Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry is a new book from Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (@smokeylit) and Sara Ahmed (@SaraKAhmed). Upstanders invites you into the classroom of Sara Ahmed to see her teaching in action. With Smokey Daniels as your guide you'll see exactly how Sara uses inquiry to turn required middle school curricular topics into questions so fascinating that young adolescents can't resist investigating them. In our Upstanders blog series, Sara and Smokey will highlight topics in the book related to middle school and helping kids go from bystanders to upstanders. In this blog, Sara explains how sharing parts of your own life with kids creates a comfortable space where they can ask their own questions.
Yourself as a Learner
by Sara K. Ahmed
When I was fifteen, I sat through driver’s ed class and listened as my teacher, Coach D, gave us the Rules of the Road lecture each day. At this stage, we were the information receivers; we complied, skimmed and scanned for answers to literal questions, and filled in bubbles and blanks. We were able to retell the steps to changing lanes, backing around corners, and parking up a hill. As the class moved from classroom learning to on-the-road practice, we were able to sit in a real car and begin to merge our thinking with content by reacting to a re-created road route with real cones, railroad crossing signs, and plastic cutouts of families heading to school in a crosswalk. We could visualize and begin to infer the real road and start to acquire knowledge and see why things matter. We could learn, understand, and remember facts in this stage of the class.
Later, when my father took me out to practice, I felt the real learning begin. He would remind me of the literal information I needed to remember and check for some understanding, but he would really act as facilitator. He had been modeling driving for me since I was a little kid, of course, but now I looked at his driving much more intently. I watched his hands on the wheel and his feet on the pedals, I peeked at the speedometer, and I watched where his eyes went as he made decisions.
When I took the wheel, he was patient. He allowed me to make mistakes in a safe place, provided options for me to make choices (“You can try using the side mirrors for reversing as well”), questioned some of the decisions I made to push my thinking (“Why are you going over the speed limit?”), and let go of the control he naturally would have as a parent and driver (“Just think to yourself about that”). He allowed me to actively use knowledge that I had about the rules of the road and apply them in a real-life, everyday setting. He was the best teacher I could have asked for as I sprinted to the DMV the morning of my sixteenth birthday with confidence. I passed with ease, having my father’s voice in my head the entire time. He showed me. We did it together. Then I did it on my own.
As teachers, we have to model our own inquiry each day of our learning lives.
From our early days as learners, we wonder, we view, we learn to read, we wonder some more, read for answers, and ask questions. We expose ourselves to print and cultural information every day, and ask ever deeper and harder questions of the world. This does not cease as adults. As teachers, we have to model our own inquiry each day of our learning lives. We have to share, in a natural way, what we care about and why we care about it as curious, informed, and vigilant citizens in the community.
This is how we get our students ready for the driver’s seat. Sharing your curious life with kids opens for them a comfortable space where they can ask their own questions and feel safe about not knowing everything (for even the most precocious of kiddos). It also leads to a tremendous rapport with the students. When they know of your investigative passions, it opens up doors for them to connect with you and each other. It also demystifies you a bit as a teacher, and makes you more human to them. We want this to happen in its most organic, natural way.
What we said earlier about having your students know a little piece of who you are applies to your intellectual life as well. One of my favorite professional development moments was at an in-house session my first year at Burley. Michele Timble, a great mentor and friend of mine, stood up and shared what was on her “nightstand”: a YA novel she was reading along with a novel her sister, Debbie, recommended to her, a couple of professional texts to read over the summer, and an Us Weekly magazine. She quickly quipped about her personal life’s connection to each text. I was in love, not only with Michele, but with the way this immediately opened up her life to us a reader, a teacher, and a human being. In that very short lesson, she modeled being a learner, a mother, a sister, and someone who appreciates mindless news just as much as me. She was disarming and sincere, and gave us all the confidence to then turn to each other and do the same. And I still can’t cancel my subscriptions to mindless magazines to this day. Thanks, Michele.
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Sara K. Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Harvey "Smokey" Daniels has been a city and suburban classroom teacher and college professor, and now works as a national consultant and author on literacy education.