Friday, October 7, 2011

Student Thoughts

I was on Twitter the other day, where I do NOT waste time, I learn things. Seriously. There, I ran across this post recapping some of the things students said on the "Voices of the Nation" segment of NBC's Education Nation. As I read through the items, so many thoughts were flying through my head that I was literally talking out loud to myself. In an empty room. Here are a few of my reflections on some of the student comments. [All student quotes from the panel are in italics.]

1. On critical thinking: "I have to critically think in college, but your tests don't teach me that." 
Yes!!! This is unequivocally true. First of all, good for colleges for still forcing kids to think hard. Elementary and high schools have largely lost their right to teach critical thinking. Testing has exhausted our time and energy for finding ways to show kids how to problem-solve, the most critical (and most common) skill needed for successfully navigating society today. Kids recognize how important this is too: "We do tests to make teachers look good and the school look good, but we know they don't help us to learn what's important to us." 

2. On caring educators: "I can't learn from you if you are not willing to connect with me," and "Caring about each student is more important than teaching the class." 
I see this on a daily basis. Kids need to know teachers care. It doesn't matter how you go about teaching the class, how much content you cover in a day, or even how you do discipline. If kids know you care, they will work with you and for you. We, as adults know what it's like to work for someone who doesn't care about you, and we don't expect them to. However, when we DO get to work for or with someone who honestly cares about us, it makes all the difference in the world. The same thing goes for kids. Even tiny things go a long way. Every time I tell kids good luck on a soccer game, ask them about their weekend, compliment their hair, or show them that I understand even just a tiny portion of who they are, they almost literally light up. In another student's words, "You need to love a student before you can teach a student." 

3. On staying current: "We appreciate when you connect with us in our worlds, such as the teacher who provided us with extra help using Xbox and Skype," and "Us youth love all the new technologies that come out. When you acknowledge this and use technology in your teaching, it makes learning much more interesting." 
Teaching in a way that seems relevant to students means they hear the content, not your methodology. When I was a kid, film strips were old technology, but teachers continued using them. Thinking back on those film strips, I don't ever remember thinking about what I was seeing. What I do remember is thinking how old film strips were, how dangerous the machine seemed, the noise it made, how scratchy the sound and picture was, etc. The same thing happens today. When we ask students to take out a textbook and read information that was written 13 years ago, they don't take in the content. They take in the medium and it's limitations, compared to what they know exists today. However, when we can, for example, show a 3 minute clip from NASA's Youtube channel describing the phases of the moon, we have at least eliminated the barrier of the medium. We must stay current.

4. On the futures of students: "Tell me something good that I'm doing so that I can keep growing in that." I keep learning this lesson over and over again, especially teaching junior high. It is literally our job as educators to highlight areas of students' strength. They may not even realize they have talent in that area. Or if they do, they may have never considered that it could be a possible career down the road. If we don't tell them, no one else will. Kids may not listen to their parents, because of the age-old reason: "You're my mom, you have to say that!" However, kids respect an impartial adult's opinion who interacts with them on a daily basis.  Hearing a teacher encourage them in an area where they show aptitude and passion is a strong motivational factor for kids. Not only should we encourage them in the area of a dream, but we should help get them closer to those dreams. Field trips, articles, video clips, news items, etc., all help encourage students in the direction of their future.  As another student said, "Every young person has a dream. Your job is to help bring us closer to our dreams."

5. On electives: "Bring the electives that we are actually interested in back to school. Things like drama, art, cooking, music." We never bothered to ask students what they thought about removing all areas other than test prep from the curriculum. Students know these are all important parts of life that many will not get a chance to learn any other way. When I used to teach in the regular classroom, I always liked cooking with the kids. They loved it, used all sorts of other skills, and I always saw a side of them I didn't see otherwise. Many were crushed when our school setting changed so that they would no longer be allowed to take a cooking class. Now, when I'm out on the playground with my Photojournalism students taking pictures, younger students come up and ask what my kids are doing. When I tell them, they ask with big, hopeful eyes, "So I'll be able to take that when I'm in 8th grade too?" I always feel a little twinge when I say yes, because there is a very real possibility that something as "frivolous" as this will also be ripped out of the curriculum, in favor of another intervention or enrichment course of some sort.

6. On student opinions: "Education leaders, teachers, funders, and policy-makers need to start listening to student voice in all areas, including teacher evaluations." I know there are many logistical issues with this suggestion, but in terms of teacher evaluations, it's not a bad idea. Kids aren't experts on much, but one thing they spend the first 20 years of their lives examining is teachers. While they may not know the education terminology, they know a good teacher when they see one. They know which teachers care about them, which teachers are passionate about the subject the teach, and which teachers are firm and expect much, (but only because it is best for the kids). I recently had an evaluator say that he had asked students their opinion of me and my class. Luckily, they had good things to say about me :-) At first though, I was a bit taken aback that he had considered this at least a little bit in my evaluation process. However, then I realized that (at least by junior high), kids know who is being fair and educating them to the best of their ability. If a teacher looks like they're doing an excellent job for an evaluator, but the kids are bored to tears, seething, offended, or asleep, something is not right. Students are the true experience-ers of a teacher, they deserve some chance to give their opinion. All post high-school courses in and out of official education centers require a student evaluation of the instructor. Why shouldn't younger students have the same opportunity?

If you're interested to hear more about what kids think, ASK them about it, and ask them why!

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