Centre County Teacher-Writer: Let’s teach what we want students to learn

Who decides what students should learn? Me — as an elementary school teacher? A high school, subject-specific teacher? A textbook publisher? Or a test designer at the state or federal level? Are there universal truths that all people should believe, or certain facts that all should know? What are the skills that all students need?

One of my summer projects is to put together a conglomeration of lists, words and definitions, pictures and fun sayings that I have accumulated by running a very informal, focused on fun, Latin club for fifth-graders.

After three years of trying out different ideas, my materials and resources are all hodge-podged into crates, notebooks or Google docs. But why am I doing this? It certainly isn’t because I have to, and nobody told me I need to do this. But I am working hard, organizing my stacks, rewriting what worked, and discarding what went over like a lead balloon — because I want to! In doing so, I am learning about so many aspects of Roman life, history, and culture. In learning a smattering of a language that I have not been formally taught, I sometimes get a gleeful feeling like I am speaking in code. Building an awareness of the Latin language has opened my eyes to words written in the pediment or frieze of a building, or understanding university mottoes. Latin stuff is all around me!

First, I must admit several telling things about myself: I never took Latin in high school or college. I love mottoes, quotes and words. I intellectually understand the importance of Latin words as they relate to word roots, prefixes and affixes, and indeed in the scientific use of Latin words. And I love to learn. I will work hard on this project because I am loving the material content, and I can’t wait to share what I have learned with next year’s fifth-graders.

Keep that perspective on your own learning and think about how it could be applied to projects of your own: The directions you needed for the handyman’s project for the backyard or basement. The Bing or Google search that went off in so many directions that an hour went by and you can’t remember your original question. The interesting tidbits of information you learned about your ancestors when tracing your family tree, and what you found out about gardening or traveling when that information made your house look beautiful or the trip especially memorable. We have strong motivation to learn about something that is important to us — and though my interests may not always the same as yours, I enjoy when you are excited about something that interests you, and I enjoy sharing with you what I may know as well.

The challenge for educators is to apply that same perspective on making decisions about what to teach in our classrooms. How exciting it would be to come to some sort of consensus on the skills and a minimal number of real absolutes that we know all children could benefit from knowing, and then letting go with a “sky’s the limit” mentality on actual “knowledges to know and thinks to think” and then together deciding the culminating activity that may signify a time to switch into another learning experience.

We talk a lot about how important it is to make connections, to collaborate, to share — and to learn for learning’s sake. But how often do we give ourselves and our students the opportunities to really explore a passion and become an expert? One reason why alternative schooling venues are appealing to many families could be in how those school’s mission statements often include such words as “self-paced” and “individualized instruction.” Students and teachers are hungry for experiencing learning on a personal level, but levels of accountability (i.e. testing) have usurped that passion and has lock-stepped us into a group think mentality.

Think about this as we head into a season of testing. What is it that we really want students to learn?