I believe that when my student scholars are held to high expectations and presented with coursework that challenges them, they will rise to meet the occasion. Whether I am working in a challenging public school environment, or in a private school, I hold my student scholars to the same high standards.
This often looks like posing a compelling question to students at the beginning of the unit, and spending six weeks or more formulating answers. It may look like designing a unit around a problem in our community or nation, and implementing a solution. Sometimes this looks like challenging students with a poem or short story I remember from a college class, and sitting down to discuss it, Socratic style. What my classes rarely see are worksheets, lectures, or silent reading and answering questions from a textbook.
I tell my students almost daily that I am more interested in what they can DO instead of what they can memorize. That is why I typically use multiple formats of assessment in addition to traditional, multiple-choice exams.
Aside from simply utilizing challenging texts and engaging in complex learning tasks, I teach my students to come to love rigorous instruction and learning. I recognize the importance in helping students build up their emotional and mental fortitude, encouraging them to persevere through challenges and, true to our city of Memphis, teaching them to "grit and grind" in the classroom daily. Learning is a constant progress, and I insist that my students learn to appreciate the struggle as much as the end results.
As both an English and History instructor, my primary goal is to expose students to new material, ideas, and information that will spark exuberant interest, and push students to formulate their own stances on the great issues of our time. I believe that when fascinating content is brought before students, and when students are assured that they are in a space that is safe for exploration, they will investigate such topics enthusiastically and maturely in order to form, and defend, their own opinions. I find that teaching, at its core, is one of the highest forms of community activism, and thus much of my philosophy is focused around molding students who are informed about the issues that diverse groups in our community face. This plank of my teaching philosophy is designed to help my classes to foster empathy for others (that is, people who come from very different backgrounds than themselves), develop goals for our community, and ultimately, possess the necessary skills and leadership abilities to enact such goals on a school, local, state, national, and global level.
My students spend a significant amount of time each academic year studying and discussing contemporary social and political movements. During my first year at Holly Springs Junior High School, police brutality and Black Lives Matter was at the forefront of my students' thinking. In the second year, the 2016 Presidential election was a major topic of discussion. This past year at Heritage Baptist, gun violence and gun control have featured prominently in classroom discussions and student writing. Even though these are serious topics, I love hearing my students discuss them thoughtfully, and posit ideas and solutions to each other.
I find that my students learn best when they are allowed to discover things for themselves, rather than merely being told what to copy down in some notes from a lecture or a textbook. Since I teach ELA and History, I can freely tell my students that there are no right or wrong answers. Any solution that can be backed by logic or evidence is worth exploring. My students often come to me having had a very traditional school experience in years prior. There are usually several students in each new class that are deeply uncomfortable with any method of learning that is not just black and white. However, after several weeks or months of being encouraged to try multiple methods, discuss many solutions, or even turn in multiple versions of a paper or assignment, these students usually begin to enjoy class in a way that they never had before. An inquiry mindset gives students the freedom to try, and fail, and try again. We always celebrate failure in my classroom, because we know that it is the only way we learn.
As a teacher in the South, and as a teacher who has now worked in both a majority-African American school where most students were financially poor, and a more racially diverse private school where most students are middle class, diversity is always at the forefront of my mind. While working in Mississippi, I sought to highlight cultures and groups of people that my students who had often never left our county may not think, or even know, about. In a more diverse classroom here at Heritage Baptist, my focus is often on fielding talks between students and helping students from different cultural backgrounds relate to each other. This is why we work hard to foster a classroom culture of respect, but also where differences can be discussed and appreciated.
My selection of texts to use in my ELA courses is very intentional. Seeing as how "for most students in the United States, the literature they encounter in school consists mainly of White, middle class representations" (Tschida, Ryan, and Ticknor, 2014, p. 28), I like to select both texts that function as "mirrors," which are reflective of students' and their lives, and "windows," which encourage students to observe the lives of others (p. 29).
In my history classes, we apply similar strategies. We take a very critical approach to our course textbooks by asking ourselves who wrote each chapter, and what kinds of bias they may have. I also push history learning that is less Euro-centric and more global in scope. This helps my students to learn an important lesson: that regardless of how little of the textbook is devoted to non-Europeans, the history of other people groups is worth our time and effort to study. Their history contains some of the most important threads that weave our shared histories together.
Tschida, Christina M., Ryan, Caitlin L. & Ticknor, Anne Swenson. (2014). Building on windows and mirrors: encouraging the disruption of “single stories” through children’s literature. Journal of Childrens Literature, 40(1). Retrieved from