Two Lessons Learned about Teaching from Students

Sylvia Monreal is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Newark, NJ

If there’s one thing I’m learning from my experiences as a Teaching Fellow, it’s that education is a messy business.

Earlier this year, I sat down with my new Citizen Teacher partner, Megan, and helped her to map out a series of lessons about roller coasters and physics. It was a very logical, easy-going process, and I remember that we left that meeting with a nice sense of confidence. The kids love roller coasters, the kids would love our roller coaster-themed Apprenticeship, and we would be the best teachers ever, with kids flocking to our class every week, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Naturally, during our first Apprenticeship lesson, while Megan tried her best to talk about chemical engineering, kinetic energy, and Six Flags, I had to pull aside about half a dozen students and quietly endure their familiar tirade: “This class is boring! You are boring! I hate everything!” Fortunately, I had enough sense and enough time to ask these ornery little students, “Why?”

Maybe there are two things that I’m learning as a Teaching Fellow – “Education is a messy business” and “You could learn a lot with the right questions.”  Because it wasn’t long before these students stopped their complaining and started giving me some important information: “I don’t want to talk about making roller coasters. That’s all we do is talk! I want to do something. I want to make roller coasters!”

Megan and I looked at her brilliant lesson plans and set to work. They could learn about inertia by running across the playground, they could learn about potential energy by dropping bouncy balls, they could learn about physics with their own hands – and they could put it all together in their own roller coaster designs. All we had to do was watch and give them the right words to describe what they were seeing.

Now, at the end of every lesson, I collapse in my chair, panting and probably red-faced, feeling like I’ve just finished running a marathon. But at the end of every lesson, I’m smiling and pattering on like a proud parent, “They learned about the Engineering Design Process today!” or “Look at this awesome design that they drew!” Their protesting has been replaced with excited chattering – it’s just as loud, but that’s part of the fun now.

Recently, I read that Jacob Bronowski once said, “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” And Bronowski, who was a mathematician, biologist, historian of science, theatre author, poet, inventor, and television host, seemed to know a thing or two about education and learning. I’m learning, the hard way, that petulant, rambunctious, eternally bewildering middle school kids do, too.

What lessons have you learned from kids?