for themselves are always “practical.” I pose critical thinking questions regarding the material we are working with, literature we are reading, current events, community issues etc. in the form of writing prompts or text responses. More than anything else, when students say, “I don’t know what to write,” I tell them that I can’t tell them what to think, so we talk about the topic with the goal of coming to some conclusions, or at the very least, generating some questions that I then direct them to seek clarification on.
Through discussions, writing prompts, and reading material, I hope that I am fostering the willingness, if not the desire, to ask questions about the world and seek answers, our own answers, not someone else’s.
3. Have any of your methods been incorporated by your teaching cohort or your school? If not, why not?
My methods have been embraced and encouraged by my principal, but I have only recently been discussing them with colleagues. I am a new teacher. I have only been teaching for 4 years. I was a nurse for 13 years prior to my current career as an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher. I find that many of the things that made me good at that job are also contributing to being good at this one. I have found that my colleagues are fairly traditional, and I am in a district that does not have high turnover, so they are entrenched in their traditional methods. I am just now getting comfortable enough with what I am doing to start questioning my colleagues’ traditional methods and styles and communicating my own ideas.
4. What advice would you give to parents who want to encourage their children to think independently?
My advice to parents (I am a parent of four from 25-12) is to talk with children about things that matter. Don’t talk TO them, talk WITH them. Ask them what they think. What are they afraid of? What do they like or dislike? What makes them laugh? What makes concentrating at school hard? What classes are they interested in? What classes are they bored in? What are their thoughts about the kerfuffle in the cafeteria yesterday?
It is not enough to ask our children or our students what they think. We must also ask them WHY they think it. My students are okay with telling me what they think, but they get anxious, sweaty-palmed, and confused when I ask them why. If we do not push them to take that extra step, they don’t completely flesh out any of the questions that we pose. They just give us a brief answer to get us to leave them alone. We shouldn’t.
We need to push them to think, thoroughly and critically, their own thoughts and make it really difficult for them to accept everything they hear without questioning it. I refuse every single day to tell my students what to think. I try to never tell them my opinion on hot topics until they have told me their own thoughts. I don’t want to influence their beliefs or values. I want them to appreciate that we all have different beliefs and values, and that is what makes a society great.
That is my mission as a teacher… to get students to tell me what they think and why they think it.