Imagine you teach English. You are in charge of your classroom. You must read the text and plan your points so you can lead discussion with your clever interpretations. You must know more than your students. Now imagine you are an English student. You must sit quietly and listen to what the teacher says, take copious notes to assure you know the material for the test. Right? Not so much; at least not here.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
After twenty years of teaching 8th grade English at The Lexington School, Dr. Laura Bonzo decided she needed to know nothing at all. Instead, she chose new novels this year, one of which was A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. “It’s a young adult novel, typically taught in 6th grade, but I wanted to give my kids the chance to lead the entire experience, and I thought the themes were there to enable them to take it and run.” Dr. Bonzo went on to say, “It took some courage on my part because I’ll be honest, there is a lot I don’t know about the world, about global politics, environmental crises, and I had to let them see this. I had to be able to say to my class, ‘I don’t know, but I want to, so let’s find out together.” That’s exactly what happened and more. After completing the book, Dr. Bonzo began by asking a few questions, and her students took it from there and in a big way. Each day, they bounced into class with new information relating to the story, to the world and current events, and each day, everyone left with a deepened truth and the desire to learn more. They brought in statistics, historical data, recommended Ted Talks and other online resources. They invited Dr. Carol McClay, infection prevention specialist and member of the WHO Ebola Response Team in Sierra Leone to visit to present on water and infectious diseases. “You wouldn’t believe how much we’ve learned from each other, and all of us are just on fire, so excited about finding out more. For this book, the kids became masters of the material, and we all learned it together.”
The culmination of this student-centered journey was in one of the final questions a student asked: “How can we help?” It is one thing to discuss the realities of environmental crises across the globe, but now that they know, they wanted to make a difference. The students created a Go Fund Me page for the Water for South Sudan project, and they raised almost $1,500 in three days. Student led, student fulfilled, see their enthusiasm by watching the video where they tell their own story.
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,”wrote Socrates. Yet, in American education, sometimes we worry so much about teaching that we forget about the learning. As a teacher of any subject, you can lead students to water but you can’t make them drink, but in the right environment where trust and courage are inherent to learning, you will see their thirst, watch them take a big sip, and it will remind you again of why you chose to teach. Because learning is still fun for you too.