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Voices from the Classroom: Know Your Student (June 2004)
by Susan Carson, Grand Valley State University

Did you like going to school? Were you perhaps the student always reprimanded for "daydreaming," the "discipline problem," or the bored drop out? Were your life goals enhanced through school? As a teacher, pre-school through college, and mother of five, I am a firm believer in the concept of education being relevant to the individual, based upon the individual's own best doorways to learning.

School populations include a vast array of students, who bring to school diverse backgrounds, abilities, and needs. Because teachers are already buried under such a heavy workload, it is hard to create change in our classrooms, particularly to accommodate individual learning differences in a class of thirty to forty children. Therefore in order to make the most of their educational experience, it is of benefit to the students to understand their individual accessibility to learning-what their strengths and limitations are, what their goals are, and what tactics they can apply in their learning. Students ought to be able to communicate their needs. Teachers should be able to understand students' needs in a way that enhances their job and student learning.

Voices from the Classroom: Know Your Student, a project begun in tri-cultural Taos, New Mexico, has since blossomed into a pilot collaboration with the Grand Valley State University School of Education, Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Grand Rapids School District. Voices is a successful service learning study and concept by which educators and students can both profit. Students search within themselves to identify their strengths and limitations in their learning; educators become aware of the complex internal process that their students go through in learning. It is a way to allow the students and the teacher to learn from one another so together they can create an educational process that has meaning.

Educators often are not in the classroom until their career studies are near completion. This project enables the university students to get their 'feet wet' with the experience of tutoring, talking, sharing, and modeling in a K-12 classroom. Under this umbrella of service learning the K-12 classroom students can continue to experience education from different perspectives. The K-12 students will also profit by being given an opportunity to reflect and discuss their own concerns, questions, and confusions regarding education, race, culture and numerous other unique characteristics. The use of narratives and questioning strategies is not new and yet its value has often been overlooked. The classroom teachers can view their students from a new angle and begin to hear their students' voices within the educational context. A renewal of the learning process can occur across the educational community. The university students' goals in education can be enhanced and the K-12 students will be able to create role models from our educators. The classroom teacher will be given a breather and time to reflect on direction, and the public system can be infused with fresh perspectives.

The objectives of Voices include: enhancing student learning through community service; fostering civic responsibility and citizenship; increasing and retaining the number of minority teacher candidates; developing an understanding of the multicultural student, intercultural classroom, and internal diversity; building rapport with the educational community by working with students and teachers of various backgrounds; and creating curriculum connectedness.

This year, students from the Minority Teacher Education Cohort (MTEC) were given the opportunity to work with middle school students. Teaming up, they chose the school and the classroom that they wanted to visit and establish a relationship with. In the classroom visits the MTEC students shared their stories, reflecting on the college experiences, why they chose teaching as their career, and why education was important to them.

As their visits progressed throughout the school year, the topics shifted to goal setting, helping students determine what is a goal, types of goals, and how to set and achieve goals. The MTEC students gave examples of their own goals and the roads they took to reach their goals. The middle school students then had to define three goals and the plans that they would take to reach these goals. This was a smooth segue into the discussion on the meaning of success and how success could be achieved. Middle school students were asked to define what makes them successful. This process of identification is so empowering, for all of a sudden students see that dreams can be real and it is a matter of goal setting and self-determination.

Comments from the middle school students made the program real for the MTEC participants.

"They said that they did not want to go to college because they did not like school. I informed the boys that when you are in college you learn about things focused on your career. The boys soon changed their tune."

Our students discovered that they could create change in the middle school students' lives as well as in their own lives.

"They only need someone to plant the seed and spark their curiosity. I feel that is exactly what I did."

"Emily and I gave these students hope and encouragement and that is what many students need. Regardless of their background, every student needs a little push because I know that I did."

"I learned to have more confidence in myself as a speaker and even though I don't consider myself as being the best role model, others do."

Teachers from the public schools willingly opened their classrooms to the MTEC students.

"Getting the students into the classroom as early and as much as possible is crucial."

All of the students involved in the program began to look at learning from different vantage points. By establishing a relationship with middle school students, our college students began to understand the complexity of teaching and learning from multiple viewpoints. The teacher of the classroom could observe and see a depth of their students emerge. They too were given an opportunity to explore their own doorways into learning and teaching, which helped them to reinforce, support, and understand the doorways that the students discover. The middle school students were allowed to reflect upon how they learn and what is important for them in the learning process. They could begin to identify how they deal with interpersonal aspects of education and what support systems they need in order to develop their academic potential.

Plans for Readers Involvement

In order to incorporate this program, it is important to examine and reflect upon your own educational institution and determine how Voices can be implemented for student and teacher success. It is my recommendation that you begin simply, focusing on creating relationships revolving around issues pertain to your classroom. Questions to be answered will be how can partnerships be formed with university/college/upper grade level students and the classroom teachers and students? What subject area goals-knowledge and understanding of content area, development of values, interpersonal development, cultural understanding-will be enhanced by these relationships and how can they be documented? Which competencies-management skills, human relations, knowledge of profession, instructional planning and implementation, assessment and evaluation-will be strengthen.

Teachers will be asked to take the goal areas and competencies and organize them around their educational environment, with the end result of a program designed to challenge all students.

As leaders in the educational process, it is important that we begin to look at learning from different vantage points. Voices from the Classroom: Know Your Student is just a beginning to re-perceiving the never-ending process of education. Our students can teach us just as we can teach them. As educators-teachers, administrators, counselors, guardians, and parents-as well as students, there is a strong need to be aware of what we are teaching and how we can enhance learning in our lives.

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