I like to consider myself to be somewhat of a radical teacher. I teach through a student-centered, inquiry model. I reject the idea that I should try to shape the way students understand. I believe we should remove the idea of classroom and bell schedules and separate disciplines from schools. And I teach mostly students who have experienced significant ACEs.
My ideology and my circumstances may not seem like a great fit to some. I read (and experience) how trauma affected students benefit from structure and certainty. For some, this means mostly the opposite of what I believe. I don’t lecture and give notes; I don’t adhere to a set classroom routine; I don’t aim for a lot of control over the class. That said, there are some consistencies: students start the day with the offering of goal setting/reflection related to their learning. I’m very good at using consistent language (I don’t talk about grades but rather about learning; I give feedback, not mark student work; I answer questions with questions and ask students to think not only about the answer to my question but also the question itself).
I will admit that my classroom can be a place of discomfort and that pushback from students, parents, other teachers and counselors happens, especially early in the process. At its heart, using an inquiry model asks students to explore and make sense of ideas in ways that work best for them. This does not come automatically to most students, in part because of the structures imposed on them in the majority of their schooling experiences. I sometimes hear from students that “I learn better through lecture” or “You aren’t teaching.” I will also admit that my approach is incredibly hard. Developing learning activities to help guide students through concepts is time consuming and intellectually complex. I could honestly add many hours to my daily leisure time if I just created a more structured classroom.
So why? And more specifically, why for kids managing past (or present) traumas? Succinctly, differentiation. I think about differentiation a lot. Here are some of the issues related to differentiation that I ponder but I’m sure this list is not exhaustive.
- Scaffolding: As I mentioned above, it is challenging to create curriculum in which the students are exploring and discovering but having the necessary scaffolding in place to assist students in making the exploration productive is particularly difficult. The scaffolding that is put in place can be differentiated. For example, one of my classes this year was exploring modeling data graphically. The examination of the graph allowed students who needed it to develop a basic skill in interpreting coordinate points on the graph, more advanced students had the opportunity to think more about the patterns they see and/or extrapolate. All of these skills are relevant for their learning but it provided different access points depending on student skill.
- Interesting/Engaging Problems: Students are inherently curious. Writing (or finding) good question/prompts is essential to tap into that natural inquisitiveness. This is also where a good deal of differentiation can happen. Keep in mind that the differentiation doesn’t have to be just based on complexity of task. Teachers can create prompts that are more open ended or student generated so that the differentiation can be culturally or ethnically or gender (among others) based. In the data analysis discussed above, students found or collected data that they were interested in or curious about.
- Questioning: I’ve found that both the scaffolding and good problems are greatly supported by using effective questioning strategies. It feels like pretty much all I do in class is ask questions. Good questioning can provide scaffolding by guiding students in how the question is asked or when the question is asked. It can also create engagement by pulling in some aspect that is relevant or interesting to an individual student. Something that I also find incredibly important is that I am also very transparent with students about my questioning. I frequently say things like “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “How did the question I asked help you?”. By doing so, I am scaffolding students
ability to ask their own questions or focus their ideas in ways that are beneficial. For students who have experienced trauma, this transparency is also important so that they have a clear view of my total approach. They can better see the point to the work they are doing (both the specific academic content and the executive functioning skills that are being developed). A quick side note: I had an interesting conversation with a colleague today. A student started asking this teacher a question but then stopped herself. When the teacher asked why, she said, “You are going to ask me a question that will make me think about the idea. I’m just going to think about it more first.” This is such a great example of how, even in an unstructured environment, students create their own structures that work well for them.
- Reflection: Exploration is vitally important to allow students to make sense of things in ways that work for them but learners must also be given opportunities to make sense of, reflect on and synthesize information. Once again, differentiation fits perfectly with this idea. As with problem solving tasks, opportunities to reflect can be open ended or student generated (with some scaffolding), thus allowing students to have a variety of depths of understanding and tools used to organize their thoughts that are relevant to each individual.
I am so fortunate to work at a school that has embraced the idea of inquiry in the classrooms. Honestly, the tools described above take time for both the teacher and learners to develop. Some students spend most of their first year in an inquiry based classroom developing a different set of executive functioning skills than were required in less student-centered classes so that the gains really start coming into focus after 6 months or after a year. It takes time and patience by everyone and a consistent sequence of inquiry classes so that these skills provide the basis for the academic gains that inquiry models have demonstrated are possible. This is absolutely true for my students how have experienced trauma. For me, however, it is worth every minute (and there are some painful minutes) to help students develop their own structures, their own routines and their own ways of learning that will benefit them well beyond their time in my class.