A Student, A Teacher, and A Staff Developer

This is the fourth post in our series on “Intellectual Curiosity in Our Schools“. Anthony Gabriele is a co-founder of Education Is My Life.  He is currently working as a K-12 Instructional Staff Developer, with a focus on curriculum development, content area literacy and technology integration. Anthony also works as a an adjunct professor/facilitator for the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Literacy Network. Previously, he worked at the middle school level, as both an English Language Arts Teacher and Literacy Staff Developer, and spent the previous 6 years working at the high school, where he co-taught 10th grade inclusion English, Public Speaking, Journalism, 12th grade Honors English, and 11th grade Advanced Placement Language and Composition.

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My wife and I have spent the last six months watching our twin son and daughter navigate this new world they entered this past June.  The experience has been nothing short of amazing and, while at times exhausting, increasingly fascinating.  The past few weeks have been particularly fun, as Ryan and Keira have progressed from two little eating, sleeping, and pooping machines into excited and, at times, daring explorers. No matter whether we are with family or friends, at home or in public, or just our walking the neighborhood, the twins are wide eyed and alert, with their heads constantly on a swivel; it is at a point that their not wanting to miss a thing has even gotten in the way of naptime.

As I was recently and unsuccessfully trying to feed peas to our daughter, who was fixated and mesmerized by the presence of one of our cats, I began to think about this month’s topic, Intellectual Curiosity in our Schools, and could not help to think about how powerful it would be if we could get all of our students to engage in learning with this focus and this awareness.  I am emphasizing all because any school, any subject, any classroom has a group of students who do come with this excitement, this buy in, this curiosity.  Along with this group, it is the student who is disengaged, who is just kind of going through the motions, who is constantly being kicked out of class or not showing up all, who we have a responsibility to work to welcome, to reach and to engage.

The ‘why’ surrounding this responsibility is pretty simple: students need to develop physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually into productive and learned members of society.  I believe it is our job, as teachers and members of the school community at large, to help with this growth.  The globalization of all aspects of society from work to school to our daily life, America’s place in the global economic and educational markets, and the recent development of a rigorous and skill based Common Core Standard movement all speak to this ‘why’ as well.  In an article published as far back as 1985, Rushworth M. Kidder who, while discussing Dr. George Steiner’s argument on the state of literacy in society, wrote, “This is the point behind the point about literacy.  What matters, in our age, is not just that people read for information, or for amusement, or for whatever else the television screen and computer terminal can alternatively provide.  It is that they read for wisdom, for depth, for a conscious acquaintance with the values and judgments of great thinkers thinking greatly.  The tragedy of illiteracy—and the even greater waste of aliteracy, involving those who know how to read seriously but don’t—is that it abandons the accumulated wisdom of the ages.  It places fine writing in the hands of fewer and fewer interpreters, whose translations and commentaries become progressively oversimplified—and whose audience, increasingly unable to think for itself, grows more and more susceptible to the manipulations of the elite.” While this particular statement was, I believe, originally focused on literacy in the context of reading, I think if we either define literacy in a broader sense as being able to understand not just what we read but all that we try to make sense of, or to conceptualize  Kidder’s statement in the context of students ‘seeking to understand the wisdom, the depth, the values and judgments of great thinkers and history ’,  then we can understand the absolute importance of igniting our students’ intellectual curiosity and of decreasing the ‘alliteracy’ or apathy that sometimes accompanies learning.

The ‘how’ in trying to apply this ideal, or any great ideals for that matter, is usually the challenging piece.  Articulating the ‘how’ has to include defining the ‘what’—what does intellectual curiosity look like.  In order to attempt to try to work through both of these, I took a look at my own experiences as a student, a teacher, and a staff developer.  I am not sure if I will explicitly answer the ‘how’ or clearly define the ‘what’, but if nothing else it is worth the effort the conversation.

As a Student

Two specific instances from my early days as a student stick outThe first time I can honestly say I was truly curious in school was in 11th grade American History class.  Our teacher, Mr. Madden, was a JFK enthusiast; while I cannot pinpoint exactly what it was that clicked, I found myself engaged in content like never before.  I actually began reading outside of school, began reading ‘for fun’.  With all the other distractions from athletics to prom to occupy my seventeen year old mind, Accessories After the Fact, Crossfire, and The Warren Commission report became a focus of my intellectual free time and of discussions among a few friends and classmates. For a good number of us in class, that semester could have been filmed as the history version of ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

The second time this manifested itself was my sophomore year in college.  As an English major, I was fulfilling my ‘pre-seventeenth century literature’ requirement when I came across a professor who was not only a Chaucer buff, but a linguist as well.  The minute we started to read The Canterbury Tales in its original form and I was exposed to the melodic, poetic verse of what the English language once sounded like, I was hooked.  Intrigued by not only the changing nature of the phonetics and grammar of English, the history of the language was particularly interesting.  I immediately went out and bought Sarum by Edward Rutherford to read, ‘for fun’.  I ended up taking courses focused on Shakespeare and titled the Viking Age of Britain, and I read Old Icelandic sagas and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. While probably not popular picks for some, to this day I am still a sucker for books that deal with language and its idiosyncrasies and power.

As a Teacher

Creating an environment in which all students will be excited to walk into a classroom is something I have long sought after.  At each stage of learning to be an educator I was offered different advice on how to accomplish this:  when I was new to the profession it was create a comfortable environment in which you connect with your students; at about the seven year mark it was provide as much choice, within the context of the content, that you can and tailor the activities so that all students can find success; and for the past few years it has been incorporate technology when and where appropriate and make the learning activities as ‘real world’ as you can.  

I think it is safe to say that all of this advice was valid, and that at this juncture in my career I can say that a connection, choice, and relevancy are all great places to start when trying to spark a student’s curiosity.  It is no secret that when a student believes a teacher cares, then he/she tends to care as well.  When a teacher can exude passion for a subject and for learning, that passion tends to be contagious.  It may not always spark the ‘love’ of a subject, but the idea that learning is a good thing.

One of the best decisions I have ever made was to listen to the co-teacher I was working with a few years back who said, “Hey, when we get to the independent reading let’s let them choose what they want to read…no restrictions.”  For the first time we had a ton of kids labeled as ‘non-readers’ reading multiple books on their own and discussing them with their families.  Running a Nancy Atwell-type Reader’s Workshop sparked our move towards a more authentic Writer’s Workshop as well, and not only were our students writing more, their writing was improving each day.  Traditional research was modified to reflect more of an ‘I-Search’ format, combining content with choice.  What we found out was that most kids were not exactly sure ‘what’ they were passionate about; so we figured why not provide a structured and safe environment for them to explore.  Knocking down the walls of the classroom and infusing technology and Web 2.0 tools as tools to support and enhance this exploration was the next layer.  Students were working and collaborating at a higher rate, beginning to question more, and taking their studies to greater depth.  Helping students engage in these type of ‘real world’ problem solving activities will be plenty of work until the next piece of advice comes along.

As a Staff Developer

Currently, I would say that, theoretically aligned with the Knowles’ adult learning theory, the key elements of any program designed to spark adults’ curiosity would be: self-directed, experience based, relevant to their stage in life (personally or professionally),  and practical or applicable.  Adults at work, and teachers are NO exception, are busy.  If we are going to be asked to take time away from grading, planning, our families, etc…it better be worth it, better be productive, and better be applicable.  So, theoretically this makes sense.  Practically, what does this look like?

I believe it is an in-service day in which teachers are engaged in experiential, hands on activities that are reinforcing already learned strategies while introducing new ones; activities that are embedded in current or upcoming content and units, and that are debriefed and reflected on for usefulness and relevancy to one’s classroom and class make up; activities that can challenge beliefs on pedagogy and instructional theory.  This can also happen in the form of online self–directed learning modules or structured professional learning communities.  Whatever the structure, at the end of the day teachers care. We want our students to grow, be successful, and become independent learners and thinkers.  I think staff development focused on sparking intellectual curiosity in our teachers should provide opportunities that are engaging, that are an efficient use of time, and that can give teachers more for their ‘toolbox’ to help their students do well.

We are living and working in an integrated, global community.  Our knowledge of and access to the hundreds and thousands of different careers and programs of study that exist is greater than ever before.  With the growth of online learning our ability to tailor our education to our own needs is a reality.  What better environment right now is there for a student to look to find something he/she is passionate about to explore?  Schools are finding ways to bring technology into their classrooms and programs like the Khan Academy are redefining how kids can learn.  Even the standards movement is taking on a more rigorous look, focusing on higher order thinking skills beyond just analysis, but to synthesis, evaluation and creation.  We now have many more tools at our disposal to help kids find that ‘thing’ that will get them to explore and extend their learning beyond the classroom, beyond ‘getting this done for the grade’.

I believe that the more we work to harness these tools to create intellectually stimulating environments in which kids feel valued and are encouraged and supported to take risks, the more we can get our students so engaged that they would be willing to skip lunch because they were mesmerized by the presence of something so new to them, so intriguing…like a cat perhaps.

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