To Be or Not To Be…A Teacher: The Architecture of the Classroom

Education Reformation Illustration by Kwang Choi
Education Reformation Illustration by Kwang Choi

In my last Education Reformation post about Teachers’ Roles, I defined teachers as guides or facilitators to students’ acquisition of knowledge. Truly, what else can we be? Teachers don’t have all the knowledge anymore. Back before the internet age, teachers were expected to be the experts of their content. In conjunction with the textbooks, teachers dispersed all their wisdom to their students, which was obviously limited, but that’s all they had available. But now, for teachers to pretend that they know everything there is to know about their content area would be ludicrous. I know some incredibly intelligent people who have a wealth of information stored in their brains, yet there are things they don’t know.

Fortunately, we all have a world of information at our fingertips, literally. With a click of a button we can see the beauty of Prague, read its history, and discover its literature; we can access information about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System or research Nelson Mendela’s influence on South Africa. With all this information available, teachers must be facilitators in the classroom, encouraging students to search for and discern between good information and faulty information.

My favorite term I’ve heard so far is that teachers are “learning architects” instead of teachers; we are master builders of our content area. We need to plan, organize, and help students implement our designs. In order to do this well, we have to help students see the relevance of our content and the end product of their education. How will our content make them better people and citizens of this country and world? What do we envision our students being able to do?  In my previous post, I touched on the relevancy issue. Everything truly comes down to a context issue, not a content issue.

So what does that look like in the classroom? I can only speak about my own classroom experiences and what I’ve gleaned over the years. I encourage other teachers and students to chime in with what a 21st Century Learning Architect’s classroom looks like from their own experiences.

The Architecture of the Classroom

Learning needs to be fun, interesting, and relevant. I make my students two promises at the beginning of every year: They will laugh every day, and they will learn something new every day (or at least a deeper understanding of something they’ve already learned). I want them to enjoy being in my classroom, but it doesn’t stop there. They also need to increase their knowledge, deepen their thoughts, and apply their knowledge to the improvement of their lives.

My students appreciate my classroom atmosphere and thank me for it often: “Thanks for making English fun; time goes by so quickly in your classroom.” Another student told me recently that she has never learned so much applicable knowledge in her life. I also had a former student who was on her way to graduate school tell me that I started her on the path to success with my writing and grammar instruction. I was floored. How many college graduates remember their high-school, freshmen English teacher, let alone go out of their way to thank that teacher for the education they received?

I must be doing something right, so, for what it’s worth, here are the specific and general ways I run my classroom.

Just the Facts–that Matter

Students should not be expected to learn discreet pieces of knowledge; on the contrary, they should be presented with important information that moves students forward in their ability to think logically.

For example, in the Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men, asking students to regurgitate the fact that George found a can of lice spray in the bunk previously occupied by another migrant worker is truly irrelevant information compared to the mind-altering philosophical discussion of George’s decision at the end of the novel. However, students do need to know the facts behind the setting of the novel (time period, location, historical relevance) in order to become deeper thinkers. The memorization of these facts is crucial. How can students truly understand the plight of migrant workers without knowing about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl our country experienced in the 1930s? If they don’t understand the time period or the mental and physical state of the people who lived during that time, how can they make legitimate judgments about George and Lennie’s relationship? How can they evaluate the morality of George, thereby evaluating their own morality without knowing these facts?

This kind of knowledge increases students’ thinking skills. Unfortunately, many teachers have either thrown all rote memorization out the window, or still concentrate on discreet pieces of information for their unit plans. Teachers need to be discerning on what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t in their subject matter.

A Teacher, but a Human Being First

Teachers also need to show their humanity. The best way to do this is to use personal stories that illustrate life lessons. Students enjoy learning from an individual who is passionate about his or her subject matter and can use story effectively. Students also appreciate the opportunities they have to engage in real world issues. When students are excited about the teacher and the content, they learn better. Students lose interest if they don’t trust the teacher or they don’t think the teacher has passion for the content. I try to create an atmosphere where I am the “host” of my classroom, like Oprah, guiding my students through the content while entertaining them with anecdotes that give them a deeper understanding of the big lessons in life.

When we read literature that shows a bully getting his or her just deserts, I share with my students the middle-school fight I got into on the school bus, so they understand that childhood pain comes out in many ways and that compassion is always the better choice. When we discuss characters who feel trapped, embarrassed, or unloved, I share my worst-first-date-ever story, so they see that I survived an unbelievably embarrassing situation with a boy I really liked; I can laugh about it now, and I’m a better person because of it. When we see adults behaving badly in fiction, I share how certain teachers embarrassed me while I was growing up, but I used those situations as motivation to be the teacher I am today; I refuse to wallow in self-pity and prove those negative teachers right.

My students connect with me; they connect with the material; they see how much I care about them–enough to reveal my imperfect life so they can embrace theirs.

Do as I Say and Do

I teach students how to write and how to write well. Grammar is the foundation of my instruction; I love teaching the logic and beauty of the written word. It truly amazes me that I work with many English teachers who cannot see the connection between grammar knowledge and writing well; therefore, they refuse to teach grammar. If one stops with the parts of speech, the art of communication can never be explored. However, delving into the essence of thought–the two-part structure of subject and predicate–now that creates expert communicators. Yet, students have graduated from high school without knowing what those two things are. Their English teachers have done them a disservice. Who else but an English teacher can teach grammar?

I think we’ve all seen the consequence of that kind of thinking: T-shirts being manufactured with “Your the best!” printed on them; journalists confusing it’s and its; news anchors saying that the losers of a contest will receive “a nice constellation prize.” Our country has become functionally illiterate at increasingly higher levels.

Also, in order for me to feel confident as a teacher of writing and grammar, I have to put into practice everything I teach. I analyze every sentence I write to make sure it’s grammatically sound. If I make a mistake in my oral communication, I draw attention to it, so students know how to correct their own mistakes. I am also a writer. Even if I didn’t practice my writing as a blogger or a story-teller, I would make sure I was sharpening my skills by writing a response to every prompt I give my students before I give it to them. This practice makes me a better writer and teacher because I understand the skills the students will need in order to be successful with the prompts I give them.

Education Reformation Blog

What are your thoughts on teachers as Learning Architects? Do you have any examples of what a 21st Century Learning Architect’s classroom looks like?

12 thoughts on “To Be or Not To Be…A Teacher: The Architecture of the Classroom

  1. I agree with all of your points! I also think it’s important for teachers to admit to students when they don’t know an answer. I used to love when students would ask me about some subject I wasn’t sure about–it was a great learning opportunity for all of us. I’d usually say, “I don’t know…but let’s find out!” So I would get out my iPhone and do a search, or ask a student with a smart phone to search for us. I actually used my iPhone a lot in the classroom. If a student asked what a word meant, I’d often say I wasn’t sure, even if I was, just so I’d get to use my app (my all-time favorite!). It’s important to model what learning looks like to students, so I’d make a big show out of looking for the word. I’d read them the definition, play the pronunciation of the word to them, and then casually slip in how I always have my iPhone nearby when reading for this very reason (which is true). Students need to see and appreciate that learning is a lifelong process.

    1. I agree with you, too, Jamie! I let students use their smart phones or technology to look up words, the answers to questions, people in history…yet other teachers will argue with me that it encourages misuse of technology. The misuse might happen, but not as often as they claim. We have to model what learning looks like; if we don’t, who will?

      1. So true re. the phone thing! When professors tell me to put my phone away, it makes me feel like a child. Honestly, 95% of the time, if my phone’s out in class, I’m taking notes or looking up a relevant article that might help me to contribute to the discussion.

      2. I’m so glad you said that Michael! Our education system has so much distrust in it: Teachers don’t trust their students; students don’t trust teachers; parents don’t trust teachers; teachers don’t trust their principals; principals don’t trust teachers… It has to stop! I trust my students, and more often than not, they want to keep that trust and hate it when they disappoint me.
        I actually do the same thing during meetings: I use my phone to write down notes or give myself a reminder to do the thing that we are being asked to do. We have to allow students to use the technology that they have available. Welcome to the 21st Century 🙂

  2. Mrs. Hawkins,

    I think this was my favorite blog of yours so far! I kept wanting to scream “amen!” I was reading (just last night, actually) about the nature of learning and the fact that human beings do not retain actual words, but experiences, mostly due to the fact that language is a relatively recent creation and has not yet been taken into account in the slow evolution of the human mind. That’s what I remember and was brought back to about your classroom. I learned because you facilitated learning experiences. And heck, I was only in your journalism class! Staying humble and human, sticking to the content that matters, and being an example of the things you teach are indeed what make you so great at what you do.

    In addition, I enjoyed your actual writing in this post more than usual for some reason. I thought this was very eloquent and it made me quite jealous! I continue to be a student of yours haha.

    Also, I couldn’t agree more regarding grammar, although I still question myself often while writing. Thank God for Google. Forgive the crudeness, but I must indulge.
    “Grammar: the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.”

    1. Thank you, Michael! I always appreciate your feedback! I love that quote as well. I hope I’m making a difference through what I teach and by example.

  3. Pauline – I applaud you again. I especially applaud the fact that you also focus on using correct grammar with your students. Much of my professional experience has been in financial services. I’m a “numbers person” as were most of my colleagues. I required anyone reporting through me to submit any written communication such as a memorandum or important email before it was distributed. It’s amazing how many college graduates can’t write a decent paragraph; some of those even had masters degrees. Maybe because they were “numbers people” they didn’t think it was important to master good writing skills. Possessing good writing skills is essential for even moderate success in most professions. While I taught many people the proper accounting methods for complex derivatives, I also taught many how to write effective business communications. I wish more kids had the opportunity to have had you as an English teacher!

    The integration of technology into the classroom is another important topic. We are surrounded by it everyday, so why not incorporate it in learning? The one drawback I see is that kids can simply Google something, write a report and not really get a deep enough understanding of what they should have learned. That is probably more likely for marginal students and perhaps more likely for subjects such as history. Do you have any concerns with Google being almost too “easy” for doing research to pass a class or write a report?

    Thanks again for your insightful post.

    1. Thanks, Michele! Part of my goal this next year for my blog is to create posts that will help others become more proficient in grammar and better writers. I want to teach as many students as I possibly can, and the internet might just be the way to do that.
      I do not have a big concern over Google; I use Google all the time to begin my research. The key is to create questions/prompts that force students to dig deeper in their research. Google is a great start for any research project, but I also require that my students use educational resources in their research. Google+ also has a lot of great resources that I’m just now looking into: video clips, communities, hangouts…this type of technology will transform the classroom. Unfortunately, education is so far behind the times. I still battle with teachers in my building about allowing students to use their smart phones. The fact that I let students use their phones gets me accused of hurting the “whole educational system.”
      Education reform is a bigger problem than I thought, and it only gets bigger the more connected I get and the more research I do.

  4. Love this post! I especially am singing in your amen choir about teacher as learning architect and about being comfortable with not knowing. Modeling how to navigate through not knowing is really our top priority as educators, I think!

    1. Thanks, Danielle! I agree. Our roles as teachers are changing; we have to be aware of that change and embrace it. Alvin Toffler says it perfectly: “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I’m afraid that we will have many teachers in this “illiterate” category if education doesn’t force the change upon them.
      Thanks for reading and joining the conversation!

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