It’s the end of the semester and I’m doing what I always do: ask students to reflect in a variety of ways on their experience in our course. So, during finals time this week, one of the things I asked students to do was write a “learning letter” to an audience of their choosing (me, their parents, themselves, a student taking this class next year, etc…) and discuss what they learned and how they know they learned it. Alternately, they could talk about what they didn’t learn and what’s next because of it. I’ve been reading their responses and am unsure how to process them. They’ve all been talking about what they learned, but instead of saying things like “I learned to analyze” or “I learned to read more carefully” they are saying things like “I learned who I was” or “I learned more about what it means to be human.” Sarah: How do I know if I taught the right things? If not, how do I reconcile what I didn’t do. If so, how do I reconcile that these don’t seem to be conventional lessons?
Did I Teach the Right Things?
Your question is powerful and certainly one with tentacles to many other layers of your practice and pedagogy. Let’s start with the surface layer of the question: the difference between what you expected and what you received. Do you think if you would have framed your prompt differently the students would have responded differently? For example, if you had asked them to look at pieces of their work while they were answering, would the responses have been based more on the “stuff” of school? Then, if the reflection letters would have made reference to standards, texts and skills, but void of any personal connection to the course, would you be writing me to ask the same question: did I teach the right things? Probably. Wait. Of course you would be!
So, if you know that all along your goal has been to create an experience for your learners to fall into, a space in which their whole selves could grow and emerge differently than when they walked into room 506, why are you questioning it now? I know you don’t need to dig too deep to find your answer. It’s because of insecurity.
Despite your years of experience, your professional reach, or even accolades, when it comes down to it, you’re just as insecure as anyone. You’ve put your entire self into this semester and now, as you let go of these students and send them off to their next experience, there’s a fear they won’t understand what you were trying to accomplish. Especially if it’s not quantifiable with a grade. You’re worried this kind of “talk” about the course could be fodder for colleagues to question or administrators to misunderstand.
Here’s your tough truth. You’re not going to please everyone. There will be some people who might say you should have read one more short story or written one more paper instead of having everyone give Ignite speeches over their 30-day personal pushing the limits projects. There will be people who will misunderstand or even criticize what it means when Brody wrote: “A lot of times I forgot I was in an English class.” And you’re going to have to stand firmly on that ground, even if it means you’re standing there alone. Despite the “should-haves” or “would-haves” you must remember that you taught young people a little more about what it means to be human. Of course they read varied and complex texts. Of course they wrote in all kinds of genres. They even created their own assessments at one point and spoke passionately, shared fervently and listened empathetically. Yes, they know more about analysis and how to craft their words. They can read more carefully and organize their thinking more effectively.
But most importantly, they know a little more about themselves. Which means, you too, know a little more about yourself.
So, be kind to yourself, friend and colleague. Most importantly, remember, it would be impossible for Simone to write “…[this class] has changed my entire perspective on society and the roots behind every individual’s actions. I have come to understand that people are not necessarily defined by their actions and abilities, but rather by their unique emotions and spirit” if she hadn’t learned how to think.
The question you pose reminds me that the lessons learned aren’t necessarily the ones we craft, but the ones they’re ready to let in.