How to Think: Phillip Call Reflects on his Teaching and Learning Philosophy

“What do you stand for?” In our latest post, former BSU English student Phillip Call is forced to confront this daunting question as he enters into his first year of high school teaching. Call discusses many of his teaching endeavors and reflects on his experiences with high school academia including standardized testing. Continue reading to see how, in just one year, Call and his philosophy on teaching and learning have, and are continuing, to evolve.

Here at the end of my first year teaching high school English and English as a New Language (ENL), I have been asked by Dr. Beach to share some thoughts about what I’ve learned or what I wish I would have known before starting.

One lesson I’ve learned that you might take some comfort in is that a degree from BSU holds a lot of street cred in K-12 applying and interviewing circles.

One thing I wish I would have known before starting is a bit more complicated, but I think it can be summed up in this way: I wish I would have known how to teach students how to think.

Let me unpack that a bit.

I became conscious of this wish the other day when, after a curriculum meeting where I had my first personal encounter with departmental politics, the head of the district’s ENL services asked me, “You didn’t go back on your principles, did you?” I mumbled through a reply in an effort to be positive but left the conversation wondering, “What exactly are my principles?”

I had left Ball State with a pretty firm philosophy of education (having reflected on it many times for class) and with a knowledge of many researched-based classroom practices, but the ENL director’s question had made me realize that I was missing a fairly useful element in my pedagogy. Even with my philosophy and knowledge of good practice, I’ve found myself moving all across the board this year even as I followed the general curriculum map for 10th grade English. I started with a fairly traditional classroom system that was primarily teacher-centered with a few incorporations of students’ interests as we moved through a short story unit. After a grade-wide informative essay assignment, I transitioned into a project-based unit in which students developed adaptations of Julius Caesar in groups. With the start of the second semester, I tried to develop more of a student-centered class by giving generic assignments about different kinds of nonfiction and informational texts, allowing students to choose the texts themselves. The student-centered approach didn’t work so well with To Kill a Mockingbird, so we moved to class and group activities that fed into students demonstrating their understanding through writing assignments as opposed to close-ended test questions. With the rapid approach of the state’s English 10 End of Course Assessment (ECA), which all students must pass in order to graduate, I have recently tried to incorporate test prep without devolving completely into a “teach-to-the-test” teacher, but the gravitational pull of this standardized test is so strong that it’s been hard not to be completely sucked in as I’ve stepped a bit closer to it.

Reflecting on these erratic fluctuations between teaching styles has made me wonder if it’s been an overall good or bad experience for students. Part of me wants to answer that it has been good since I’m experimenting and trying to meet the different needs of my students in different contexts. However, part of me also acknowledges that students have experienced a type of educational whiplash as we’ve moved so drastically between class formats. While I believe that my philosophy of education and my knowledge of good practices have not been compromised in most of my versions of class, I think that my students and I would benefit from some sort of consistency amidst all of the change – a consistency of principle(s) that would lead to deeper understandings of some core idea(s) through the instrumentality of all the change, rather than despite it. Since I don’t want to ever imagine myself going through a school year without changing something up or experimenting with something new, I truly believe I need to create or find some principle(s) that can guide me in my experimentation and that can be a signpost to students that, even though, we might be tacking about in the waves, we’re still making our way toward some definite destination.

So, here’s what I’ve come up with: How you think is more important than what you know.

I don’t just want to give this idea lip service; I want to figure out how to make everything I do point explicitly toward this, giving meaning to what we do. I don’t know exactly how to do this (how to teach students how to think), but I think it’s something worth trying to figure out. Additionally, I think it’s a coherent rallying point for me personally – a principle I can stand up for when confronted with the alternatives offered by standardized tests, scripted curricula, broad, yet shallow, coverage of content, and other educational movements that, while not explicitly opposed to teaching students how to think, tend to direct too much focus on what to know and be able to do.

When I’ve had the chance, I’ve been asking family members, friends, old professors, and fellow educators how exactly they think one can teach someone else how to think, and I’ve been rather intrigued by the diversity of answers. Some research I’ve read has also been enlightening. If you have a thought or two, please post it here as a comment. I’m hoping to get enough ideas to help me figure out exactly what I’m going to do next year.

If “How you think is more important than what you know” works as a good principle for you, go for it and stick to it. If not, I’d definitely encourage you to figure out what you believe in, what you will stand for, what you’re willing to work and perhaps even fight for when you face an onslaught of pressure from administrators, other teachers, or some part of your consciousness that wants to be a model student and go blithely along with state mandates. Getting our students to think, I believe, will depend a lot on how we think.

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