Challenging Thought: Wisdom from a Former Student

Thanksgiving receives plenty of attention for traditional feasts, shopping, and family time; but for teachers, Thanksgiving week means more than a couple days off of work. It represents the opportunity to reflect and reconnect with former students.

Yesterday, as if posted on the school calendar, a former student stopped by at the end of my prep period. He told me about his current studies and adventures as a college sophomore. We exchanged stories and shared laughs. These reunions are my reward–my holiday bonus.

But conversations with this graduate always go deeper than catching up on life and reminiscing about old times. He wants to know how systems work and asks questions about education that challenge my thinking. He has always been a genuine learner, urged by intellectual curiosity. And he possesses one of the most observant, insightful, brilliant minds I have ever had the pleasure to teach (even when he was a freshman). The limitations of a traditional high school structure were the only obstacles in his education at the time. He exhausted our school’s offerings of Advanced Placement courses and conquered all standardized tests with ease. As anticipated, he needed the independence of college to thrive and be challenged intellectually.

So why do we continue to lack vision of the possibilities and impede the potential of our learners?

Our conversation had reached this point when the bell rang and students began reporting to my classroom for World Literature and Composition.  As we continued chatting, my juniors entered, found a comfortable space to work, and organized their learning materials while engaging in light conversation with friends. My guest was impressed. I did not have to officially announce the start of class. I did not have to give directions, command students to begin working, or perform any scripted pedagogical acts of classroom management.

Although I prefer to greet students at the door or mingle with them as they enter the room, I was preoccupied. My students respected the situation and hopefully, at this point in the school year, they knew I would get around to each of them throughout the class period. As I explained to my visitor, this is how a personalized learning model is supposed to look.

What is everyone working on and how they know what to do–especially having come from typical, teacher-led classes?

Excellent questions. Students have a menu of learning targets for second quarter content attached to our course standards.

QTR2 Learning Targets

Some writers are completing revisions to research papers from first quarter, but we are not prohibiting other learners from moving on (pacing was one of his greatest frustrations in high school). Many students are showing understanding of the stages of the hero’s journey by analyzing the transformation of a character from literature, life, or film. How they present this learning is taking the form of video montages, interactive visuals, or multi-media presentations (hopefully treating me to a new resource or app). Students are also creating personal blog sites to showcase their work and reach a global audience, as well as dedicating one day a week to invest in Genius Hour projects. Soon, we will be reading from a list of epics, exploring heroism, and reflecting on the legacy we hope to leave behind. Without feeling overwhelmed, we recognize there is work to be done in the limited time we meet. And worth noting: we will celebrate our learning throughout the journey.

What if you were presented with the autonomy to craft your own essential questions?

At this point, I began asking the questions. My mind is not capable of imagining what my former student would have created with his innovative superpowers–but I would have learned so much from him. Crafting his own essential questions is what he considers his greatest challenge in adapting to college thinking. College sorts students based on their ability to ask big questions, process knowledge independently, and create original outcomes with their learning. Although he humbly admits his overconfidence during high school, he continues to believe students are underprepared by their high school experience in a typical classroom.

Despite their best intentions, many teachers tend to present material, test student knowledge, assign a grade, and move to the next unit. Rather than tell students exactly what to know, educators should introduce ideas to generate curiosity; provide time for learners to explore, experience, and create; and above all, insist students think critically by asking questions. Thankfully, the former teachers who modeled such practices (even if he didn’t realize it at the time) opened intellectual pathways that allowed him to overcome what he considers to be the greatest academic challenges of his life.

For reuniting with former students, exchanging wisdom, collecting memorable moments, and finding time for meaningful reflection, I am grateful.



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