Teaching has never been solely about the content to me. In fact, I often consider it secondary to the main reason why I am in the classroom—which is to teach the whole child. When I talk about why I teach, I rarely bring up content, because the interest of my subject matter, which happens to be English, should be a given. I should never have to bore anyone with my reasons why Edgar Allan Poe is a god to me, nor should I ever attempt to light-heartedly laugh when you misconjugate a verb. Content will never be learned without first reaching the child. This is not an attempt in any way to minimize the years we spent in college taking all of our content-specific classes, but we must look beyond our core subject matter and focus on the children we are teaching.
As a former middle school teacher who jumped ship to teach high school last year, I brought with me the true understanding of what children need in the classroom—whole-child teaching. It is such a simple concept that oftentimes, we overlook the simple in lieu of the difficult.
Refocusing Our Teaching
Whole-child teaching—these three words should guide every lesson plan we ever write. Yes, we might have our Madeline Hunter anticipatory set emblazoned upon the top of our lesson, and we should still look towards our exit slips to see if content was absorbed, but we often miss the main point of any good lesson which is: “Did we teach the lesson in a way that reached the students?”
But wait, wasn’t this concept pounded into our brains and discussed by our mentors the first few years? Why would the reality of how to teach change over the years? Ironically, the answer lies in our profession. When we enter our first teaching assignment, for a while, everything we do or teach is carefully crafted around the child until something in our career changes and we throw out the child for the content.
This change often stems from the stress of test scores, the continuous attempts to memorize state standards, and the desire to compete with every other teacher in our building. When this becomes the norm, we become strictly content focused and lose track of our purpose.
But aren’t we there to teach content? Should we not focus on state standards, don’t they matter? Absolutely they do, but not at the expense of losing our children in the process. Our goal is to send every student out of our classroom more prepared than when he or she entered, but what are we actually teaching them? Does rushing through the textbook to finish a certain concept or to reach a certain benchmark point outweigh the importance of asking them if they are having a good day? What would happen if we pushed that lesson back a day and simply took time to value the students in our classroom?
The answer is simple; learning would happen for both the student and for the teacher. Each and every day we should learn just as much as our students. We need to learn what makes them achieve, what makes them focus, and what makes them successful.
Whole-Child Learning in the Classroom
An example of this in my classroom would be at the beginning of the year when I teach perspective and point of view. Instead of just having the students take notes over these two literary concepts, I show Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” and then Disturbed‘s cover. We compare the songs looking at how each artist chose to present the same concepts. Each artist takes on their own perspective and point of view to get across what they felt was important in the song’s symbolism and meaning.
The students are engaged and enjoy analyzing the two songs from different perspectives and point of views. I could simply teach the concept and test them on paper, but this would not reach the musical intelligence so many students possess. Tests give you basic feedback, whereas analysis and synthesis give you the whole picture.
Another example of whole-child learning is in how I approach teaching poetry. I found early on that teaching the elements of poetry by themselves coupled with a test only allows for a basic comprehension, if not simple memorization. Instead, I encourage the students to take the risk not only to write their own poetry and slam it during class, but also to have them come to the front of the class and form a poetry line and create art. I give the first student a poetic prompt and allow each subsequent student in the line to add to the poem until they have created, together, their own living poem.
This allows the students who have multiple learning styles to show their worth in the class. They are working together cooperatively, moving around, laughing, and having fun—they are learning! They have created true meaning in their writing rather than simply answering a test question. Sometimes I give them specific poetry elements such as metaphor, simile, or personification to add to the poem when it is their time.
The result is each student finding success while working as a link in a chain both to comprehend the elements of poetry and to create a poem with these elements properly working together. The content of what they wrote isn’t as important as correctly incorporating the elements into the poem. What they don’t realize while they are up front having fun and laughing at what they created (note: what they created, not what I taught) is that they are demonstrating true learning.
We also must allow students to take risks in their learning by allowing them to voice how they learn. Stop and ask the students throughout the year how they learn. You will most likely see that in the beginning, they don’t know, but as the year progresses, they now feel more comfortable expressing how they learn, comprehend, and most importantly, retain their knowledge. Some of the best lessons in my class come when students discuss how they learn. Students crave attention, and allowing them to discuss their preferences not only gives them that outlet, but also gives them the insight to understanding who they are as learners.
Teaching for the Sake of Learning
I have found success in teaching mainly through recognizing my own failures in not teaching the whole child. Not every lesson has been successful, nor has every child fully grabbed every morsel of content I fed them. We should encourage students to discuss their failures in order to understand and learn from them. We must understand that students are learning a valuable lesson in our classrooms every day, which is that humans make mistakes and should be allowed to fix these mistakes.
We should encourage students to correct their failures and sometimes allow them to turn in that late assignment a couple weeks later. Isn’t our goal as educators to see what they learned rather than meeting our scheduled needs? Yes, responsibility and time management are important skills, but even as adults, we expect a little cushion now and then, so why are we so rigid? If you subscribe to the Assessment for Learning protocol, you realize that the ultimate goal for our children is learning. They need to be guided, corrected, and most often, forgiven. They should be allowed retakes!
My students return year after year and tell me that they enjoyed my class for one reason—because they knew I cared for them and that they were valued as people. What they have left with each year is an understanding of who they are as a student. This was always the relevant and important lesson. They gained an understanding of how they learn and why they are important. This will always be the most important lesson I can ever teach my students.
Every educator wants to believe that he or she has made a difference in the lives of their students. We are often driven towards education from a sense of duty, a calling, or even a desire to make a positive impact on the youth of today. We are naïve, though, if we think that content alone will be that difference. That difference is made when we teach to the emotional, psychological, and cognitive needs of our students. The only child that has ever failed my class was the child who I failed to teach. When we remember that it is not about us, but instead, about the student, then we have made a difference in the life of a child. Isn’t this the main reason that we teach?