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Part 1: Revelation and Student Voice in my High School Classroom

This post is the first of a two by NCTE member Topher Kandik, the 2016 State Teacher of the Year for the District of Columbia. 

Topher headshotFor many of us the end of the year is a time of reflection. The hustle and bustle of our daily practice makes reflection in the moment challenging, so as the year begins to wrap up I generally find myself trying to make sense of what happened during the blur that was the school year. This year, as I started this process of reflection, it hit me: if I have done anything positive in the classroom, it is because I have listened to my students. Many teachers know this already, but it was a revelation to me. In fact, even my decision to become a teacher stems from listening to a student.

A few years ago, I participated in a creative writing unit on storytelling with my students that was hosted by a DC-based group called Story District. While writing and workshopping my story, I attempted to articulate why I became a teacher. Here is a video of the story as told at a final showcase presented by Story District.

Since I have been a teacher, student ideas have taken me to great places. I started teaching the year that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. That spring break, I visited the Lower Ninth Ward and was moved by the people I spoke with and the desolation I saw. The next summer, I designed a class to teach about the culture of New Orleans. With the help of a local theater called Imagination Stage, I brought musicians, actors, and filmmakers in to the class to help teach about New Orleans. We even spent time grocery shopping and cooking jambalaya as part of the class. My students became inspired, and a student casually, almost off-handedly, said, “We should go to New Orleans.” Instead of dismissing this idea, I asked my students to look into what that would take.

They researched what to do in New Orleans: college tours of Xavier and Tulane University, the WW2 Museum, volunteer work in the city, where to find the best food and jazz music, etc. They created a travel itinerary. Using spreadsheets, they created a budget. They created a presentation for funding purposes. They planned, designed, and executed fundraisers. They even created and met goals for being leaders in the school and during our high-stakes testing. The class was like a Bloom’s Taxonomy greatest hits compilation.

We ended up going to New Orleans because of that student voice. I wrote about this moving experience with my “Why New Orleans Matters” class in a contribution to a recently released book, Arts Integration in Education: Teachers and Teaching Artists as Agents of Change (Intellect, 2016).

Even ideas that I have pioneered on my own with my classes have been enhanced with the input from my students. PEN/Faulkner is a Washington, DC-based organization that is dedicated to a “lifelong love of reading and a connection to writing through public events, in-school education, and public promotion of exceptional literary achievement.” Their Writers in Schools (WinS) program has made me rethink the way I approach teaching literature in the classroom. The WinS program buys a classroom set of texts written by a contemporary writer and brings that writer to the classroom. A pretty cool idea.

When I first started using PEN/Faulkner texts, I would frantically read a chapter or two ahead. I would create lessons for each class and then sit back while students worked on the assignment I gave them. I often had to pretend I knew what happened to certain characters in the book . . . and then figure out how to explain myself when my predictions were wrong. This was a lot of work, but it was worth it. My students and I have met amazing authors by participating in this program: Chimamanda Adichie, Tobias Wolff, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Karen Russell, and George Pelecanos, among others. As I was leading a discussion, though, I noticed that students had their own notions of what was happening in the books. They learned from each other as much as they learned from me. That is a good thing.

Even though I had the urge to control the discussion (all my training told me I needed to do this in order to be an effective teacher), I quickly realized that reading doesn’t work that way. When I read a new novel, I am not sure of how things will end. There is no magical formula that I possess; there is no secret which enables me to “get” a book. I thought it might be powerful if I became a student while we read these texts so students could see me wrestle with the text, make inferences, highlight themes, and participate in rather than lead a discussion.

This was a revelation. A couple of years ago, when we were all set to start Mitchell Jackson’s The Residue Years, I took a chance. When I passed out the book, I included a blank calendar. We spent the class dividing the book up into sections with the understanding that we needed to be finished when Mr. Jackson visited the class. Students had a better handle on their own schedule, so they knew when they needed to have a light reading assignment (because of an event or project due in another class) and when they could read more. I volunteered to lead the first class so I could model the structure that I would expect students to follow when they were in charge, and students volunteered to lead the class for each of the subsequent sections. The class usually included a close reading of a short passage from the assignment for the night before, a brief comprehension check to serve as a baseline for discussion, and prepared discussion questions submitted to me in advance (usually the morning of the class). Students led the section they designed. I was a student throughout—except when it was my turn to present.

At first, I was still designing classes each day just in case, but I soon realized that this wasn’t necessary. Not only did students relish their “teacher-for-a-day” day, but they listened to and trusted each other’s ideas. They also held each other accountable in a way that was more productive than if I were doing it. I was able to participate as a student—which continues to be fun for me professionally—by writing and discussing the text as a student. My classmates relished the incorrect predictions I made, but they also understood that it was OK to be wrong when thinking about a text. Students understood their responsibility to each other and with few exceptions responded positively. On the occasion a student was absent on his or her designated day, we put a lesson together as a class.

There was power in doing this, and I found that students became even more engaged with the author when they took ownership of learning the book. When Mr. Jackson came to our class, the discussion crackled. It helps, of course, that he is a great thinker who had a natural rapport with high school students. We asked questions about the book and its structure. We asked questions about what it is like to be a professional writer. And, of course, we got our books signed. The visit was a real win, and it inspired me to continue to let students teach the books we read.

Topher Kandik is the 2016 Teacher of the Year from the District of Columbia. He is a recent contributor to the book Arts Integration in Education: Teachers and Teaching Artists as Agents of Change (Intellect, 2016), and the 2013 recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Language Arts. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Allison; his son, Theo; and his pug, Molly Bloom.