What is the purpose of an education, and what is the role of an educator? According to Fishman and McCarthy, John Dewey believed that “life constitutes a generative gift…education should assist people in learning how to realize and extend this gift,” (Fishman, McCarthy 22). Like Dewey, I believe that human existence is a phenomenon which satisfies itself and requires no justification or meaning outside of itself. W.E.B. Dubois described education as a way of “searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living,” (Anderson 52). Dewey also writes, “I believe that when science and art thus join hands the most commanding motive for human action will be reached; the most genuine springs of human conduct aroused and the best service that human nature is capable of guaranteed.” (Dewey 5). Society is a collection of individuals whose behavior is either collaborative or self-destructive. Thus, the best life for the individual is one which Dewey describes as being a “member of a unity” (Dewey 1). I agree with Dewey and Dubois and I believe that the ultimate purpose of education is to activate man’s creative intelligence, teaching him to set himself free with his own creative infiniteness. Once liberated in mind, the individual is able to emancipate others around him, creating a free society through mutual understanding and the reciprocity of respect.
The conditions which best support student learning are those in which the child’s basic needs are met. The needs of subsistence are the most obvious requirement – nutritious food, safe shelter, etc. Mental and emotional health needs must also be attended to if a student is to learn, and these include what Max-Neef recognizes in his Human Scale Development: affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. An educator in a classroom may not have adequate resources to provide for all of a child’s needs in order to provide the most optimum learning environment, as he or she is unable to fully access the child outside of school hours and in the child’s home. However, a teacher can, with some effort, provide for several of them by offering a community in which students and adults provide affirmation and support for one another. A classroom where respect is a mandate and bullying is intolerable is essential. The teacher must not intimidate the students into performing, or belittle students as punishment for not succeeding – this only produces further stress and resentment.
Along with working towards meeting a student’s essential human needs, a teacher must create an environment where students are not only capable of learning, but motivated and driven to do so. This requires giving the students a voice in their own learning process and an environment where collaboration with other students is possible. Classroom activities such as “turn and talk” discussions with partners or small groups is a useful tool. One must also remember, however, that some students learn best when independently working in a quiet environment, and that even extraverted and outgoing students can benefit from reflective assignments as well. A teacher can make this possible with quiet reading and writing times, or times of contemplation, such as the Seton Walk exercise. Student choice can be offered by giving options for reading and writing topics, pieces for performance, preferred athletic activities, or special projects in math and science. It is the teacher’s role to creatively design such activities and to recognize the needs of his or her students in directing or designing class curricula.
As I prepare to teach Language Arts, I find that it is important to provide students from the very beginning with the rationale for studying language arts (and liberal arts in general) and to inspire them to find a passion for writing and the humanities. The classroom ecology which I have planned begins with this question as the first step: Why study Language Arts?
The answer provides them with possibly their first conscious exposure to the reason they are looking for:
|“‘The truth against the world!’ – Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!”
–Ursula K. LeGuin
“Foolish boy. Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries…I am the servant of the power behind the Nothing. It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it..Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the power. I was sent to kill the only one who could have stopped the Nothing. I lost him in the Swamps of Sadness.”
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive….so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.
In this class we will study English / Language Arts / Humanities / Writing in a way that answers the following questions:
Words as a form of creative expression.
Words as a path to wisdom.
Words as a distinctive human characteristic.
Words as a communication tool.
Words as windows to the human experience.
Words coming to life through critical analysis.
“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”
Of course, these specific quotes and visuals are somewhat arbitrary as there is no shortage of deeply moving art that can be used to inspire students. More important are the six “how and why” questions I seek to answer with my class, from “How is Language also Art?” to “How can I better appreciate the writing of others?” I see these as six foundational reasons for studying Humanities in general and specifically Language Arts and English, and without communicating them as the core vision of our class, I see no reason to attempt to teach the students anything at all.
After we have begun to digest the class vision, I will introduce an opportunity for the students to help create classroom norms and defining characteristics of our class culture. I will ask the students on the first day about their idea of what respectful classroom behavior looks like, both towards their peers and to their teacher. I’ll write down their responses on the board or a poster board. I’ll give them time to talk with their neighbors in small groups to discuss their ideas, then ask them to share what their groups came up with and for any other thoughts about how they should behave and how to respectfully communicate with classmates during discussions and work time.
Several of the Guiding Principles of the Woodring College of Education resonate with me as foundational to my own educational practice and to my philosophy of education. In the We Believe section, it states that “all beings are interdependent.” Knowing this truth is something I find to be essential for a free, creative life that education is intended to foster and produce – if there is anything I want my students to learn about community, it is this. I also wish to promote social justice in our society by teaching students to perform “critical self-reflection” on “the beliefs and positions we hold, our world view, and where those perspectives come from.” By creating classroom norms and also through the study of literature from a wide array of cultures and home languages, I hope to broaden students’ perspectives by exposing them to new ways of reading, writing and thinking.
A quality education is also an education that not only avoids oppression, but actively seeks to remove it from its greater sphere of influence. In his article “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education,” Kevin Kumashiro outlines several different strategies for minimizing or eliminating the “forms of oppression [which] play out in schools,” (Kumashiro 25) and presents their strengths and weaknesses. I agree with Kumashiro that none of the methods he writes about provides one, completely perfect picture of anti-oppressive education and that educators should “look to the margins to find students who are being missed and needs that have yet to be articulated,” (Kumashiro 31). One starting point which I find provocative, however, is the idea of integrating “Otherness” into curriculum. It seems to me that Language Arts has nearly endless possibilities with this, as the study of literature is itself the study of the unique minds of individual writers. Nearly anything can be an informative mentor text for teaching students both how to critique and analyze writing, and gain knowledge from a writer’s unique perspective. Integrating the writings of groups which are commonly marginalized is, in my view, a good point from which to begin. From there, students can carry the torch with their writing and by expressing their own unique views. With a safe classroom culture where all viewpoints are accepted and acknowledged without judgment, I expect my students to use their writing as a way to express their own unique individual voices. By resisting the urge to oppress or marginalize with greater cultural stereotypes and misguided personal judgments, students may be able to develop an anti-oppressive mindset which will shape their paradigms and inform their greater decisions in life.
Anderson, Rodino F. “W.E.B. Dubois and an Education for Democracy and Creativity.” Foundational Perspectives on the Aims of Education. Teacher’s College, 2007, pp. 46-61.
Dewey, John. My Pedagogic Creed. School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.
Hansen, David T. “Paulo Freire’s Politics and Pedagogy.” Foundational Perspectives on the Aims of Education. Teacher’s College, 2007, pp. 21-35.
Kumashiro, Kevin K. “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 25-53.
Max-Neef, M. 1991. Human Scale Development. New York: The Apex Press.