By Brian Hussey: American Studies Facilitator
An education professor of mine stressed one basic rule above all others: nothing else matters until you get to know your students. Through four years of teaching, I have returned to this maxim when planning both whole class objectives or devising an individual plan for a student. Moreover, this tenet has held true in the three different contexts I taught. From a charter and magnet school in Philadelphia to a suburban high school outside of Dallas, the need get to know students’ interests, prior knowledge, and personalities remains paramount. In fact, meaningful learning did not happen until I knew more about my students than just their names and faces, and they understood more about me beyond my classroom number and location.
Developing a familiarity between the teacher and learners creates an atmosphere where students are more willing to take risks and accept criticism. Additionally, it places the teacher in a position of constant learning. This is essential in assessing how the student personalities mesh with with the objectives of the course, the personalities of their peers, and the style of instruction. However, there is catch in pursuing for these results. The teacher is the one who sets the tone for what is acceptable in developing the relationship with students. If the teacher is too reticent, then opportunities for genuine inquiry and learning will be missed. If a teacher is too open, learning becomes merely relational and the pursuit of higher academic objectives becomes secondary to the relationship. The teacher must foster an atmosphere that splits the difference. Both teacher and students are participants in the learning community with voice and needs, but the goal of learning and mastering the subjects is still the driving reason of why the relationship exists.
I began this school year in a new district, state, and school--New Tech High @ Coppell. In fact, by the time I drove across the country and set foot in the school, the incoming freshman class was already more familiar with the building than the school’s 11th grade US history teacher. As I managed the nuts and bolts that come with every new teaching job, I did not let this sense of newness impair my priorities in the classroom. On the contrary, it provided an opportunity for growth with my learners. Because I taught juniors, I recognized that in many ways I was entering their school. After two years at NTH@C, these students had a much clearer understanding of life in the school. Knowing this, I had the opportunity to select moments to share my ignorance and allow students to provide their views of the norms at NTH@C. What did students expect of their teachers when project deadlines approached? What did it mean to actually collaborate on a project with other students? What tools, if any, were students expected to use to keep track of deadlines? Which parts of the school culture was readily experienced, and which parts were just slogans?
I knew what I wanted to teach students, and how I wanted them to think more critically about history. However, it was invaluable for me to understand how my priorities fit into the students’ understandings of the school’s culture. By inviting students into this process, it created a sense of shared investment in the classroom. Additionally, I made transparent my own thinking on the school culture and how my experiences shaped this perspective. In doing so, students knew the rationale behind how I managed the classroom rather than merely noting the rules, assignments, and deadlines.
Opportunities to develop a healthy and productive relationship with students occurred not only when discussing open-ended questions such as the purpose of school, but also in dozens of small moments and gestures that occur throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, the students made the first gesture on this front. During a first week project, two students noticed a puzzle box on my desk. The box and puzzle it contained was a gift from a former student. Inside the box was a wooden puzzle of the United States composed of the 48 contiguous states. This puzzle provided an opportunity to start building a new relationship with these curious students. We discussed what my former school and students were like, if I enjoyed NTH@C, what I thought of Texas (yes, it was hot!), and a host of other general topics. In return, I probed what they most valued in their school and its teachers, and what they expected of themselves for their junior year.
While we pieced the puzzle together, I was overcome by the realization that these new students were making connections not just with me, but with my former student and school. Through using this small toy and asking questions of me, they were in a way transcending the borders and boundaries that keep them apart. Of course, this was only an entry point for my new students to learn about their peers on the other side of the country. As the year progressed, students asked more questions about my time in Philadelphia and at my former school, Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber. I answered open and honestly, but I felt a nagging problem that I was talking too much about my former students rather than amplifying their voices. Both groups of students deserved to hear from each other, learn about new experiences, and engage in a conversation with someone outside of their daily life. The solution became clear. Although these students were separated by hundreds of miles and a world of socio-economic differences, inquiry and open-mindedness facilitated by technology could bridge the gap. If it was true that learning does not happen until a teacher knows their students, then these groups of young people would not learn about each other’s perspectives until they took the time to know one another.
I worked with my co-teacher in Coppell and my former colleagues from SLA@B in Philadelphia to put together a project that involved students from both schools learning a similar curriculum and engaging with each other. We structured the project around the history of the Long Civil Rights Movement. Using seminal documents from the movement, students analyzed both its progression as well as its effects in both the North and the South. Students also analyzed and discussed Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." Additionally, students read excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to introduce the question of the contemporary relevance of civil rights activism. While we valued the individual experiences of all of the students, we pushed them to ground their critiques and understanding in a close analysis of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and a reading of the texts.
In addition to the shared content, we structured three contact points during the project where students could share insights about themselves and their views on the Civil Rights Movement. In the first contact, groups of students made introductory videos about a “day in the life” as a student at their school. In the second meeting point, students participated in a discussion board to share their perspectives on the three seminal documents they read. Finally, students from NTH@C collaborated to create artistic representations of legacy of the Civil Rights Movements in contemporary American society.
The videos were not tied to any particular content but were meant to introduced the students from one school to their peers from the other school. Most videos discussed student life as well as shared insights into their communities. Interestingly a video from NTH@C and one from SLA@B used a similar conceit of following a student from the time they woke up in the morning and through their school day. For my students in suburban Dallas, many were struck by the idea of taking multiple forms of public transportation in a daily hour-long commute in order to attend the best possible public school.
In the online discussion, students from both schools shared what interested and challenged them in the readings. They did not always share common ground, especially when discussing Between the World and Me. For instance, an exchange on whether Coates bore any responsibility in providing solutions showed divergent perspectives:
A different thread pushed a discussion around Coates’ description of how bodies of black citizens were at risk throughout American history:
The student artwork reflected a sincere appreciation of the gravity of the Civil Rights Movement and an understanding of what it inspired. However, it also conveyed an uncertainty of how to situate it into current cultural debates. All students demonstrated an admiration of the philosophy of non-violent direct action, particularly the “self-purification” essential to the movement. Some students drew a direct comparison to modern protests, such as Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement. Others chose not focus on the modern comparisons, but rather focused on the history and development of the Civil Rights Movement. In these analyses, the individual stories and sacrifices of civil rights activists became paramount. In sum, the artwork demonstrated a deep respect of this part of American history, but an uncertainty of how this understanding should apply to modern day.
This project asked students to critically engage in an analysis of both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary society. Additionally, we asked students to reach across boundaries of geography, economics, race, and society and engage in conversations that confound and challenge many adults. This required students to be firm in their beliefs and confident in their ability to communicate their perspective. The students who gained the most from this topic immersed themselves in the history and were open to hearing new perspectives. However, even in providing this opportunity to students, it was still too impersonal in many ways. For instance, many students were unwilling to show their faces in the introductory videos. Additionally, in using the discussion board for sharing ideas, students with stronger literacy skills were more able to express their thoughts. Had students been provided the opportunity for face-to-face communication, different results would have occurred.
Regardless of the limitations, this project was an essential first step for students to think more broadly about a seminal movement in American history and their relation to it. It opened up meaningful and courageous conversations between the students in my room and those on the other side of the country. They practiced thinking historically and saw how essential context is to understanding a historical moment. Most of all, they saw the power of making a personal connection with a topic, hearing another’s perspective, and to use that as a starting point to go deeper into a conversation about our shared history.