20 years ago I did a History Fellowship at Stanford University with Dr. Al Camarillo. Paul and Will were my main men during my time there.
I’ve been going through my Grandmother Ethel’s scrapbook. My Grandmother attended The Veltin School in New York City. In the coming days I’m going to post some of her artwork and poetry. She lived her life in New York City, Rochester, NY, then Myrtle Beach, SC, for retirement. I was very close to my Grandmother (1907-2000). We were/are both poets and spiritual people. I’ve taught at a school serving girls for several years now, my Grandmother further connects me to that work and the historic mission of those institutions.
More about The Veltin School: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veltin_School_for_Girls
Informed by my study of Plato, I believe (to some degree) that all of education is recollecting self-knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that resides within every human being. I believe that all students are innately curious, innately have a voice, innately have prodigious talent, and innately have a desire to be their best selves. As a teacher it is my job to create a learning environment where students are truly at the center of their intellectual lives.
From a practical standpoint, what does this look like in their classroom?
For me this means that the very first minutes of every class don’t involve me speaking. I call this time, History Habit. History Habit provides an opportunity for students to share any of the following: a thought on a current event, a follow up piece of information from a previous class, a historic event that took place on that particular day (the beginning of women’s suffrage, Pearl Harbor, etc.). History Habit sets the stage and immediately shows students that this is their class, their forum, their place to bring in and share what they are intellectually interested in, even if only for a few minutes.
Reviewing textbook and content material is another way that I put students front and center. For the first few classes of the year I model how to review primary sources or chapter information, but within a couple of weeks students take over this process. They are randomly selected to review material for the class. They can choose to talk through various key points, or facilitate their classmates’ contributions, or a combination of the two. I listen intently and only speak at the end if there is something that was missed, or perhaps to point out a deeper connection that I’d like to address. Students are always very eager to participate in reviewing notes and they do a very thorough job as a result.
My last examples of student-centered learning focus on freewrites, Socratic discussions and debates. Prior to delving into a given historic topic I like to provide students the opportunity to generate their own narrative, their own documented thinking. I might put a prompt on the board that states something like, “I believe monarchial governments are….” Then students have the chance to do five minutes of uninterrupted freewriting. This straightforward activity allows a student to create meaning and ownership, before encountering other sources of information on that subject matter. Socratic discussions and debates provide students with further opportunities to guide their own intellectual thinking and reasoning. With both activities my goal is to provide source material, create the structure, then get out of the way. I take notes, pose the occasional probing question, reaffirm voices, but the vast majority of the time students are speaking to each other, sharing the space, and really enjoying the process of learning as a collective group.
As you may have guessed, I am not a “sage on stage.” My pedagogy is devoted to serving students, to modeling deep listening, to appreciating all of the voices in the room. I love to teach because I love to learn from the younger generations. Much of the core content and philosophical ideas of history are timeless, but each burgeoning mind intellectually interacts with the subject matter in a new and unique way. My educational philosophy allows me to continually grow and absorb, while gaining profound joy from watching a young person create the future, one class at a time.
Sitting with my daughter and her iPad, we
fill in boxes that pose questions about
Greek Civilization. Art = statues, writing=
Plato, upper classes made laws, were
citizens, slaves did what they were told to
do. Box after box on the screen, covering
500 BC to 146 BC, until Rome conquers
Athens. Less than memorization, we cut and
paste words from other screens into hers. I
imagine Socrates in the agora, watching us,
wondering what happened, how we stopped
interrogating the machine, our flesh fingers,
puppets, moved to reduce everything to this.
This poem is called Maggots,
Samantha stands in front of the
classroom with a sly smile. Her
piece inspired by historic conflict,
skips Gettysburg, Antietam, and
all the words of war. No rebel yell,
or regiments, she leaves nurse
descriptions and widow tears for
other poems to divulge. Starts
at the end, she speaks her black
beginning, maggots chewing,
spewing flesh of men without faces,
corpses all in their places for the feast.
She maintains throughout, that nature
intended such death, that it was all
meant to be. Not for North or South,
but for the legless larva to probe
darkness, with their bloody glee.