By Christine Mason. About two decades ago, when I was teaching middle school, I began reflecting on the lives my students were living. I wondered about what, of all the things I could bring them, would be most important. The students came from over 100 countries, and over 50 languages were spoken at this urban middle school. Classes were often a mix of students whose parents were diplomats and whose immigrant parents were maintaining two jobs and struggling to get by. It felt like a mini-UN.
At the end of my three years at this school, I realized what I valued most highly was the healing that occurred with these students. I am certain that this work contributed to my vision of “heart centered education.” Today, as I consider the requirements on teachers and schools that are focused on high academic standards, I continue to reflect on the human dynamic that propelled students forward at this school.
Indicators of progress. As a middle school teacher, I looked for indicators that my students were advancing academically and that they were thriving as individuals. I maintained spreadsheets with scores and careful analyses of where errors occurred. I also maintained a log of “what they loved.” Students completed individual student information forms that asked about their interests, strengths, and how they preferred to learn (individually, in a group, via reading, interviewing, computer searches, etc). We were actually engaged in “universal design of learning” before I even knew about it. We paid attention to how to build lessons that would be universally relevant by focusing on built-in accommodations for all students.
Student choice. Students in my classes were often given options for projects — topics and methods. Then, as they learned, I continued to ask them about their learning. I updated information on my spreadsheets about what “they loved” about the work they had done recently. Students could respond by inserting a “heart” or a “sun” icon and describing a particular assignment or talking about the learning process.
“Brain Project” One of the most exciting 7th grade topics was a unit we covered on the brain. Students completed projects ranging from learning about ADHD and hearing impairments, to learning about parts of the brain, memory, and emotions. Two boys chose to investigate hamsters’ brains. The boys drew very good pictures and were also able to discuss such things as the relative size of the hamsters’ brains, comparing them to other animals. These boys were actively pursuing their topic, and they obviously felt that they were becoming authorities on hamsters’ brains. I remember being called over to their computer so they could share the “very cool” things they were learning. Another student explained that her grandmother had Alzheimers’. That student was glad that she had a chance to learn more about her grandmother’s condition, including how her brain was impacted. She was obviously close to this grandmother. She cared a great deal about her grandmother, and she was motivated to learn so that she could communicate better with her. Two very different reasons, out of many, for wanting to learn.
Students as full partners in learning. It didn’t take a lot of preparation to help structure activities so students could be full partners in their own learning. It did take some understanding of individual students– figuring out what was important to them and how to draw them into their learning ‘” to figure out their individual wow’s. In both of the above cases, these students were from other countries and many were struggling some with English. However, the team of boys worked well together ‘”they shared the workload and relied on individual talents and strengths to pull together an interesting and coherent presentation. The young girl chose to work alone and did everything from conducting the web research, to writing her report, and preparing the slides for a powerpoint presentation. Neither of these projects ended up being the very “best” project that was submitted, technically speaking. However, in both cases, the students were eager to learn and when they presented, one could sense that they truly felt that “they were experts” ‘” they were proud of their work and eager to continue related projects. And the students seemed to value the editing process that could have been viewed as just more work. They were serious about the peer critiques and feedback, editing, and revisions. As we proceeded, it seemed that the weight of some of their past disappointments in their academic struggles were lifted from their shoulders. They shone. Perhaps there was some healing going on. From what we today know about neuroscience, we could probably say that we were overriding some of their past negative experiences and creating neuropathways that strengthened their individual sense of well being.
Yardsticks. One of my yardsticks for success at that school was whether my students felt that they were gaining something of importance ‘” whether they were making up for lost time, becoming more committed to their own learning, gaining insights into their themselves, or feeling they were contributing to our class community. Were they talking about and writing about something of value to them individually? During the year, the students also learned to trust me, to count on me, and to count on each other. To become trustworthy. This was a journey. I felt privileged to be a part of the journey for some 90 students on our academic team.
In contrast to these students, far too many students would rather be someplace other than their classrooms. Far too many students live fractured lives where school is viewed as another burden. Far too many students lack confidence ‘” many do not believe in themselves. Far too many teachers are caught up in the technicalities of teaching to standards that have been imposed on them. As we continue to contemplate on how to improve schools, I encourage all of us to focus on the teacher-student dynamic and to take advantage of the potential for strengthening opportunities for students to take responsibility for their own learning in ways that will lead to student confidence and success.