A student-centered classroom is premised by the understanding that student needs come first. However, the concept of a student-centered classroom needs to be implemented by a principled, experienced teacher with a vision informed by research and best practices. According to Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Thompson, Grace and Cohen, student/children need three things: “RECOGNITION, CONNECTION & POWER.”
My primary educational objective is to create a safe environment. Many students especially need a different forum to be successful. Therefore, my class must be free of marginalization. My approach is free of sarcasm and derision concerning student status and opinions. Yet it is completely open to student suggestions and it is dynamic enough to accommodate immediate needs. I work hard to model empathy and patience when dealing with student frustrations. And I involve the children with authentic listening and with my sincere engagement in their lives. I make learning attractive and nurture an affinity with the children, independent of their academic successes or failures. As such, disturbed, disaffected and destructive students can be together in my classroom peaceably. They are all seen and heard.
Striving for social justice cannot happen in isolation from the student experience. The most important factor all in my classrooms is that the students feel that I care about their learning. I take a longer and more expansive view regarding what success means for kids. School can be a perilous journey for some. By creating a classroom with a strong sense of mutual trust, I can affect a deeply troubled child who may otherwise feel completely ostracized. For one student, my room may be the only positive thing that he/she can take from his high school career. Another gifted student may want to know of alternative routes to an end. With both, I often share honestly about my own experiences and fears concerning conflict and happiness. Because I am unafraid about divulging my feelings and I’m willing listen to the students without judgment, they know and understand that a safe place can exist within adult-child relationships. Hence they feel comfortable and involved.
One of my strongest views I often share with my kids is a shared mistrust of the perceived beneficence of the school experience as a whole.
To use the ideas from the seminal book Teaching as a Subversive Activity:
1. The concept of absolute, fixed, unchanging 'truth', particularly from a
polarizing good-bad perspective.
2. The concept of certainty. There is always one and only one 'right'
answer, and it is absolutely 'right'.
3. The concept of isolated identity, that 'A is A 'period, simply, once and
4. The concept of fixed states and 'things', with the implicit concept that if
you know the name you understand the 'thing'.
5. The concept of simple, single, mechanical causality; the idea that every effect is the result of an easy identifiable cause. (p185 Postman & Weingartner)
Moreover, I clarify the sometimes-fuzzy concept of student-directed learning by demanding students think on their own. I do not function as their tutor to correct their work. Instead I teach them to conceptualize as well as to contextualize. I concentrate on refining their critical reading skills and I direct them with specific guidelines for revising their own writing. I also impress upon them that they have a stake in their education and that the onus is on them to produce. Additionally, I measure and document improvement in attitude; many of my students make dramatic, permanent strides forward. Every one of those children knows that they have put in the extra work and time to achieve these results. They have ownership over their work and grades, and it changes their outlook. For most, pleasure reading opens the door to ideas and affinities they’ve never conceived of. From Hubert Selby’s The Room, I often read them the passage that begins:
Waiting for school to be over. It seemed like years before it was time to sing, no
more pencils, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks. And then home to mother to show her the report card and tell her you got promoted. And she was always happy to see good marks, but then she wanted to know why the D in effort and the D in conduct. And there was never an answer. Youre such a good boy. Why cant you get an A in effort and conduct, the hurt look on her face. And you try shrugging and mumbling the question away, but it doesn’t work. And you get all knotted up and sick to your stomach and you feel hotter and there’s nothing to say. Not a goddamn thing to say…(p.39, Selby)
Maybe these small setbacks are not akin to absolute failure, look at this guy- he’s a writer, he made it. Consequently, they feel empowered.
In Toto, I believe I have laid the groundwork for a creative, successful and rigorous, self-directed learning lab. I’ve created a self-sufficient environment that can simultaneously attend to the heterogeneous needs of students in crisis, Special Education students, A.I.S. students, ESL students and students in A.P. classes. I have extensively researched the books and topics covered in their classrooms, and have created or reproduced many rubrics and resources for student use. But more importantly I have gained the students’ trust and respect, as I have learned to listen closely to what they say.
So how does this English Learning Center support the English classes that many of these children are doing so poorly in? Because it’s a true alternative to the competitive, rigidly structured, punitive atmosphere that these kids experience in their regular classrooms. Here they can be successful here no matter what. It can be a beginning.