A personal reflection on my journey from a rigid planner to a more flexible teacher who allows students to shape their own learning.
After accepting my first teaching position, I spent the summer creating my curriculum. I made a binder that outlined my daily lessons down to the minute. Creating such rigid outlines gave me a sense of security and a certainty that I was ready for the middle school classroom. It did not take long to realize that I had made many miscalculations. For example, I quickly discovered that my students had already mastered the material in my carefully crafted homophone lessons. Despite this discovery, I carried on with the assignments I had already planned. When I found a great deal of shakiness with the parts of speech, I moved through the allotted lessons and encouraged the large number of still somewhat bewildered students to “attend tutorials for extra guidance.” As we moved into my persuasive writing unit, I found that the topic I had prepared for them aroused almost no interest, but I sallied forth, determined to show them just how fascinatingly controversial this topic could be.
“I don’t understand,” I told a colleague in the lounge one day. “These kids will be attending college soon; how can they not have an opinion about whether affirmative action should be used in college admissions? This could directly affect them!”
My colleague arched an eyebrow and commented that college still seemed very far away to our eighth graders and that she was not surprised at their disinterest. I was somewhat dismissive of my colleague’s comment. I decided the problem was that they just did not understand the topic. As soon as they finished reading all of the articles I had carefully prepared for them, they would have the background information necessary to form an opinion. They would read two articles that supported affirmative action in college admissions and then two that did not. Then we would identify the articles’ main arguments and analyze how the authors supported their ideas. This would surely be a fantastic model for them to use when writing their own opinions in a persuasive manner.
As I faced the third consecutive class’s sullen indifference and evident boredom, I realized that my colleague had been right. College admissions were a concern too far in the future to interest my eighth graders. College in itself was a vague and nebulous concept for them, existing only in an imaginary, far-away future. I ended the day close to tears and sought out the same colleague for further guidance. How was I to get through this unit? I still had more articles for them to read on the topic, and it was sure to be a torturous process for all parties involved. My colleague listened to my questions and then responded with her own question: “Why do you have to finish the articles?” I was flabbergasted. Why? Because it was planned! Because I had made photocopies. Because that is what I had chosen for them to write about! My colleague suggested I pick up the pieces and try something different. She threw out a few ideas to increase their engagement. Most shockingly, she suggested that I let them choose their own topics.