Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Advice to Teachers from High School Students

Originally, the title of the book caught my attention: Cushman, K. (2003). Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students. The New Press: New York

I quickly discovered Cushman's book was written with 40 student collaborators – the author asked high school students about school, teachers and learning, and listened carefully to what they had to say. What emerges from the student stories, is a vivid mosaic of perspectives, ideas and suggestions about improving education. Cushman organizes student voice thematically in ten chapters. Each chapter includes activities or strategies, and concludes with a useful summary.
o “wanted: one teacher. Must be able to listen, even when mad”
o “a lot of people are afraid of teenagers. They think we are these freak humans”
o “just saying you need to pass math isn’t enough. Show me how knowing pi is worth something”

VALUE – throughout the book, there are good charts and checklists that provide quick reference and structured reflection on a range of chapter-related, and student-derived topics - methinks these sections are useful for beginning, experienced and student teachers as well as those that ply their craft on campus:
o Who are you? Questionnaire for the first day of school
o Am I playing favorites?
o Identifying the assets of your worst behaving students
o “I don’t get it” – an exercise for teachers.
o How do I grade? How do I tell and show students what I expect?
o How to make homework matter to us.

Kathleen Cushman is a writer who has specialized in education and school reform for almost two decades. URL:
o “As every educator knows, good teaching entails far more than basic intelligence and knowledge. It requires the courage to look honestly at what is and imagine what it could be. It requires the humility to admit one’s own mistakes and to keep trying. It requires empathy, to hear and feel what someone else is experiencing. And it takes genuine curiosity about people and ideas.” (p. 184).
o Throughout the book, students show enormous appreciation for the teachers that help them to learn – they offer criticism, advice, and still, they testify time and time again about a teacher’s power to change their minds and change their lives.

A few student quotes:
o MIDDLE STAGE: “I’m not adult enough to get a job and have my own apartment, but I’m adult enough to make decisions on my own, know right from wrong, have ideas about the world. That’s why it’s hard to be a teenager—it’s like a middle stage” (p. 18).
o SUPPORTING INQUIRY: “If you’re raised by teachers just telling you things and forcing them on you, it’s hard or frustrating when teachers expect you to be proactive and take responsibility for your own education” (p. 131).
o PUSH US TO DO OUR BEST: “My algebra teacher, when I got a C in his class, he was upset. He just pushed me to keep my head outa them boys and into the books. He made me go to tutoring after school to keep my grades up” (p. 26).

I am involved in a research project with several colleagues that aims to uncover the relationship between technology, engagement and success in high schools in Alberta. I am excited by the possibility that this research can add to the good work published by Cushman on improving learning opportunities in high school.