I was watching an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on CBS Sunday morning, and at the close, he spoke of his role in the universe. He closed with this quote:
Neil deGrasse Tyson just defined for us how to be educators in the 21st century: recognize we all have questions and curiosities, then meet the people in those places of inquiry.
That phrase- a "Servant of those curiosities" came crashing in on me. Those words have stuck with me throughout the day, and as I reflected on them, I found an identity.
I strive to be a "Servant of Curiosities."
I strive to create a learner-centered environment in my classroom every day. Yes, I have content to cover and standards to meet, but I have to see my role as more than just a dispensary of facts. Our students cry out that they want to have relevant topics, things they will "use in the real world." They do not necessarily use the education buzzwords, but they want to know why they need to know the stuff we teach. It thus becomes our role as educators to find their curiosity, and be a servant of it. In order to do that, we must listen to their questions and requests. We need to hear our students to serve their curiosities.
I believe there are five questions that our students are asking that we need to really engage with to serve their curiosities. Three are coming from a very conscious level: What is that? How does it work? When does it apply? We will look at those three first.
What is That?
This is the most basic. If a student looks at content and asks what it is, curiosity is beginning. Often, the student is not asking this about the thing we have defined as the most important part of the lesson. In a lesson I did on Lincoln Douglas debate, I was trying to get them to understand it was a philosophical debate more than a policy or action debate. In the midst, I mentioned some values used and said that Lincoln Douglas is about asking questions like "is there an unselfish good deed?" A student latched onto that phrase and I had a choice: engage that curiosity and veer off course of MY plan, or put that question off until later- if we had time. I chose to engage, and what happened was a robust discussion- and debate- over the question of unselfish good deeds. Did my students eventually get the content they needed to? Yes, but they got it with a sudden understanding of how relevant it was to them because I answered their "what is that?"
How Does It Work?
Once students know what it is, they want to know how it works. That discussion about good deeds turned into a question of how a good deed could be unselfish- and what values a person could hold that would make them even care if a good deed was done for selfish or unselfish motives. They talked of truth, morality, justice, equality- all Lincoln Douglas values I intended to teach anyway- as how motivation to do good worked. In the process, I took chances to interject how that argument or this argument would work in an actual debate.
When Does It Apply?
As I was serving the curiosity of my students by letting them have this informal debate, they began to see the need for organized strategy in debate. I explained that while people will never sit down to a formal Lincoln Douglas debate outside of a competition, the value of organized and researched debate was a critical skill for any communication. Sometimes, in order to identify how content is relevant, we need to find the thing they are curious about in our lesson- even if it seems inconsequential at first- and work to build a bridge from that curiosity to the standard we need to meet.
The unconscious questions are driving these spoken questions. Students will verbally ask the What, How and When, but behind them are these two questions that are key to a student's personal growth. They are definitely in the back of the mind of the students I serve in high school, and you can see them in they way they connect or disconnect with the content. Those questions are: Why do I believe what I believe? and Who am I?
Why Do I Believe What I Believe?
I teach teens who are in the midst of making up their minds about why they should go to college, why they should vote and why they should vote that way, why they should or should not believe in religion, and perhaps most importantly- why do they believe they will be successful- or a failure- in life?
Students are asking the surface questions of What, How and When because they want to know how to determine what they believe about the world around them. And their role in it. This question begins to get to what deGrasse Tyson was saying about Cosmic Curiosities. Students want to know where they fit in the grand scheme of things, but they express these questions by questioning why the content we find so important should be important to them. In short, we need to help students find out how to think for themselves instead of just giving them the right answer. This is not answered by standardized tests or more rigor- it is answered by letting the students seek their curiosities and guiding them through their discoveries about them.
Who Am I?
Every student is asking this of us, their friends, parents, and the community around them. They cannot answer that until they know why they believe what they believe- until they know how to think for themselves. Who Am I? is evident in the What is that? because they want to know what they think about that thing. In the How does it work? portion, the student wants to know if it is worth their time to figure out how it works. In the When does it apply?, students are asking if they are the kind of person who will use this after the test. Will it impact them?
Neil deGrasse Tyson answers his Who am I? by saying he is a "Servant of Curiosities." He seeks to answer the questions that others have about the universe that helps them understand what it is, how it works, when it applies to them, why they believe what they believe about it, and who they are in relation to this thing.
He is an educator.
We do this every day. We definitely do not deal in as atmospherically lofty curiosities, but we do deal with equally important curiosities that shape our individual students. We are either feeding their curiosity, or starving it out in the name of "getting through the content." The truth is, sometimes we need to stop and feed the curiosity of students to get them to the point of understanding the content.
I believe every student wants to learn, they just do not all know how to get from their curiosities to the facts and activities in our lesson plans. Let us be servants of curiosities that dive into the interests of our students as we meet them where they are.
Here is the segment from CBS This Morning
In 2014, at the end of my first year of teaching at College Station High School, I penned this blog- http://amidoingthisrightteachers.blogspot.com/2014/04/it-takes-team.html
In it, I talk about the power of the department around me, the admin team, and my fellow UIL coaches. It was about a 3A high school units second year of existence, with just under 1,200 students and no senior class. I was teaching US History.
It is now 2017, three years after I wrote that, and much has changed. We are 5A, well over 1,800 students, and we've graduated two classes. I now teach Debate, Psychology, and Sociology.
And how I define team is very different. For one, there are more teachers, new admins, and for me, a new location. I've moved from the 3rd floor to the zero level, as I call it the "hole in the bottom of the school." I love my room, but I am no longer surrounded by my department. Or many teachers at all. There are four of us on that hall, two split time in a room, one is around the corner, then there is me. No one teaches my classes on my level, so I've got no level team.
While I am still very much a part of the team of CSHS, it has become harder to be in the midst of a team of teachers. At least physically. See, I have found that my team is redefined in a number of ways.
First, I have a team via Twitter. Our district Twitter chat #CSISDchat "meets" Tuesdays at 8 for encouragement and idea sharing- it has powerfully affected how I teach and lead on my campus.
Second, because my administrators saw potential in me, I was given the chance to be a part of the District's first ever Teacher Leader Academy. We (three other CSHS teachers and I) developed a risk taking opportunity centered around peer coaching and developed the idea with other teachers around the district. Again, encouragement and idea sharing. This year, my involvement in TLA opened the door for me to be on the Dream Team, an innovation think-tank of sorts for our district. More growth made available.
Finally, the most important new members of my team.
Yes, one of the most powerful teams I have found is my class full of students. I've learned to listen to their voice, their ideas, and how they want to learn. It's challenged me to create a new way to run a classroom, to design it, and to share content. When teachers (and admins) put together teams, we MUST consider the students.
In 2014, I discovered the power of a team at CSHS. Since that time, I've expanded and altered that team, just as our school has grown. My role on the team has changed, and my concept of what a team is has moved beyond the walls of my school to my district and beyond. And it is no longer just teachers and admins- it's students, too.
Much has changed since 2014, but this remains true:
Back then, I saw greatness in our students. I wish I knew then what I know now- there is power in their voice and in their dreams. What greater things could have happened if I'd listened more to students then?
I am now working to finish grad school, then hopefully attain a job in administration. It may be next year or years from now, but what I have learned in my four years at CSHS and in CSISD is that it takes a team- teachers, admins, students and community.
A team is more than the peers around you, and without them, we are never as excellent as we could be with them.
May I never take my team for granted.
I am attending the Texas Association of Student Council's State Convention in Arlington this week. The theme is "Dare to Dream, Dare to Do." We have, in our first day, heard a speaker talk about daring to be who you are even when it does not seem to be as successful as others, the famous Apple "Crazy Ones" video, and Prince Ea's "Every Dies but Not Everybody Lives." I will share the videos at the end for reference.
They are inspiring and the kids loved them. I hear loud cheers and yells of "YES!" and other agreements throughout the night. Nearly five thousand teenagers and a few hundred educators are being challenged to pursue their dreams, find the real you, and change the world.
That is a great thing!
But, it is not the only thing.
"The Crazy Ones" captures it better than the others. They point out that innovators make the world a better place, they make new things, unique things. But it hints at something else they make.
If you have ever tried to do something new- I mean really new- chances are someone said you couldn't or shouldn't. Maybe they even moved to block you with laws or rules or even by poisoning the well before you had a chance to drink from it. They fed you doubts, they dosed you with fear, they strangled your hope.
But maybe, you didn't listen to them. Maybe you smiled, accepted thier advice with humility, and did it anyway.
Then another opposition arose. This time, it was denial that the benefit was real, or that it could work for others. Others ignore you, thinking your idea will go away, or die on the vine of inspiration. That is bad stuff, but the worst is apathy- no one cares or notices. It is said that many artists die before they are discovered- but how many innovators are NEVER discovered? Or are, and just ahead of their time?
As I saw students get excited about innovation tonight, I was proud of them. I was proud that leaders were trying to challenge students to take risks. But I was also uncomfortable sitting there, waiting for someone to say to the crowd, "Dream- but if you really want to innovate, be ready to be feared, scorned, ignored, and maybe even hated. Be ready to endure, to survive, to struggle. "
I learn much from Batman. In Batman Begins, there is a scene that captures what innovators must do, what "The Crazy Ones" did. Bruce Wayne gets it:
As educators, I hope we do not take on a terrifying symbol, but you get the idea! Bruce Wayne's father had done a great deal to help his city, but nothing was more powerful than his death. Bruce sees that man is finite, but ideas are something else. Men and women who innovate can be ignored, their work destroyed, but if they create something more than themselves, something dramatic (speaking on equality at the feet of Lincoln's Memorial?) something "elemental" (like an Apple?), something everlasting (name your religious figure?), something incorruptible (those who cannot be bought or watered down?).
Tonight, I heard again the phrase "Think outside the box." I have several educator friends who squirm when they hear that, because they know that education will always be in a box of standards and laws drawn up by people not in education. They say, "It is how you innovate inside the box" that has impact. But the box is dangerous, it is costly. And it is often so because of the colleagues who have grown to love the shape and restriction of the box.
I have made changes in my teaching style and structure and room this year. It is innovative, but it also definitely builds on the shoulders of those who have gone before me. My students have- by a vast majority- loved it. They have fully accepted the concept, and started to share it with other students. And sometimes other teachers.
There has been opposition.
Not blatant "that is a terrible idea" opposition, but dismissal that the idea works beyond my room, apathy, and in some cases, completely ignoring what happens. As a person, this hurts, this bothers me. I want teachers to see it- not as a way to wholesale change their teaching, but as a way to reach students and engage them to empowerment beyond their current levels.
But there are other educators. They have embraced, shared and celebrated what happens in what I call the CREATE Classroom- which is called the Didactic Cafe by my students. I have had blogs shared, discussions on Twitter, invites to submit proposals for presentations. I am choosing to see these things, I am choosing to see the students who like different people than when I had them in a traditional class last year, and those who are different in my class than in others today.
I am no Spielberg or Einstein, no Da Vinci or Galileo. I have not rallied a nation like King or Ghandi. I definitely do not have the bank account of Gates or the name recognition of Ali.
But I am an innovator, a dreamer.
I aspire to be a "Crazy One."
And they realize this: It is not enough to dream, sometimes you must fight to make it reality.
So, I say bring it on.
Let's make some symbols.
Sometimes things do not go like you want them to.
I have students present speeches all the time, and inevitably, eventually, one of them will make a mistake. How they respond is telling. Some pause for the briefest of seconds before composing themselves and moving on. Some request a do-over. Some press on, but the momentum is lost and never regained.
Some give up.
As a teacher, I try to let the students sort it out themselves. I encourage them that often the mistakes they make are known only if their posture or gestures or faces or words tell me that they messed up. Sometimes, the mistake is profound and clearly observed. I say, "So what, we all make mistakes. It is not the end of the world."
But when it is me that has made a mistake, or failed, or had a setback- do I tell myself what I tell my students?
No, I do something else. I reflect, I ponder, and sometimes I wallow. Sometimes all at once. Now, reflection is VITAL. But it must be with the intent to move forward, not obsess over the failure. In the grief training I do with teachers, I do say that yes, you need to feel the loss, but you must keep moving forward.
As I write this, I am there. I am feeling the sense of falling short, of not achieving what I had hoped. Right now, I am wallowing.
But then, I found this video. It is no secret I am huge Switchfoot fan, and have been since the early 2000's. I made their song Hope is the Anthem my theme for this year, but today, that song was hard to listen to. But the title of this talk caught my eye. Starting at around the 9:30 mark, Jon Foreman talks about how our lives are our instrument, how they require tuning and practice, and a lifetime to develop. He talks until around 12 minutes from that 9:30 part, so take a listen.
He will go on to sing Dare You to Move, one of my all time favorite songs.
Today, that is my song.
I am learning from my students, as I reflect on what I have done and could do better, this song rings in my ears. I am thinking of the student who just last semester took not one single speech seriously, and yesterday gave one of the most challenging and inspiring TED style talks I have heard. I am thinking of one student who finally found their voice, and another that is learning how to best use their voice. I am thinking of the students who have made bad choices, and are learning to make better ones. I am thinking of the students who felt crushed by a setback, and how I need to empathize with them, and today I can.
In the words of Jon Foreman, I am tuning. I am learning to listen to the room, to grow from my missed notes so that I can impact others- and myself.
I want to challenge you to think of how you are "tuned." When you hit that wrong note, what do you do? Do you power through, stop and compose, give up? As long as you do not give up, you are tuning, you are reflecting.
Today, I want to tune my life, make the needed adjustments as an educator. I am not completely happy with my song write now, so I will practice and work with it. I am not enjoying my song today, so I will listen and reflect to find a better melody.
So I ask- how are you tuning the song of your life (and classroom) today?