Effective teaching. This is a phrase frequently employed, but what does it really mean. Can it succinctly be defined or is it one of those things you just know when you see? I do believe there is a strong element of the latter to this term, however as an educator I know I should be striving to become more and more effective. So there has to be some way of defining or quantifying this term. The trouble in defining effective education is that although there can be an agreed upon definition that very definition can come to life in a myriad of ways. But still it is important to attempt to define this term. A simple definition of effective teaching as I see it is being able to make a connection with students in meaningful ways to produce lifelong learners. To narrow this question of effective teaching to a more personal nature I must assess how I go about meeting this standard of effective instruction in my own classroom. I seek to create lifelong learners as an effort to contribute to a more informed and engaged citizenry by emphasizing historical thinking skills while also seeking to create a meaningful connection with students.
Before I can get to the specifics of how I go about inspiring lifelong learners it is prudent to address the why. Why is it so important to lead students to be ever learning and growing? Much of my motivation for this comes from the C3 Framework for Social Studies. This framework has, as its purpose, to create students ready for college and career but also citizenship. This core belief drives everything that I do in my classroom. This means it is important for my students to learn certain facts and concepts about what has happened in the past; however, it is much more vital for them to learn to think critically and deeply about issues. We are at a crisis point in our country where truth and facts are under assault. Much of what has been seen as authoritative for years, if not decades and centuries, is under attack. Some of this attack is warranted and some of it is not. The key for my classroom is that by being driven to create better citizens I am giving students an opportunity to learn to critically assess material and ascertain truth and fact. I have been greatly blessed to see this play out via social media. In my U.S. History class, I took my students through lectures and discussions about the protest days of the late 1960’s. Afterwards I presented them a group project titled after a Bob Dylan song – The Time’s They Are A-Changin’. In this project students had to take what they had learned from the late 60’s and apply it to today by creating a current protest against a modern day issue. As part of their project they had to include sample social media posts and a hashtag for their issue. I was impressed with much of what students presented from this project. The real payoff has come as I have watched these students become more aware of and engaged in real issues via their social media accounts. Since this project I have seen numerous former students take real stands on social media instead of just the typical teenage posts.
To get to this point of engagement, I emphasize skills over the content. This is not to say content is not important. I just believe the critical skills are much more important. I view my history classroom like a science lab. In a science class/lab the content is learned as an extension of the scientific method. The scientific method is the key driver of what is happening, and in much the same way, the historical thinking skills of bias, point of view, context, purpose, and causality are driving the questions that drive the learning processes in my classroom. Sometimes this means wild and crazy things happen. The entire school may get turned into a human board game for students to experience what it was like to trade and travel along the ancient Silk Road. Other times I may hide documents in pre-arranged classes and offices for students to find as they become Cold War era spies breaking codes and examining primary sources as they seek to prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. One key example of the teaching of the skills is a project I have done in World History over the Enlightenment. The title of the project, We Did Start The Fire, is taken from the Billy Joel late 80’s hit. In this project students spend several days within a group studying the original works of an Enlightenment thinker/philosopher. At the end of this period of study a Salon day is held where students travel around the classroom learning the Enlightenment ideals from each other as they discuss what they have been studying. This project then becomes a key touchstone event for the class, as everything that happens after this in human history can be traced back to the innovations of the Enlightenment. I do these projects to teach students how to think for themselves. Technology has gifted us with the ability of finding any content within mere seconds. Students need to know how to assess the quality of information found; however, and this is why the historical thinking skills are so vital. Students must be equipped in this way if they are ever going to become an informed citizenry.
There is a third component to how I seek to inspire an informed, engaged, lifelong learning citizenry. This component is to create meaningful connections with students. I think of this aspect as the part that both motivates and sustains students. Sometimes this happens within the pedagogical confines of the classroom. Many times it happens outside of this realm. Many students today need someone in their corner. They need a smile or someone saying hello and using their name. I stand at my door before every class and greet every student by name, and many of those passing by in the halls headed to other classes as well. This is so simple yet can lead to lasting connections with the students. There are some days and some hours that I have to almost kick past year students out of my room or doorway so I can focus on my current students. I show up at sporting and fine arts events. I praise successes from those activities in my classroom. I get excited when I learn a current student has reached their goal of making drum major before the student even knows. I open my room at lunch at times to let former students come to use a computer to submit college and scholarship applications. I stop and say something to students if I see them in their place of work. I proofread admission essays. I write letters to scholarship committees. I write reference letters to attorneys to help students attain citizenship. Basically I care about students and I make certain they know just how much I care and how much they matter. I do this because I am convinced that without students having this level of reinforcement the skills mean nothing. Students need to know they can achieve amazing things in life. They need that encouragement to reach far beyond their goals. Without letting my students know how much I care, the skills of bias, point of view, context, purpose, and causality do not carry as much weight. I truly believe I have the impact I currently do on my students past and present because of this component.
In short, I am an effective teacher because I am constantly striving to create informed, engaged, lifelong learning citizens. I am doing this by focusing on the skills of bias, point of view, context, purpose, and causality along with letting students know just how much I care about them as individuals. It is through this combination of consistently equipping students while building relationships with them that I see my effectiveness as a teacher come to life.