I have changed as a teacher. From the time I started teaching many years ago, I evolved from one who depended on curricula, scope and sequence, assessments, etc., to one who depends on the dialogue shared with my students and myself as a way to assess learning. I also have evolved from feeling that I am the master of knowledge to being a partner in this learning journey with my students. We have a reciprocal learning experience as well: I learn from my students and they learn from me. This wondering about my evolution as a teacher also makes me wonder what are the implications of what I have learned about myself. Can other teachers find themselves at this same space where they rely less on plan books, tests, text books, etc. and just read, discuss, and listen to each other? Can students actually learn this way? In order to test this wondering I started a school where this is mainly what the students and I do. It is two years old now and already one of my 11th graders is taking classes at the local community college, with the other college students. She came to me unable to focus and get much out of school just a year ago, and she already has become a very different being. By students being given the freedom to wonder, they learn more about themselves and the goals they want to reach. By taking away testing, they are free from the apprehension of scoring at a certain level. At the same time, when the above student decided to enter community college early, she had to take a proficiency test, since she was so young. She asked me to tutor her for the test and she passed. She still learned how to take a test, but more importantly, she developed her own educational goals. The students from this study all talk about how my giving them freedom to read and learn for themselves, gave them the intellectual tools necessary to just sort of figure life out for themselves, regardless if they are taking computer engineering, accounting or film-making. They felt equipped because they were cultivated to think.
Liberal education is the art of apprehending, understanding and knowing (Nelson, 2001). This is “free” education. Could we as teachers possibly develop those who could be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Barak Obama if students were given more freedom in their educational journey, simply because students are given time and freedom to explore wherever their minds take them? What if students were given more freedom to face challenges to their intellect as an equal learner with the teacher? Even if teachers are within a school compelled more by a planned curriculum (my school is a school that practices the Sudbury model), they can build in small spaces of time for students to practice free thinking. Here are some possible ways that this can take place, no matter what type of teaching/learning model the school a teacher finds themselves may practice: hold a book club during a lunch hour or recess, where students read and discuss shorter Great Books texts; have an after-school program where teachers and students engage in dialogue about rich literature; assign a Great Books text once a quarter or once a month, and invite students to present arts based/creative interpretations of the texts at various “free pockets” during the school year.
The most important “tool of engagement” for any of the above suggestions is dialogue. Giving students the freedom to interpret the text for themselves, without our interruptions, is the most imperative “tool of engagement.” I recall what Rosenblatt (1995) says (shared in an earlier chapter),
Meaning emerges as the reader carries on a give and take with the signs on the page…The two-way, reciprocal relation explains why the meaning is not ‘in’ the text or ‘in’ the reader. The poem or the novel or the play exists in the transaction that goes on between reader and text. (p. 27)
It is through their freedom to dialogue that the walls or masks begin to break away. When those walls dissipate, then students become open to exploring new and creative ways to express their understanding of the text. Rosenblatt (1983) said, “Fundamentally, the process of understanding a work implies a re-creation of it” (p.13). Students develop confidence in themselves and in their minds when they can freely express themselves in the dialogue, and then also be given that freedom to share their understanding in creative ways. A great example of this is when the slaves created the Negro Spirituals as a way to express their connection to the Bible. Much of art is developed because the reader could freely engage in an artistic re-creation of a text. How would this freedom affect the rest of students’ learning and school life? I wonder…