You Can’t Handle The Truth: Asking Students What THEY Want

Sometimes I’m searching for something obscure. I go to Google. I put in the first letter– something nobody thinks about, like aardvarks.

Google knows as soon as I type “a.”

I check to see if the webcam turned on–if someone’s spying on me and UStreaming me all over the world. Nope. It’s just Google. It knows.

I want Google to sponsor my classroom. Every time a student thinks a thought, I want it on the smartboard helping me with student engagement. Students are a little strung out and bored with life lately. It’s “the Junes.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 6.19.22 AMOne day, I was talking to my seniors. A great group with keen insight. You can’t really bullshit these guys. One can write a several-page analysis on any topic–but never does, because he says, “This is stupid.” If pressed, he’ll tell you why. And if you can’t validate his concerns and make it real for him, he’ll be right. Another can do a Rubic’s cube in 15 seconds but is entirely disengaged with school; it’s “boring.”  The others are just as deep, in their own quiet way.

One day, we were talking. Paper Writing Kid rejected my assignment. We were discussing the effect of advertising on psychology and the economy.

“It’s stupid. It’s all consumer-based mind control. Have you seen this video?” He provided a V-sauce video on the flow of money throughout the economy. Fascinating.

“School is stupid,” he vented. “That’s why I never do anything. All we do is testing and packets. And my class always seems to be the experiment for all the new stuff–testing counting for graduation, projects, teacher goals–it’s always my class.”

“I never give you packets.” I was getting a bit defensive. I want my students to love each of my classes.

“No. But look at THIS…” He whipped out packets. And packets. A grove of trees somewhere in the universe is no more.

“What would you do if you were me, given that I am required to teach this?” I explained the standardized curriculum for one course I am teaching. I used to be able to teach what I wanted, provided it was on topic, but curriculum’s getting more standardized because “every student should have the same experience.” I don’t think each student should, because they all have different gifts and interests, but nevertheless…

“So, I’m required to teach this, but I want to accomplish this as well.” I pointed to the sign on my board, “WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA?” I talk about “money skills.” Entrepreneurial skills. Advanced skills–the things that really helped me in life–interpretation, communication, writing, presentation, pitching, debating, researching and speaking skills. When students leave, I want them to think “I have these skills. I can be great. I can write my book, start my business, be determined, think outside the box, have an impact.” I want my students to be better than me.


“Well,” he said, “First, get rid of all these ridiculous tests. Everyone’s always testing.” True. I’d just finished up a megavolley of tests collecting data on goals I had to write for the new teacher evaluation system. It took me six days total just at the end of the year with two groups. That’s not counting pretests, correcting, and check tests–all told, I’ve spent well over a week per student on tests. In that time, I could have taught a unit. Or more. All this to prove I’m competent. Teachers must do this in every class.

“These tests are pointless, and they make me not want to come to school.” I’m not going argue. I agree. I find myself apologizing to students.  “Sorry, I have to give this test.”  I can assess students fairly easily through other–fun–means, yet testing has become this mammoth process of data collection I really don’t understand all too well myself–I accidentally designed goals that are mathematically impossible for me to meet. Maybe that’s appropriate karma for overtesting. I fail, too. High five!

“So,” I asked, “What would you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I think the problem with education today is that teachers design things, students design things, but nobody sits at the table and designs it together. You write a lot of curriculum, but do you ever write it with students? Students should be at that table.”

Ding, ding, ding… we have a winner. I am such a moron. That IS the answer.

“What would you write?” I asked.  He told me. Good stuff.

Students should be at that table. Indeed.

I’ve spent the greater part of this year working with people connecting educators and entrepreneurs to provide classroom solutions. I’ve learned from some of the best and brightest people in the nation. Solutions only occur when the parties sit down at the table together. This must happen everywhere. Student engagement requires student input.

Why aren’t students at the table for policy, design, reform, and curriculum? They’re my customers. They’re the people I serve. I ask for their thoughts and opinions every day in class–why aren’t they part of the instructional design process? It’s simple. We ask: What do you want to learn? How can you show what you’ve learned, and that you can do great things?

Doing it together–that is the answer–I may not need Google at all.




13 thoughts on “You Can’t Handle The Truth: Asking Students What THEY Want

  1. Pingback: Understanding Educational Leadership: People, Power and Culture | The Childcare Manager & Educator

  2. I completely agree. Unfortunately, since the powers that be don’t even want the teachers at the table, I’m not holding my breath as far as them ever letting the students in. That’s too bad; they have a lot more sense than we give them credit for.

    • Okay, so my husband is here now, and he gave this post a line-item veto. He said that honesty isn’t the picture… we need to look more at ego, and the desire to change. Best quote, “The best battle plans on paper are nothing unless they work in battle.” “You have to get to the root of the problem and not sugar coat it.” He’s right…

      • So true. When we had our last district fidelity visit, my 9th grade gifted class was hoping the reps would stop by our classroom because they wanted to share their thoughts on recent assessments. I kept hoping they wouldn’t, as I knew I’d get in trouble over bruised egos.

      • You know, that’s why it was such a “duh” moment–what I wrote about the other day…students should be on these committees. There are so many kids that would express and advocate well. They often bring me down to earth and discuss some common sense ideas. Even younger kids–if you frame the questions right–can provide priceless feedback about how best to serve them.

    • Funny you should ask that, because I have been contemplating this–I taught little kids fitness/martial arts in the past, and I have a kindergartener. They can be just as insightful, but i have to frame the questions correctly, give simple choices, ask “Do you like,” “What do you like about,” and “What does this remind you of?” In so doing, they can come up with activities and things that align to the common cores that they enjoy. My son does all the time, and he’s 5. It’s truly amazing. Sometimes he talks to me about things that can be used on many levels–I can’t tell you how many elementary lessons I’ve recycled into my teaching of teens and adults, just tweaking the level and presentation. Kids’ sophistication, in my experience, is pretty amazing–humbles me often.

      • I have not taken martial arts myself, but several of my friends have enrolled their children. The type of martial arts they took required discipline and memorization of key values, in addition to the actual movements. The instructors were sticklers for it.

        What I found in our local elementary schools was anything but discipline as it relates to the core, I call them foundational, disciplines of education; reading, writing, and math. In my opinion, you can be as creative as you want with social studies, history, and science, but if you do not teach the foundational skills well, kids stumble. Oh, they are very good at making up for deficiencies, but it eventually catches up to them, and it is usually well past the time they have said goodbye to their first grade teacher.

        The curriculum taught in our district and the districts throughout our county (and in areas around the country according to my friends who live there) requires too much parent involvement at home in order for the curriculum to succeed. Therefore, the “helicopter” parents, as many teachers like to call them, make sure their kids have the gaps filled, while those kids who started off with a home-life disadvantage fall further behind.

        I guess what I am concerned about is trading even more of the foundational work for student driven curriculum at the elementary level. I am homeschooling now, so I am free to employ all of the things you described as important. Plus we were able to add several classes that my daughter would not have had in third grade public school like Anatomy and Latin. She had textbooks. She learned to spell and deconstruct words and she learned how to sound out words so she could read words (hard words) she was unfamiliar with. We had time to add violin lessons because we could be efficient.

        I totally understand wanting to keep kids engaged. It is very rewarding when you see your child blossoming and developing a love for learning. But that did not happen in public school with my daughter. She was a good student and well behaved, but her favorite things were recess and music in motion. She loved her teachers, but I loved my teachers, too, and they taught me the basics well – very little frills back in 1971.

        Back in the 70s in my elementary school, there were no children being pulled out by parent helpers into the hallway to “help” the struggling readers with a scripted lesson to have the children look at the pictures to “guess” words and to read the full sentence to “guess” the word they didn’t know. There was no memorization of pages and pages of sight words. There was no creative writing in 2nd grade, but there was tons of reading and by that time it was books without pictures. The teacher and librarian would not even let you check out a picture book by that time. We were taught to hold a pencil correctly and how to position our papers. Our teachers actually DID treat us like their own children complete with expectations and disappointment if we misbehaved.

        So, I guess I’m really concerned that we are missing the forest for the trees. I believe that teachers should have autonomy to teach how they teach best, but the basics should be taught in school TO mastery. I would like to see textbooks back in the hands of elementary school children. I would like to see pop quizzes (I don’t care about grades) because this is the best way to understand what children have actually learned and where they might be struggling and it can be nipped in the bud right away, not just at mid-year, or unacceptably, right before releasing the kids for summer vacation.

        I hope that discussions like this can open dialogue not just between teachers and students but also between teachers and parents.

      • You know, I agree with you as well. I do not think there’s a substitute for teaching those skills. I think it boils down to “edutainment.” Many would argue that kids just need to do what they need to do and we’ve lost some of that discipline in society. I wouldn’t disagree. I would reply that I can provide value to kids in telling them why they need x,y, and z. And they may even trust that I’m not as dumb as I look.

        You hit the nail on the head with quizzes–assessing learning must be constant. Not punitive. High-stakes once-only tests are not fair. I was great at them. I was tracked highly. I have students who freeze up. Now that it’s their graduation riding on this–it’s awful.

        I agree with you that there is an awful lot of homework for me do do on behalf of my son, and I’m just dealing w kindergarten here. My thoughts on homework are changing. I say things like “if you could read the blog post on this subject and maybe even provide some comments, I’d like to discuss it Wednesday.” I’m sorting out how to make this more of a central theme in how I teach.

        I’m actually getting rid of my textbooks. Next year, I won’t even issue them–why? Because they’re dated and static. For fundamentals, sure. But why burden my taxpayer (at the high school level) when I can teach without? I’ll keep a set on the shelf for referencing some critical documents or vocab, I think.

        Remediation is key… I use our long advisory period for that. My son’s teacher sends home notes on papers, and I try to work with him on those things–letter formation, etc…

        There’s a twitter chat, #ptchat (parent teacher chat) that I like that i want to participate in more. It really brings those connections to the surface. Being on both sides of this fence, I love it.

  3. CafeCasey,

    It is refreshing to talk about these things in a non-confrontational environment. You are a high school teacher but also a parent of an elementary-aged child. That certainly is a unique perspective. I think it also could be helpful because you get to experience first hand the results of a weak foundation at the high school level while observing how they are teaching in elementary school at the same time.

    Everything I thought I knew about education has been turned on its head. Things evolved so much between the time I went to elementary school and when I sent my daughter that I barely recognized it. There is so much kinetic energy in the classroom, it is like a party everyday, until children are expecting that level of stimulation for everything. Even the dreaded principal’s office has become a place where kids love to be instead of somewhere they hope to avoid. Boy, did I feel like a dinosaur.

    However, I wouldn’t have cared what new technique was employed if it worked. I am open-minded. Hey, I spend a lot more time with my daughter than my mother ever did with me (even before homeschooling). It was a different world then. I happen to think some things ARE better. But anything that doesn’t let children master the basics at school (not at home) is going to be considered “fluff” to me. While important, teaching the basics is not rocket science, and that is not to demean elementary school teachers or their intelligence or their commitment. It is all about effectiveness and best practices and honoring the family in addition to honoring teachers.

    You know that your time with your child is precious. The last thing you want to be doing, I’m sure, is teaching her the basics at home. If anything, you want to be expanding her academic interests with your free time. Give parents back some of the fun stuff to do in their limited free time. If I can reteach myself twitter, I will check out the feed you referenced. I have an account which I never use. I’ll give you one guess as to why (let’s just say I did not master the Earnest Hemingway method of communication).

    P.S. I completely understand why you say you will eliminate textbooks. It is a pity, though. If you find textbooks you like, I’m sure some parents would jump at the chance to purchase them for their kids while you could also have one in your class library. I know I would.

    • Happy to talk more about this– or @runningdmc

      I think that people absolutely need to understand energy in the engagement equation. You can’t maintain a 10 in the energy equation all the time–you’re right. When I teach, it’s generally in segments. Research says that even adults are structured to deal w 8 minute chunks, and no one is going to remember more than a few percent of what i say anyway. So, I need to reengage, and repeat from different angles. Disguise learning.

      We did a “neighborhood capstone project.” It was a field study. At the end–they thought they just did a few things, I showed them how they used social science–that is real science (predict, design experiment, test, adjust, conclude… ) to apply to civic engagement, and while i didn’t require them to address the issues they uncovered, I said they *could.* They had those skills.

      I outlined the basic skills–math computation (calculating census data) and interpretation (looking at same data set and coming up w opposing conclusions–how do you know who’s right), speaking skills, interviewing skills, presentation skills, 21st century tech skills (I told them “give me something…can be old-school photo album or techy…” most went advanced tech).

      Great stuff.

      So, did I teach the fundamentals leading up to that? Sure. I know that integrating curriculum is a great way to get kids engaged and learning. Sometimes I hit it on the head, and sometimes they’re not so engaged and I have the ability to pivot and engage them. However, sometimes “you just gotta learn it.”

      I’ve taken kids aside–I teach Social Studies– and said, “You NEED basic math facts. You missed them. No harm, no foul. Get this done. Memorize.” and they do. Can’t teach in isolation…Never works.

      The freedom I want is the freedom to have the time to do those things again. I don’t believe standardizing all my kids to everyone else’s classes is productive. Common Cores weren’t meant to do that anyway, they were meant to be a guide, same with written curriculum. I’d like to see curricula across the age groups say “You need to be able to do this,” rather than “you must teach this nation/expermiment/unit.”

      Homeschool, too. I think that parents in homeschool situations benefit from consortia, but also that it would be helpful to have teaching courses for homeschoolers.

      I use Learnist a lot in class–there are lots of homeschoolers using it, too:) ( It’s one of the ways I’m getting rid of The Book.

  4. Pingback: Designing a New Practice | A Cup of Yoga

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