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Read Aloud Podcast: Anchoring Lessons with Essential Questions

r para (15)How can we rely on our human capacity to love, to engage in teaching for social justice even in the presence of fear?


Today in this preview of the audiobook, Humans Who Teach, we hear how Shamari implements asking big, essential questions into his practice as an educator, as he plans lessons and develops experiences for his class.

 


 

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Edie

Hi, this is Edie. Welcome back to the Heinemann Podcast. All of the humans in schools, kids and adults, deserve joy, yet our experiences in schools and the experiences of our students are often far from joyful. In his new audiobook, Humans Who Teach, author Shamari Reid invites readers to explore the complicated humanity of those who teach and how we can rely on our human capacity to love, to engage in teaching for social justice even in the presence of fear. Today, in this preview of the audiobook, we hear how Shamari implements asking big essential questions into his practice as an educator, as he plans lessons and develops experiences for his class.

 

Shamari:

I intend to focus more on the why behind my pedagogy than on turning the how into a checklist of things to do. It is my intention to invite you to think differently about the work we do as humans who teach. I do not intend to speak only about teaching moves. I do intend to speak about the classroom experience in a way that is holistic and honors the many aspects involved in our work beyond lesson planning. Thus, I will move between talking about lesson plans, materials, resources, feelings, classroom climate, and many other things connected to our lives as humans who teach. These are my intentions, no more, no less.

How can we center love in our work as humans who teach? Grounded in my understanding of love, as described earlier, I have designed a framework or question work, that I use to create lessons and develop tasks, curricula and experiences for my classes. I also draw on this question work for guidance on how to move through life and schools. On my journey toward becoming an educator, I heard a lot of professors talk about essential questions in my pre-service program. At first, I didn't have the slightest idea what they were referring to. I was clear about content objectives, lesson objectives, language objectives, as a language teacher, and state standards. However, each time I was asked to come up with essential questions for a unit plan or a series of lessons, I drew blanks. These essential questions just always seemed too big and lacked specificity. I would later realize that I had some unlearning to do around my belief that teaching was a rote transmission-style process.

I had to grow my understanding of the importance of a teacher's imagination, creativity, and agency. As an early undergraduate student and pre-service teacher, I wanted to be told exactly what to do, and I believed that this was the approach to teaching my students as well. I wanted to ask my students close-ended questions that had only one correct response, leaving my students and myself very little space to practice agency and engage with our imaginations, and within this rigid approach to formulating questions, both my students and I felt limited with regard to how we could engage in the classroom. In fact, I remember a larger number of my students feeling frustrated and discouraged by not getting the right answer than when I evolved my approach. In a similar fashion, I spent many nights haunted by the feeling of not being able to come up with the perfect question that would elicit the answer I wanted.

At that time, I saw no use for big essential questions, the ones that are intentionally broad and invite us to tap into our creative imaginations, to come up with responses while honoring our agency, the ones that are generally big concept and big idea questions that students can engage with using a variety of materials, the possibilities are endless. Recently, I taught an introductory literacy course for pre-service teachers in which we explored these questions. What counts as literature? What is the purpose of literature in our society? How does identity inform the way students experience English classrooms? Now, these essential questions which are big, open-ended and invite creativity and agency are the inspiration for the question work I want to share with you.

Essential question, as a human who teaches, in what ways does my approach to teaching respond to the actual and not assumed circumstances and challenges my students are navigating?

This essential question is an invitation to think deeply and intentionally about how the moves we take as educators are connected to and informed by the lived realities of the young people we have the honor of learning with and from in our classrooms. Said in a different way, how is our teaching shaped by what we know about students' lives? What is the role of our teaching in responding to the inequity and injustice our students face? This essential question flows from my understanding that love moves us to work with our loved ones, to overcome the challenges to their growth and navigate the barriers that threaten their humanity. Thus, love moves us to partner with students and their communities to improve their lives. Again, the ways in which we lovingly show up with students to confront their challenges will differ and depend on our context. We cannot work with our loved ones to help them navigate the challenges in their lives if we are unaware of what those challenges are.

Thus, there is some pre-work involved here. We must learn what circumstances they're navigating. Once I committed to love as a moral imperative from my practice and committed to addressing this essential question, I restructured the first few weeks of all the classes I taught as well as the first few assignments. Some years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching an AEP Spanish course. Guided by my understanding of love, I thought intentionally about the first few weeks of my time with the students. Sure, there were many language objectives and state standards that I had to address, and I did. However, it was also important to me that I was an advocate for my students and their communities. I wanted them to improve their linguistic abilities in Spanish and perform well in the AP exam so they could receive college credit. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted them to be happy, so I separated our semester into a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I told them that the beginning of the course would be all about them. The middle would be dedicated to critically understanding our world, and the end of the course would focus on dreaming. In the beginning, I started each class with a reflective journaling activity. I invited them to use their linguistic abilities in Spanish and other languages when needed to respond to reflective prompts about how they understood themselves as humans in our shared world. I played soft music at the start of every class and invited them to share pieces of themselves with me. I modeled and built trust by sharing my response in each class. The more I shared, the more they shared. I read their journal responses every other week. They shared stories of joy, falling in love and their favorite memories, and I also learned about challenges they were navigating. Many of them used our reflective exercise to speak about their experiences with marginalization and inequity.

I responded to each one individually, but I also took notes of the patterns they shared about their communities. In addition to the reflective journaling exercise, I designed two icebreaker activities that invited the students to share a bit more about themselves and their worlds. One popular activity was creating album covers and track lists based on their lives. We shared the album covers with each other and responded. Finally, the beginning of the course included an autobiography assignment, which encouraged the students to explore how our course themes and topics spoke to, with and against their realities. This came at the close of the first part of the course. Thus, there was enough trust so that the students felt comfortable with getting quite personal in their autobiographies. Through reading the students' journals, engaging with their autobiographies and participating in the icebreaker activities, I learned quite a bit about my students in that AP Spanish course.

I coupled this learning with all the things I had learned about my students' communities through reading books, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, and intentionally expanding my knowledge of their realities, histories, and dreams for their future and our shared world. Across the many things I learned about my students, one collective challenge stood out. That year, all the students in my AP Spanish course identified as Latinx. Specifically, they were from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and many of them communicated their community's struggles with gaining citizenship and resisting being separated from their families. Furthermore, I learned that some of the students' families were enrolled in an evening program for folks looking to improve their English before sitting for citizenship exams. Many of the program participants spoke Spanish, so I created assignments that encouraged students to partner with the program to assist these families in their journeys toward becoming multilingual.

Some students worked with the program attendees in their English classes, while others used their cultural and linguistic knowledge to assist with child care, so the program attendees could focus while they were in class. In addition, I used my Spanish-speaking abilities to help locate more multilingual volunteers for the evening program, and when I had the time, I taught a few English classes myself. I knew that some of my students were worried about their community's ability to navigate an English-dominant society and gained citizenship. They talked about these worries. They wrote about them. It was a challenge they were facing. Collectively, we considered what we might do as a classroom community to help them navigate this challenge. I don't want to end this example with numbers about how many of the program attendees went on to gain US citizenship or how I helped families stay together. That feels very saviorous to me and departs from the point.

The point is, I love those students in that AP Spanish course, and my love for them moved me to think intentionally around the ways my teaching in our class could respond to the challenges their communities were facing. My AP Spanish course is just one example of a response to this first essential question. As a human who teaches, in what ways does my approach to teaching respond to the actual and not assumed circumstances and challenges by students are navigating. But my example is not the only response. I encourage you to draw on your creativity, imagination, and agency, to use your practice to respond to the challenges your students are facing. As you know, it is impossible to respond to challenges of which we are unaware. Awareness comes by learning more about your students' communities through engaging with stories of their world. These stories could exist in novels, podcasts, music, oral histories, documentaries, TV series, and history books, just to name a few.

In addition, we can also use our classroom as a place to learn more about our students' lives. I've shared some examples, icebreaker activities, daily writing prompts and autobiography assignments, connected to course themes and ideas. I have also used intro surveys, which I share with students on our first day of class. These intro surveys ask a range of questions from snack preferences to other things I want to know, such as favorite hobbies, movies, and activities to release stress and things that make them smile. What are some ways you could learn more about your students? What are some icebreaker activities that are appropriate for your context and will allow your students to show you who they are? Perhaps you're able to invite students to write autobiographies focused on their experiences with your specific course content, and these autobiographies might not be written, they could be multimodal. I trust that you will find methods that make sense for you, and I trust that you will find the right way to be intentional about creating these opportunities for your students to share themselves with you in your class.

Learning about students' realities is just the beginning. Once you learn about the challenges and circumstances students and their communities are navigating, then you can use your teaching to respond to the things that complicate their lives and threaten their growth and overall well-being. This is how your class can become a place where you and your students can partner together to tackle some of the challenges they are facing. You might, as I did with my AP Spanish class, look for ways in which students could directly support their community, but that's only one option. For example, a science teacher might ask students to write science autobiographies in which they can share about their previous experiences with science, with major emphasis on what informs their present-day understanding of science. And with this information, the teacher can be intentional about designing experiences that directly respond to these circumstances, such as hosting a letter-writing campaign to local officials about the lack of clean water or access to healthy food. As Toni Morrison guides us, be available to your own imagination. Essential question, as a human who teaches, in what ways does my teaching promote the physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of my students?

Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about Heinemann Audiobooks, visit heinemann.com/audiobooks.


ReidCroppedHeadshot

Shamari Reid (he/him/his) is an assistant professor of justice and belonging in education at New York University. He has taught Spanish, English as a new language, and ELA at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. He is the creator and host of the podcast Water for Teachers. Shamari is also the author of the upcoming book Humans Who Teach: A Guide for Centering Love, Justice, and Liberation in Schools. As a scholar–educator, Shamari’s work centers love as a moral imperative in social justice education, and as a path toward culturally sustaining school communities. Shamari is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English where he was awarded the Cultivating New Voices research fellowship. He is also active in the American Education Research Association (AERA) as the chair of AERA’s Queer special interest group. Shamari completed his doctoral work in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition, he holds an M.A. in Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language and TESOL from New York University, and a B.A. in Spanish and Education from Oklahoma City University. His scholarly publications on race, gender, and sexuality in schools have appeared in various peer-reviewed journals such as Teachers College RecordUrban Education, and Curriculum Inquiry.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Shamari Reid, Read Aloud Podcast, Humans Who Teach

Date Published: 06/03/24

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