Teaching
11:11 am
Thu July 25, 2013

Classroom Contemplations: Helping Students Find Their Voice

Originally published on Wed July 24, 2013 11:35 am

Henry Rodriguez had a lot of ideas as a young, energetic teacher.  He wanted to make his civics class relevant and to help his students be more aware of what was going on in the world.  One of his ideas involved requiring his kids to watch a brief news program every morning for the whole year.

At first, students had to write simple summaries of what happened, but then the exercise got more advanced as the year progressed.  Rodriguez helped them start to build a narrative about the news, no longer just summarizing, but connecting the dots and predicting the effects of events. They wrote about how things were related, and more.

But activities like that don’t automatically turn students into engaged learners, no matter how well-designed, and some students continued to remain relatively unaware and uninvolved.  Rodriguez described one student, Carmen, as oblivious to the world around her.

“She was just going through the motions of life,” he says.

Rodriguez realized that his required civics lessons about democracy didn’t appeal to seventh graders who are years away from voting.

But, he always believed in the immediate relevance of the economics piece of his course. He tried to use economics as a way to turn kids on, particularly the oblivious ones.

“I would tell my students ‘you guys can’t vote politically, but you can vote with your money,’” he said.

He told the students that if they all decided, for example, that they didn’t want to go to a particular kind of movie or buy a certain brand of clothes, it would have a real effect on the market.  It was this idea that began to wake Carmen up.

“It really intrigued her,” Rodriguez said, “and she kept asking me about it.”

Rodriguez thinks these issues interested Carmen because they resonated with her daily life, the choices she was making and the things she was doing.  Using her purchasing power wasn’t something theoretical, and it wasn’t about a test.  It was about how she behaved in the world.

According to Rodriguez, “It was something that made her think about why she was doing the things she was doing.”

The conversations about it between Rodriguez and Carmen continued through the rest of the school year.  Then, Rodriguez got an email over the summer.  Carmen — former oblivious student — wanted to start a consumer education club at the school and get other kids involved.  She wanted to help them share her burgeoning awareness of the implications of their economic decisions.

“What she learned changed her,” Rodriguez said.  “As opposed to her going through life not thinking about buying decisions, now she’s more aware.”

He’s reflective about how you’d measure this effect.

“Did this new awareness make her FCAT Math score go up?  No.  But it is something extremely valuable that will be with her for the rest of her life.”

Unfortunately, Rodriguez won’t be inspiring any more Carmens for the foreseeable future.  For a variety of reasons that we will talk about in a future post, he’s leaving the profession.

And, as he goes, I believe the story of his impact will be better told by Carmen’s Consumer Education Club and her new awareness than it could be by the test scores Rodriguez’s students achieved.

This isn’t something you can easily measure in the classroom, or in one calendar year.  But we cannot deny that his waking her up added value to her life that will pay dividends down the road, dividends we cannot predict at this point.

It’s a shame our policymakers aren’t trying to figure out a way to recognize Rodriguez and the other teachers out there for these kinds of lasting accomplishments.  By opting for a simple, reductive, numerical formula to determine teacher value, the policymakers seem unable to engage in the very kinds of critical thinking they say they want to encourage in our students.  And this higher-level thinking is exactly what Henry Rodriguez helped Carmen develop.

Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.

Copyright 2013 StateImpact Florida. To see more, visit http://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/.