This guest post is written by Casey Olsen. This blog is an adaptation of Developing Their Reason, Revealing Their Spirit published in Homeroom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education.
“Our problems are man-made—therefore, they can be solved by man. . . . No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.”
—President John F. Kennedy
Over the course of my career as a high school composition teacher and National Writing Project teacher-leader, I’ve spent many hours thinking about what to teach next. Lesson planning is a constant internal monologue: What’s next? What’s important for my students now? Where do we go after that? In the early days of my career, I was obsessed with what I perceived my students were lacking. They couldn’t spell. They couldn’t punctuate. They can’t. They won’t. They don’t. As an educator, it is all too easy to fall into that trap.
When I was obsessed with what I perceived my students weren’t able to do, I was also making rash and frustrated decisions about what was most important to teach them next. But what is important to teach our students? The case can be made that all subject areas are important, but students often lack the educational opportunities to put their learning from these subject areas to work in the real world.
My students now take part in community research projects where I ask them to identify a problem or issue that they care about in our local community. Their topics have included the school dress code, teen drug use, bullying, rural road conditions, and suicide prevention. In this process, students undertake a variety of research efforts. They work with primary sources. They interview community members, fellow students, and school officials. They create online surveys, and they visit the library, the museum, and the courthouse. They seek out knowledge from experts (including other teachers) regarding statistics, technology, and hazardous chemical compounds. They even become experts on the ins and outs of state laws that are relevant to their causes. They learn to value evidence. Sometimes that causes students to change their minds too.
But just gathering the information isn’t enough. We have to do something with that information. We have to take action and argue for reasonable solutions to our community issues based on the best information available. The secret is harnessing the spirit each student holds for the issue they seek to solve and allowing that spirit to develop each student’s ability to reason. If I can accomplish that, I find that my students care enough about their writing to revise, edit, spell, and punctuate just fine. A recent study also confirmed that students’ mastery of conventions can improve as a by-product of writing arguments on topics they care about. But first I had to go bigger with my expectations and with the lessons I valued. I had to believe they could change the world around them if I gave them the opportunity.
Now, my students write letters to the editor of our local newspaper and to our school board using the information they’ve gathered from their research. They’ve even written letters to the next president. Sometimes their efforts cause other people to change their minds, too. My students’ published arguments are successfully informing our community on dozens of local issues. Their writing has positively transformed multiple school policies and practices.
Students are often capable of much more than the credit we give them. Positive, solution-oriented citizenship is the cornerstone of a well-rounded education. Students’ genuine potential is realized when they are given genuine opportunities to act.
Casey Olsen is in his fourteenth year teaching high school English in rural Montana. He was a 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year finalist and serves on the College-Ready Writers Program leadership team for the National Writing Project. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mr_Olsen_Says