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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Content Doesn't Matter

As another school year closes, I always reflect upon how my year went and what I can do to better serve my kids. After much thought this year, I have come to an important conclusion. I am going to say something controversial. As a teacher, I know that my opinion won’t be looked upon fondly and I understand why it might be taken negatively, but here it is anyway:
Content doesn’t matter.
I know, I know. I can hear it already: “Well, then what are they in school for? Without content, nobody would learn anything! Do we want our children to be stupid?! We need to raise the bar! We need higher content standards! We have got to prepare kids for the future.” I hear all of that. And I still say, we’ve got it all WRONG.
My contention is that we should want more from our children than academic achievement.
Now, I’m NOT saying that you should spend your school year as a teacher, singing Kumbaya and hugging one another. Of course not. First of all, teenagers especially hate when you touch them and secondly, that would make for a VERY long 90 minutes each day. Caring about kids is not just emoting the warm and fuzzies.
CARING implies a continuous search for excellence. When you CARE about someone, you want to do the BEST for them.
Caring makes me a better teacher.
Through my lessons on persuasion, Poe, MLA format, grammar, transcendentalism and such… I include a genuine care for their LIVES into each unit. When I teach Poe, I make sure we talk about how excluded Poe must have felt as an adopted boy, without a family who adored him, and when WE have felt excluded in our own lives. When we discuss the transcendentalist thinkers, we talk about what aspects of nature make US feel calm, at peace, free. What soothes YOUR spirit? Even when we cover the BORING parts like MLA format, plagiarism and the proper way to set up a works cited page, we have a lengthy conversation about a time in our lives when someone made us feel like our words didn’t matter or stole our idea without giving credit. Once they care, once they SEE themselves in the material, only THEN does content matter. Only THEN does real, long-term learning happen.
I have worked with many teachers through the years who skip this part. Their job, as they see it, is to present material and it is the kids’ job to learn it. I would argue that these teachers’ job descriptions should be “PRESENTER.” If you’re just going to put material up on the board or read a book aloud, you’re presenting. There is no teaching. The word “TEACHER” means you teach it!
“I am not an entertainer. It’s not my job to sing and dance for lazy kids who don’t want to learn.” they say. But I disagree.
I think it 100% IS my job to not only present material, but to CONNECT them to it. It’s absolutely my job to make it relatable to them, through pop culture, their own lives and yes, sometimes even rapping.
The subjects I did the WORST in were those that I could not see the relevance. I did not see ME in any of it. Thus, it became the equivalent to learning a foreign language. As an adult, I am finding that I really like learning about history. But as a student, I hated it. I finally know why. I heard story after story about white men from the 1800s, in whom I could not see myself or my experiences. Nothing stuck.
And I get it- teaching the way I describe is EXHAUSTING. I leave work most days feeling as if I have literally performed on stage for 7 hours. My poor husband watches me fall asleep most nights before 9:30. It is certainly easier to do it the other way – focus on content and just present. But is that really what is best for kids? Are they really learning it?
More importantly, when you care enough to show your students love, they are learning a secondary lesson from you - a BIGGER one about love and kindness. THAT is the one I pray they learn, even more than MLA format. Be kind. Love others. Show compassion.
Of course I know that many “presenters” also care about kids. I am not unique in loving my kids. MOST people in this profession care about their students. (You would have to, to endure some of the days we do!) But, I challenge those people to SHOW that love in a different way. Show your kids you love them by showing up in their worlds. They’ll never forget you for it. In my opinion, (and really, who am I?) you will be better at your job when you demonstrate you love them enough to meet them in the middle.
I pray my son gets teachers who care about him enough to connect material to his life – not present it as a necessary evil to pass a test.

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