If you’re a teacher and on facebook, then it’s possible someone has recommended this HuffPost piece to you, What Do We Tell The Children? One thing contributor, Ali Michael, PhD, recommends is to “say that silence is dangerous and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”
I agree. Wholeheartedly. I must go on to say, though, that this message must also ring true in the teaching pedagogy we embrace. This conversation with students will be for naught if that same teacher who says “silence is dangerous” then silences students by reverting to traditional teacher-centered strategies that are common in classrooms across the country, especially classrooms that serve underprivileged populations.
Paulo Freire coined this type of teaching a “banking model” of education in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When we set up our classroom dynamic such that the teacher is the owner of the information ready to share her wealth of knowledge through daily deposits into all the little empty minds, we are oppressing students’ agency. We are modeling the “I alone can fix it” mentality that robs students of agency and power. And so, we need to adopt a pedagogy that supports the second part of Dr. Michael’s advice to “teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”
As a Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultant, I lead teachers in professional development in the teaching of writing. Through intensive institutes, workshops, and in-services, I often talk with teachers about the power of identifying authentic audiences for student writing. We guide students to be agents of change in their world by writing and crafting pieces on topics of their own choice for audiences who are waiting to hear what they have to say (For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action, Randy and Katherine Bomer).
These days, teachers are overwhelmed (google “overwhelmed teachers”) and the thought of taking on responsibility for not only teaching the curriculum but also to take on the problems of today could put us over the top if we don’t learn how those two goals can happen at once. The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE)’s Professional Knowledge of the Teaching of Writing states ten research-based “professional principles that guide effective teaching.” “Writing grows out of many purposes” may seem to be one of the most simple of statements. For teachers, this statement may even bring to mind the teaching standard that expects students to “determine an author’s point of view and purpose for writing a text.”
In many plan books, a week in reading may be dedicated to teaching “author’s purpose.” Why did the author write this piece? To Persuade? To Inform? To Entertain? We orally give children a multiple choice question and they answer us, eyebrows raised, to see if they have “bubbled-in” correctly. Did they earn their deposit?
However, if we want students to truly understand this complex idea of authors’ purposes, we need to recognize as true another of NCTE’s principles, “Writing is embedded in complex social relationships and their appropriate languages” and guide students to write pieces on topics of their choice for audiences who are waiting to hear what they have to say. Students can talk to each other about why they chose these topics. They can make their audience laugh, reflect, ponder, change. Students not only improve and revise their writing for the eyes of their teacher, but for the reaction of the reader.
But, when the teacher is the primary audience for school writing, the purpose can no longer be anything but, again, to guess what the teacher wants the student to say and how he wants the student to say it. The student is powerless with no other option than to figure out the formula.
In future posts I will explore concrete examples of how other teachers and I have taught units of study that cover curriculum and raise students’ voices. The more I have talked to teachers about audience, the more I have become adamant that it is not just unfortunate but, honestly, unacceptable when the teacher is the primary audience for students’ writing. It’s true, silence is dangerous. But what is even more dangerous is the echo of a teacher’s voice saying “silence is dangerous” in an otherwise quiet, compliant room.