This is the second entry in my “Ask a Student” series (Dev’s answers were presented in an earlier blog post). I’ve been using this as part of my process of thinking about what it means to teach and learn. I want to be better. I want students to learn better. I want to figure out what we can do to help them – taking input directly from the students… and using that to inform my research and professional development activities. To help with this, I asked the students three questions:

  1. What has “worked” for you in school?
  2. Where are schools not meeting your needs? (What should we have done better to meet your needs?)
  3. If you could start a new school from scratch – what is an essential design feature? What should learning look, feel, and sound like?

Before Julia’s responses to these questions (well, to two of these questions), I should introduce you to this amazing young woman. As studious and hard-working a student as I’ve ever had, she cares more about the effort than the result. She’s a loyal, thoughtful, and caring friend… and her musical theatre geekiness reminded me of some of my favourite people growing up. She and her friend Anna were the ones to introduce me to Hamilton: The Musical – and a re-working of the musical’s opening tune to present their findings on Greek Mythology is legendary:

Now – to her answers:

1. Overall, there were a lot of things that worked out for me – especially the teachers. During each day at school, I know I’ll walk out of class satisfied with what was covered (most of the time, at least). The teachers I’ve had over the course of a few years have been really supportive and trustworthy. I know this isn’t always the case for everyone, but I’ve always felt safe around most teachers I’ve had. Last year especially, I had no trouble at all approaching a teacher and either asking questions or just talking about, well, anything. Moving on from this topic, I also enjoy going to school because of my friends. Not once have I genuinely had trouble with someone in my school or in my grade, and with the friends that I have at school – caring, loyal, and forgiving (especially when you might make questionable decisions once in a while) – I know I can get through each day at school. I feel like everyone at my school does their best to make the building a safe space for all, and I respect that.

2. This may be a weird answer, but I feel like we all need to pay more attention to the learning habits of others. I know paying attention to every student individually in a high school or middle school with 500+ or even 1000+ students would be very difficult, and so my answer to this may not be realistic, but it’s how I feel. Actually, it revolves around what’s been going on this year for me. I did say that I, most of the time, will walk out of class satisfied. Most of the time. The way I learn and take in information hasn’t always occurred to me until this year – a year where you listen to someone throw information at you and then have a pop quiz the next day on that information. And then it hit me: I am NOT an auditory learner. I’ve heard all these things being said about how types of learning have been proven false. When someone throws a book in front of me, I can process the info and learn from it more easily than someone giving a lecture or reading something aloud. Each student is different and each student has a mind of their own with different capabilities. The way each person learns most likely contributes to whether or not a student will walk out of class happy or stressed. I feel like schools don’t pay enough attention to why students aren’t just processing the info the same as other students or even teachers. Students have to LEARN at school, right? I feel like we should be exposed to all learning methods for as many subjects as possible. One thing I personally struggle with is taking notes while watching a video or listening to a recording, because the information from those sources is there for around one second and then it just disappears and I can’t remember. Maybe what I’m saying is unrealistic – and there are others that I guarantee will disagree with what I’m saying. But this is my answer.

I love hearing that school, for the most part, works for Julia. But her concern about the methods of instruction not meeting all of her needs is a very real issue for many students. Julia knows what academic success looks and feels like. Where the system is not meeting her needs, she will make her own accommodations and learn the material, despite her teachers. What she isn’t directly saying is that for other students, unaware of their learning styles or needs, this is a recipe for disengagement and systemic failure.

Her request of schools attending to the individual differences of students is not out of line. I think this is the greatest area of opportunity for innovative teaching and schooling practices. To meet our responsibilities to both the students and our communities – something has to change.

Focusing on grades; curricular responsibilities which are never fully met; soft skill development; personal passion projects; exposure to different activities; homework; clubs running before, during, and after school five days a week; and streamlined instruction for an increasingly diverse world all hurt the ability to truly individualize our approach and instructional delivery. In trying to do so much, we end up doing very little. Or at least that’s what it can feel like.

I am often faced with the decision to spend my time checking in with each student, one-on-one, or to mass-deliver a simplified lesson to communicate a specific curricular outcome which is likely to go in one ear and out the other. What a choice.

We pass up the opportunity to teach lasting lessons, reaching individuals where they’re at, because we have these other responsibilities. I’m not now, nor will I ever be worried about students like Julia. I am worried about the majority of students which our system fails on a daily basis.

I can’t say that I’ll change any time soon. I have responsibilities to the curriculum, the community, and to these students who will move on to different teachers and schools where they need to have the same lessons as those with whom they study. But every time I simplify something for “everyone”, I know that I’m making a conscious decision to hurt at least one. And those are the kinds of trade-offs that I need to avoid. I can’t stop until I reach both my students and responsibilities… it may be a fool’s errand – but I’m just foolish enough to continue trying.

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