Safe Place

It’s the first day of school, and it’s my very first day of teaching. It is my goal to be an intentional teacher who engages every student who walks into my classroom by providing meaningful, purposeful lessons. I strive to achieve true responsive teaching where I take the different forms of literacy in my classroom into consideration with every decision I make. Virtually all students who will enter my classroom have been subjected to the traditional public school system for their entire lives. They have school pretty much figured out, or at least they think they do. Students proceed with caution as they walk into my classroom. They know that they are expected to stay quiet, behave, and listen to the teacher. I stand up in front of my class on the very first day, and I tell them that my classroom is to be a safe place: a place where all students are welcome and all students are needed. There is no wrong answer, so speak up.

The word safe is quite a loaded word. A person can be safe from danger or safe on first base, or use a safe to, in fact, keep belongings safe. The dictionary defines the word as protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost. The word offers a paradox on most of our lives. We do not actually feel safe or protected from danger even when we are told we are. Being safe is more of a feeling than it is an adjective or a noun. We, as humans, need to be convinced that we are safe before we actually feel it. So, did I convince my students to feel safe in speaking up in my classroom just by simply telling them to do so?

In order to achieve true responsive teaching that carefully considers the different forms of literacy and backgrounds in the classroom, there needs to be a safe atmosphere in place. In order to be responsive of the literacy and lives of the students, the forms of literacy must first be established. Relationships must be formed. After these are established, appropriate action needs to be taken.

In the article, “The Secret Garden of Teacher Education”, Suzanne Wilson discusses the struggles that she encounters with her students. She states, “My students want to answer my questions. But they’ve never been asked to justify their answers, to explain their reasons, to define their terms. When I ask them to explain why they believe something, they’re taken aback. They speak of the “W” word — why — with trepidation” (pg. 207, 1990). Students who are subjected to the traditional education system have been taught to answer the teacher’s questions correctly with no justification. If they get the answer right, then, no problem, they have learned. Teaching thus far has been simply defined as telling the students what they need to know. However, it is quite difficult to be a responsive teacher if we tell students what is worth learning and talking about. Teachers often fall into the trap of viewing the students who walk into their classroom as students who are missing an abundance of knowledge rather than ones who hold a vast amount of knowledge just waiting to be unleashed. If we strive to be responsive to the different forms of literacy in our classroom, then we need to figure our what our students know and care about. We need to know how our students are literate. However, it is extremely difficult to determine what a student cares about if they will not speak up in class.

“The Secret Garden of Teacher Education”, Wilson, 1990, pg. 207

Lisa Delpit offers that there is a certain culture of power in the classroom in her book, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (year). Delpit suggests that there is a culture of power in the classroom and it dictates who speaks, who is viewed as smart, and who learns the most. In my opinion, this is exactly what occurs in traditional classrooms today. Our teaching is very one sided and only offers one way to be smart. We teach our children that they must conform to this way of thinking in order to appear competent. In this view of the classroom, responsive teaching is not needed. The students produce the results we need and like so what is there to respond to? However, we know this is not the case. Students demonstrate literacy in a variety of ways; thus, Delpit offers a solution. “If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier” (pg. 24, 2006). This statement holds much truth if we really think about what is being said. If being literate in the classroom is defined in a variety of ways, then being literate will more accessible by all students. Thus, teachers must set up a safe classroom in which the rules are clearly labeled. Once this relationship is set up in the classroom, teachers can then be more responsive to the literacy in the classroom. Action must take place.

The article, “Motivation Requires a Meaningful Task”, by Frey and Fisher demonstrates what appropriate action to responsive teaching looks like. The article discusses the value of a meaningful task. “To capitalize on the usefulness of productive group work as a key to motivation, attention to the complexity of the task is necessary”. Frey and Fisher offer that a complex task must require the contribution of all students in order to for it to be considered effective responsive teaching. Tasks that require multiple perspectives is an excellent way to respond to the different types of literacy in the classroom. Each student is given a way to prove competence and together the students achieve true learning and understanding.

We can’t be responsive to different student literacies if we don’t set up a space in which they will express it. The best way to find out what interests our students is to ask them. We need to break out of flatland where teaching is telling. In order to be responsive to the different forms of literacy in the classroom we must first convince our students they are safe enough to express their literacy in our classroom and thus take action in order to respond appropriately.

References:

  1. Delpit, L. (2006). Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. The New Press.

2. Fey, N., & Fisher, D. (2010). Motivation Requires a Meaningful Task. English Journal.

3. Wilson, S. M. (1989). The Secret Garden of Teacher Education. East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Education, Michigan State University.

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