Teaching to Learn
In my English class in Mexico we’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird while examining the history and legacy of slavery in the United States. We came to the part in the novel where Calpurnia, the African-American maid, takes the two white children she cares for, Scout and Jem, to her church in her community. Jem notices that the congregation doesn’t use hymn books but rather participates in a call and response where a “music superintendent” sings the lines from the hymn and the congregation echoes the words to the song. Jem is perplexed by the situation and the following scene unfolds:
Jem said it looked like they could save the collection money for a year and get some hymn-books.
Calpurnia laughed. “Wouldn’t do any good,” she said. “They can’t read.”
“Can’t read?” I [Scout] asked. “All those folks?”
“That’s right,” Calpurnia nodded. “Can’t but about four folks in First Purchase read . . . I’m one of ‘em.”
“Where’d you go to school, Cal?” asked Jem.
“Nowhere. Let’s see now, who taught me my letters? It was Miss Maudie Atkinson’s aunt, old Miss Buford–”
I thought it might be interesting to pair this scene with the moment in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography where he discusses how he learned to read. Since my students in the classroom are learning English I wanted to hear first–before we began reading–how they define the word “learning” and what it means to them. I wrote on the board: “What does the word ‘learning’ mean to you? How do you define it? Begin with the phrase ‘Learning is.’” Now I often ask my students for feedback about how the class is going (what they would like to see more or less of) and I’ve even asked how they best learn a language. But when I asked them to define learning I received a completely different type of response. The students in my English class range from the age of sixteen to sixty-seven. Here is a selection of what they wrote:
To me learning is to open my mind to new waves of knowledge. It’s growing in an intellectual way.
Learning is the opportunity to open your mind to other worlds. For me learning is the possibility to grow because you know new things and change your life.
For me it means to share all knowledge, listening to the opinions of people, experts and average people about meaning.
It is making an extra effort and experimenting with something new, making mistakes and being successful in the process to understand.
To take information from outside so you can understand the world.
Learning is the possibility to recreate yourself with other information from outside.
None of my students defined learning as something that happens in school. They all used active words “to take,” “to grow,” “to recreate,” “to share,” “to listen,” “to make,” “to understand,” “to experience,” “to open” and very few of their responses were about how we might typically conceive of learning as simply the acquiring of information or facts. We typed the words into Wordle and ended up with the following visual meta-analysis of the language they used to describe the process of learning.
As they read their responses around the room, my first thought was about the rest of the class I had planned, “Will my teaching live up to their definitions of learning?” But then as I listened to them talk about learning, I began to think even more deeply about my teaching in general. For my students, learning, as they define it, must be active: it requires doing rather than just absorbing. Although they did note that information is part of the process, in their view information must open doorways into new worlds and lead then to experiences of transformation or change.
Later that day in class we went on to read a selection from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass about how learning to read helped him find “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” In the class we talked extensively about the word “pathway” and how learning is a journey, but one that must be taken as an individual in a community of learners.
After today’s class I realize how valuable it was to ask my students how they define learning. All of us, teachers and students, are on different paths. My students come to my classroom voluntarily. They are there to learn English for different reasons. I’m reminded of the mission for Highlander, the school for adults that was instrumental in the labor and civil rights movement. In Frank Adam’s book about Highlander he writes,
Highlander’s staff has learned to avoid telling people how to relieve their problems and has concentrated on helping people look to themselves to find their own potential and their own solutions. When Highlander has succeeded at this difficult task, the staff have been teachers who, as Joseph K. Hart said, were able ‘to teach their own capacity to learn.’
Hearing all the ways my students defined learning reminded me that my role as a teacher is to help them, in any way I might, to walk along their own paths, which can be a difficult undertaking in a diverse community of students where their paths might point in different directions. My students’ responses to the word “learning” reminded me the question I should be asking myself as a teacher is not “What do I teach today?” but rather “How might I help my students to learn?”