Spoiled and ruined for life

Ok…confession time. I was spoiled for 3 years as a middle school teachers and for 12 years as a professor of education and it ruined my pedagogical perspective.

While it would take a long conversation to explain that statement, here is the short version.

After teaching middle school for 5 years, I left to pursue a Ph.D. After reading the work of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Marilyn Frankenstein, and others during my doctoral program, I searched for a way to apply the principles of their work in the classrooms. First, with middle school 7-9th graders, and later with college pre-service teachers and graduate students in educational leadership. Michael Apple, James Beane, and Barbara Brodhagen helped me find that application.

In essence, it all came down to inviting students to participate in course design, identifying activities that would meet course objectives, and designing assessment activities that actually resulted in evidence of how students met the learning outcomes designated for the course.

I started small at first and eased in, tentative and doubtful, letting students take course objectives and suggest a few learning activities and projects that we could all participate in, identify what learning outcomes were expected from those, and how we would determine if the learning outcomes were met. The syllabus was still largely built by myself in advance of the course.

Soon, after seeing the level of student engagement rise, along with the learning curve, I took the plunge and did what Beane wrote about in an article titled: Turning Over the Floor…I came in with a skeletal syllabus containing only the course ‘givens’ and engaged students the first week in building the syllabus together. It started during my next three years with middle school students and then I took it with me to the university as a new assistant professor.

I never looked back after that.

The level of student engagement escalated; the learning curve shot through the roof; the level of rigor shot up alongside of the engagement, and I became more of a facilitator and consultant than “knowledge giver” as students built the course and carried the course forward each semester.

Failure rates dropped; peer accountability emerged as a gatekeeper of high expectations and rigor; and my life changed. Students consistently stated in classroom evaluations that the courses were the “most challenging I have ever experienced”; “I invested more time and effort in this course than any other class I have ever taken”; “I learned more in this class than in any class I have ever taken.” And I had the evidence.

I was spoiled, and ruined. I could never go back to the traditional model of teacher as knowledge giver, entertainer, lecturer, director of everything that happens in a classroom. It was absurd to think of instructional practice in that light ever again. The traditional instructional life was terribly ineffective in comparison, and I would never go down that path again.

I wrote an article about the experienced, published in the New England League of Middle Schools Journal, presented at several conferences about that experience, and found colleagues (a few) who also practiced such approaches. However, the accountability, measure and assess, control and dictate movement pretty well insured that most people who heard about that experience said one of two things: “I could never get away with that” or “I just don’t have the time to make things work that way.”

Really? If my own experience and the lived experiences of others who have practiced approaches that result in higher levels of student engagement, higher levels of student achievement, more rigor resulting from peer accountability, more learning…from simply including students in the construction of a syllabus…then why the excuses for NOT doing it?

Its a question I find fascinating, along with many others as I move into my 35th year in education. I may never find answers to those questions, unfortunately.

But, I am still dedicated to the discovery I made years ago when changing my own practice as a professional educator…it’s not really all that complicated or difficult to transform a classroom around the principles that could transform learning as we know it.

To be blunt, its not rocket science. Its more about being willing.