My student Esther remains quiet when asked to use descriptive language to describe the sounds chicks make in a starter on our lesson on auditory imagery. She has only been in my classroom for a month and is still grappling with her sense of security and academic confidence among her peers. I can’t help but coax her on with a smile, because I know in one more month, she will willingly offer input during lessons regardless of how ridiculous she may think her answers are.
“It’s okay, Esther. It’s your opinion; there is no right or wrong answer here,” I encourage.
She glances at her lap and reluctantly mutters, “Well, there’s a song about chickens in Spanish and the baby chickens say ‘pio pio.’”
“Perfect!” I exclaim and add her input to the list. Then, when I ask the students what they notice about the list they created together for the same sound from the same animal, one student notes that everyone hears something different from a chick.
Then I ask, “How many of the sounds on this list are incorrect?”
“None,” Gabriel answers. “Depending on where you’re from or how you grew up, they are all right.”
This lesson, and variations of it, are pivotal to the culture the students and I work to create in my classroom. It is one that honors student input and the interpretations and connections they make with the texts they encounter through their personal experiences. Structuring the beginning of the year this way sends a clear message to my students that their voices and the unique ways in which they transact with the world around them are not only important but also crucial to understanding different points of view. They quickly learn through the consistent requirement of their perspectives during lessons that struggling through and reconciling someone else’s interpretation requires mastery of their own.
I have also found that once students are comfortable thinking metacognitively about their own perspectives, they are much more adept at stepping into the role of speaker or author when interpreting their works. They are also better able to articulate their analysis as they adopt multiple perspectives into their academic rhetoric.
Placing student authority of texts above an author’s might seem unorthodox at first, but the outcome is a classroom full of students who challenge one another, accept and respect each other’s perspectives, and are in a constant state of academic change. By working to fine-tune their personal perspectives of the world, they grow to respect that process. As a result, they are willing to struggle through challenging claims and texts longer because they associate that struggle with the reward of an enriched and more well-rounded world view. It is their way of interacting with the environment both within and outside of the Bronx.
Evelyn Rebollar is an English language arts teacher at Bronx Arena High School. She is currently enrolled at CUNY Queens College as an MsEd student in English language arts.