Two years ago I took a job at a charter high school down the street from my house in an effort to affect my own community and to challenge myself professionally. Despite charters’ many failings (which we’ve all read about ad nauseam and to which I can verify, personally) it did present me with a few unique opportunities.
Class sizes were small and I had a chance to teach the same group of students two years in a row, in 9th and 10th grades. As far as I can tell, no one had ever given these kids a chance to prove themselves academically, creatively, or personally, but they damn sure know how to shut up and take a standardized test.
So, I decided to give them some different chances by ending my career the way I wanted to build it all along: with inquiry-based learning. I spent 7 years and 8 months of my career worried about meeting standards, teaching learning targets, pleasing unappeasable “leaders” in the building and in the district, relying too heavily on “best practices,” using canned lessons too often, talking too much, and not having confidence in the young people in front of me.
The hardest part has been getting the hell out of my students’ way and letting them prove how capable they truly are.
I’ve completely handed over control to my students for the last six weeks of school. I’ve provided a general framework, frequent check-ins, a few hard deadlines, and an end date. Asked them to write detailed projects proposals (persuasive writing) and didn’t hear one groan or complaint. Some even turned them in 3 days early! The topics, research, projects, think time, collaboration, inspiration, and conversation have been completely on their shoulders. Somehow, with them carrying their own learning, I’m working harder than I ever have.
And despite low expectations in elementary, middle, and now high school that often accompany children of color from poor homes, they’re flourishing. Some have had difficulties sustaining work day in and day out, or finding a passion to pursue, but nothing like when I made them sit, listen, and write like me through day after day of modeling (it’s best practice you know).
At first they didn’t know what to do with the freedom I had given them. They were saying things like “This is too hard. Why can’t you just tell me what to do?” or “No one ever let me learn whatever I want” or “I know I’m interested in things, but I just don’t know what. No one has ever asked.”
Sad, yes. But beautiful, too. The sky is the limit. They’re full of unharnessed potential.
And they’ve proven it.
I saw two students, whom I have never seen interact before, have a 10 minute, self-initiated discussion about astral projection (her topic) and the reaches of the universe (his topic). He spent two years sleeping through my class. Now I can’t get him to leave on time because he’s so interested in learning more.
Another kid, who tries hard, but struggles mightily, took to his topic right away: how gang violence affects his community. Some research, a few YouTube videos of Gangland, talking to his family members, and a solid mentor connection has him more engaged than I’ve seen him in our two years together.
He met last week with an ex-gang member, a third generation guy who got out once he was stabbed 17 times. Now he works with families to show them how to leave the gang life behind. He wants my student to volunteer with him. The day after they met, I saw a changed kid walk into my room. His head was higher. He has a purpose. And a business card. He showed the man’s card to anyone willing to look and listen.
And that’s just two of eighty! Other topics involve battered women, pedophilia, sexual violence, gravity, storyboarding and gaming, the supernatural, police brutality, contraception, El Chapo, graffiti, and world hunger.
I didn’t come up with these topics. I didn’t even offer suggestions. Not bad for a group of kids who have never been asked what they want to learn about.
The work they want to do around these topics is even more amazing. Scale models, documentary films, creating a “safe space” in school for victims to have a voice, support groups, guest speakers, shadowing experiences, and volunteer opportunities. All I had to do was get out of the way. They’re working so fast I can’t even keep up.
We’ve all read the books, posts, blogs, and articles about the value of inquiry learning. Chances are, we’ve probably already convinced ourselves this is the best way. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely not what gets called for in the national media. The funny thing is, you won’t really find any research that debunks the practice of inquiry (granted, I’ve never really looked). You’ll find alternative methods and “best practices,” but no one is saying this doesn’t work. So why aren’t more schools do this?
The best part about giving up control and letting kids make decisions for themselves is that they eventually end up where I wanted them to go, anyway. The ones who insisted on working together eventually split up because they weren’t getting enough work done. Those with weak project ideas that didn’t lend themselves to good research, eventually changed topics and came up with something much better. All I had to do was be patient enough to let them figure it out.
In two weeks, I’ll walk away from teaching for good. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t have the courage to do this sooner. I was afraid of how I’d look. Out of control. Incompetent. But once I let go of my ego, the world changed in front of me.
Inquiry is hard for us because we’re too impatient as the people in charge of the room. My guess is that most of us are too afraid to let go. Teachers are control freaks. Naturally, too. It’s safe. It’s self-preservation. We have no control over anything besides our classroom. So we hold on to that little amount of control with a fierce intensity.
But it’s time to let go. Give over the reigns. Kids don’t need teachers anymore. They need leaders. And good leaders know when to get out of the way.
Tinkering around the edges is no longer acceptable. Now that I know this type of transformation is possible, anything else is malpractice. If we were doctors, we’d be sued. How can we accept anything less from ourselves and especially for the students and families we serve?
You have the opportunity to awaken curiosity and change the world. So move.
What are you afraid of?
Chris Cooper is now a freelance copywriter. He can be reached at www.chriscoopercopywriter.com