So, You Want To Be A Teacher: Part 2

As promised, (or threatened), here’s part 2 of my tongue-in-cheek advice column for new teachers.

So, you like whales? I like sand dollars. I also live in the desert, far from the beach. Parlais vou francais? Can you define je ne sais quoi for me? Or is it a mystery to you too? Do your students really need to know any of this?

Don’t get me wrong, part of being in this world is the opportunity to learn new things, even when those things aren’t particularly relevant to our every day lives. Still, we owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can. As teachers, we owe it to our students to give them what they need and to inspire them to go forth and learn as much as they can about their world. Oft-times, our own personal interests get in the way of providing relevant, standards-based instruction. In this day of standardized testing we need to focus our learning objectives on relevant content in order to provide students with the framework, the foundation, of all future learning and to ensure that they make “annual yearly progress.”

It’s a fact of life. Sorry.

We’re not teaching to the test. We are giving students the skills and knowledge they need for the short-term so that they will become brilliant citizens in the future. (Too much?) Seriously, though, we can’t spare time for pet projects that have nothing to do with current educational directives, policies, and standards no matter how much we love something. The days of the “fun” project are over.

Here’s an example: In high school, (long ago), my 11th grade social studies teacher let us do a project about the 60’s. My friend and I, musicians that we were, decided to focus on Woodstock. Yep, Woodstock! We got a few books and wrote a few paragraphs and we watched the movie in all its gritty, drug-infused, glory. In fact, our teacher even let us show part of the movie to our class! I know, right? Unbelievable. We merely watched some of the performances, (Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane…), but still, quite a risk in today’s world, huh?

But what was the point?

It was cool as hell and I still think fondly back on that time, my teacher, and that first introduction to Sly & the Family Stone. Yet, it was all more about what we were doing rather than why we were doing it. That’s a problem, isn’t it? As students, we should have had some notion, be it sociopolitical or historical or philosophical or whatever as to why we were supposed to research the 1960’s. (Now that I am an adult, I can see where he was coming from. As we know, the social and political movements of the 60’s still reverberate across our culture today, but why was I supposed to learn it then? My suspicion is that my teacher was an ex-hippie pining for those long-gone days of youthful exuberance and he wanted to revel in what he was passionate about. You dig?)

When I first became a teacher there was a veteran who spent the final months of school, every year, sitting at her desk and watching her students literally take over the room with Native American projects. The students built dioramas to show Indian life, they identified themselves with a certain tribe, they painted life-size murals on butcher’s paper. Very cool. Another teacher liked to have students read along to the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Again, neat, huh?

But what do those projects really have to do with the lives of urban students in the 21st Century? How do these projects and activities propel our current students to success?

All I’m saying is that when we become teachers we have the burning desire to really take our students on a journey. We should, but we should be careful that we don’t take students on our journey rather than their journey. What I mean is that if you really have a passion for a certain subject you should explore that and expose students to it, but make sure that you tie their learning to something that is meaningful and relevant to their lives. (I know the word “relevant” is overused as of late, but it’s pertinent!) We must give students a reason for their learning, otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

In the end, if it is whales that you have a passion for, then you have to ask yourself why you want students to learn about whales. Is it because they are cool and you like them or is it because the students need to know about large, aquatic mammals? Again, I live in the Arizona desert dustropolis of Phoenix, so whales in general are not really on the radar. Students should know about them, but I would also need to make it relevant in my classroom. So maybe we would study whales in terms of science and they would be part of a unit on vertebrates. Or perhaps I would have students read a novel that discusses whales, which could lead to student-led scientific investigations, but meanwhile we are working on reading proficiency, summarizing, character traits, plot, and finding details in a piece of fiction!

Regardless, you’re new, so you probably have a lot of grand ideas. Good for you! Just remember that your glorious plans need to be tied to the content your students need learn. Ask yourself if it is about you or them? If it’s about them, then fire it up! If it’s about you, perhaps you should find a different outlet for your passion.

You could always start a blog.

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