Richer Soil: Cultivating Change in the Classroom
February 10, 2021
Last week, I spoke with a teacher who wanted to give up. She was crushed, physically and emotionally, by the demands of pandemic teaching.
“I want to start a nursery,” she told me. “Something small, something simple. I just want to plant my seeds and nurture them, and watch a garden grow.”
This week, I spoke with a teacher on the other end of the spectrum. She was invigorated and inspired. She was excited about school.
And she was the same person. What changed?
One kid — that was all it took. One moment to remember, in a visceral and immediate way, the deep joy of teaching. One chance to watch a garden grow.
This particular breakthrough happened during a Black History Month lesson in second grade. One of the students, a White child, learned for the first time about segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Maybe he’d heard about them before, but never in a way that led him to understand. Maybe he’d never heard about them at all — we have an unfortunate tendency to shy away from truths that might be uncomfortable or controversial. Whatever the reason, he was shocked to discover that there were people alive today who remember the world of Jim Crow.
Moral offense is one of the most common emotions in a second-grade classroom; kids are keenly attuned to life’s deep unfairness. But that sense of injustice is skewed toward the selfish: “fair” usually means, “whatever helps me.” Far less common is moral offense on another’s behalf; in second grade, empathy is an ethical epiphany.
And as a teacher, it’s a wonderful thing to see — those sprouts of maturation. We get a chance to watch as students realize that other people matter.
But that, by itself, wasn’t what invigorated my teaching colleague. What excited her was helping the student move from impulse to action. Empowering students means helping them move from learning something to DOING something, and when teachers empower students, they feel empowered themselves.
But let’s face it: school as it’s traditionally organized can stumble at promoting this kind of growth. You don’t inspire with worksheets. You can’t empower with ‘Splash Math’.
There’s a place for helping students acquire and retain information — but if we want to cultivate students who will help our world face its biggest challenges, we need to do more.
I was working with a group of teachers at a professional development session recently. We were exploring Project-based Learning experiences for their students, and one teacher said something that resonated:
“This kind of project is a perfect opportunity to help our class think about issues of access and equity.”
And it was! Her students would be learning about nutrition and healthy eating, but they lived within thirty miles of an area where food deserts were common. As students explored the topic, the pedagogical soil would be incredibly fertile; students would have ample opportunity to reflect on why their neighborhood had multiple Whole Foods, while just half an hour away, students were surrounded by fast food.
We live a world with incredible challenges and incredible opportunities, and the students in our classrooms will, in a matter of years, be the ones tasked with guiding it wisely. If we want to prepare them for that brave new world, it’s not enough to do things the way we’ve always done them. We need to empower them to start making a difference today, so that we can grow the difference-makers of tomorrow.
Project-based Learning is a great way to engage students, and a great way to teach content. But its true power lies in its ability to provide a richer soil in which we can cultivate the kind of inspiring, transformative changes that make all of us — students and teachers alike — excited to wake up in the morning and make a difference.