27 October 2010

Student Empowerment

I've been reading in the book, Choosing Democracy, by Duane Campbell, as a part of a Sociology of Cultures Communities and Schools, ED 6093.

One of the quotes I liked was, "When students recognize their own cultural context, they can learn to think critically about it and make meaningful decisions about their life opportunities." Now, this is a quote I can get behind and support. I like the idea. However, I am not sure that we are able, as teachers, to get this point across effectively to students. Can I get an amen? There are students in my classes who are not having their basic needs met. Have a look at Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs. There are a lot of students who come to school hungry. Their parents depend on the school to teach them how to be human beings. They depend on the school to feed them. Many of these parents are not even getting their basic needs met. Therefore, they are not meeting the needs of their children.

The quote above implies that students are able to reach self-actualization. How can we expect this if we are not able to meet their basic physiological needs, their needs of safety, and their needs of love and belonging? This last need, the need of love and belonging, really stems from a students identity, specifically their cultural identity. However, how do we as teachers make them care enough to learn their own culture? What motivation do they have to learn this? To identify with it? Some of them already have a culture, a group identity, generally this is in the form of a gang.

I have learned to accept that I cannot "reach" every student. This doesn't mean that I stop trying. I do, however, try to build relationships with each student. I am definitely not successful at this task, but I still try. It seems that this year I am being less successful than ever before. I am not sure why, but that is my perception for this year. It seems that even as I become more successful with my curriculum and technology integration, I become less successful at building relationships with students. I don't know, maybe I'm losing sight of what's really important.

Even as I write this I am frustrated because there are so many different issues that our students deal with. Teachers need to be equipped to handle pregnancy, drugs, hormones, relationship drama, and more. It is so difficult as a teacher to see students who are struggling with issues other than academics. The really sad part is that these issues usually affect their academics as well, which compounds a student's problems.

So, the meat of my thinking is this: what can I do as a teacher to meet students needs so that I can then motivate them to become culturally aware? To motivate them to be able to be successful in their studies? This is the way to student empowerment. Students who are successful in academics (there are differing levels of success for different students) have options. If students drop out of school or barely make it out of school, they are locked in to a low paying job for the rest their lives, barring some act of providence.

Sadly, these are questions that I don't have the answers to at this point in my life. If you have ideas, I'd surely love to hear them.

Critical Thinking in Mulitcultural Education

The chapter on "Promoting Democracy and Critical Thinking" in Choosing Democracy really hits a note with me. I am a firm believer in teaching critical thinking and I think many (if not most) students graduate from high school with inadequate critical thinking skills. This leaves them at a major disadvantage when it comes to being a productive citizen (working, voting, making everyday decisions) or continuing their education (the ability to be successful in higher education).

This comes as a result of teachers who have preconceived ideas about their students. That or they are so lazy, the easy way to do things is to continue on with the same old curriculum, doing the same drill and practice exercises and having students memorize the same stuff they have been doing for the last 20 years.

Students need to be able to take control of (or at least have a say-so in) their education. This is quite difficult for high school teachers, since students are coming to us from middle school where they are being taught "the right answers". I don't mean to lay the problems of the education system squarely at the feet of the middle school teachers. But in my school, a very large number of students come to me without the proper foundation to adequately draw conclusions, evaluate the validity of evidence, or otherwise make decisions regarding scientific investigations. Therefore, I am drawing my own conclusions.

But, I'm not here to crucify the middle school teachers. What I want to know is what to do about it. In my experience, the only thing I can do is try to teach students the critical thinking skills needed to make them more successful in life. This comes about in my class through leveled questions (with resultant class-wide conversations), graphic organizers (teaching chart building skills), and encouraging students to think for themselves. I purposely give students problems to which I do not know the answers. This way, I am not able to give clues other than guiding their questioning, relying on the basic concepts.

I prefer to think of it as teaching students to swim by pushing them off into the end of the pool. Fortunately, I am waiting there in the water to help keep their heads above water if things get a bit too deep.

This subject is especially appropriate right now since we are watching Contact in Earth Science. Students are confronted by some ideas that make them squirm a bit in their seats. I believe Piaget called this a "cognitive dissonance" or "disequilibrium". I have many students who are members of some religious sect, but are only so because their parents are. I try to challenge students to begin to think for themselves. One of the questions I pose to students is "But why do you believe that?"

In science, as in any discipline, its important for students to recognize that there is a major difference between belief in something and acceptance of something. Facts are things we accept: the birth/death of a friend, the beginning/end of a relationship, etc. I've known people who choose not to accept the facts (some of them related to my examples!)But belief requires an additional ingredient: faith. The ability to buy into an idea without any facts. It is based on emotion, feelings, ideas, but there is no evidence to support it.

So many students come to high school without the knowledge of the difference in these two concepts. This misconception handicaps them (sometimes for life) if they are not able to learn to think for themselves. I am happy to have students talk about religion in my classroom (in fact I have mentioned my faith on more than one occasion, when asked), but I try to get students to look inside themselves and determine why they believe the way that they do and get away from the tried but false adage of "because I was raised that way".

I've grown up a lot over the last 6 or 7 years and don't necessarily agree with everything I was taught as a child. This is due in no small part to my experiences in higher education. I've learned to think for myself and hope to instill this idea in my own children and my students. Its a very hard balance. I admit, in my parenting and in my classroom, I feel as though I am walking a tightrope trying to respect the ideas of my student's parents, while trying to persuade them to think for themselves and "question everything." I'm probably overstating the case there, but I get as close to the "question everything" line as I can without crossing it.

I would argue that critical thinking (and therefore democracy promotion) is the most important aspect of any student's educational experience. Students who miss out on this part of an education (as I stated earlier) can be handicapped for life. How can we expect them as citizens to vote responsibly if they are not able to evaluate the validity of the evidence presented in favor of, or against, a candidate?

Would it be out of the realm of possibility to consider critical thinking (or a lack of it) is the reason our educational system is in its current state? I mean, if students can't think critically and therefore cannot be informed voters, how do we know we have the best possible people running our government? For that matter, if they are not good critical thinkers, they are more likely to be apathetic about government anyway. A select few choose the people who make all the decisions that matter most to people who are in poverty. What is going on here?