Listening to Students' Stories

Christine Vanderwal is a grade 7 teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. She is passionate about equity, Indigenous perspectives, building relationships, listening to students' stories, meeting the needs of her learners, and building safe school cultures. This is her first contribution to the Shift Blog.

Then he said, ‘That’s my favourite part about this class.’

One day, my students were deep into their inquiry work.  One boy wandered over to me. He told me that he was sorry to have gotten off track, but that he was looking into wood extraction and the search somehow took him to a page about his ancestral country of Pakistan.  He wanted to show me some beautiful landscape images of the country. We chatted about it for a few minutes.

Then he said, "That's my favourite part about this class."  

Unclear about what he meant, I replied, "What's your favourite part about this class?"

"That I can talk so much about where my family originates, Pakistan."  He answered.

This coming from a kid who had learned how to code on scratch, created videos, engaged in drama activities, design challenges, built a game for Genius Hour, started a blog, and played with circuits.

I would have guessed that one of those things might be his highlight about our classroom.

I was wrong.  His favourite part about our class was that we talked about our stories, we celebrated our identities, and took time to do that.

I believe in empowering students.

I want to learn about new technologies, new ways for students to express themselves.  I want to take my learning about how to integrate arts education deeper. I want to inspire kids to tell stories in different ways, to dive into Project Based Learning, Thinking classroom, outdoor education, Integrative and Design Thinking, Knowledge Building, and make everything we do in our classroom authentic.

The more I learn about innovative teaching practices though, the more I want to dive into the work of equity.

I see the two as going hand in hand.  Students will never feel empowered unless they feel heard, unless they feel valued, unless they feel welcomed into a safe space everyday.  A space where they can truly be themselves, take creative risks, speak their opinions without judgement. If we as teachers are going to empower our learners, it is AS much about the culture that we create in our classrooms, as it is about innovative teaching practices.

The work of equity, exploring Indigenous Perspectives, building relationships, listening to our students' stories, meeting the needs of our learners, and building safe school cultures needs to lay the foundation for innovation and student empowerment.

My students taught me this.

One day in my grade seven class last year something happened in the room.

I went in that day thinking it was not going to be a good one. Rainy days, double indoor recesses can be rough in Elementary school!

After the break, students were yawning, and itching to get outside.  I wasn’t sure if it was a good move or not, but I pushed ahead and had them set up the space to continue on the inquiry we’d been working through, which was part of a larger Project Based Learning experience.  I didn’t think it would go well. I couldn’t feel the energy in the room, and today, I didn’t have the energy either. It took quite awhile for students to start their investigations, I had to give some reminders to a few to make good choices, people were asking to take walking breaks early into the period, it didn’t feel great.  

Then, something shifted.  

watching video.JPG

Two boys ran up to me, computer in hand, wanting to show a video they were watching on the impact of seismic blasting on marine animals.  They were excited that the video featured an Inuit perspective.

As they were telling me about it, another student overheard our conversation and said, “Can you throw that link on google classroom, it sounds interesting.”

It was like their energy, their passion was contagious, it began to spread around the room.

A few minutes later someone else called me over to watch an animated video she had found showing the impact of extracting resources on animals.  Before I knew it, half the class were up and gathered around her computer. We all shared a bit of an emotional moment, and it sparked ideas about how we might use art to make an impact on an audience.  Off another student went to the idea board.

I suggested that a group tweet out some of what they had found using the hashtag we had developed to try to make some connections online.  They sat huddled around a chromebook in the hallway, composing a tweet.

Someone else came up, asking if we could have a chart paper up somewhere so that he could put up new learning and thinking that wasn’t necessarily connected to any of our questions, but that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I was about to redirect a couple boys who just seemed to be wandering and chatting, I assumed they needed some help to focus or figure out where to go next.  As I approached, they turned to me and said,

“So, we were just talking about how money, the government, business, all this stuff we have, it’s just one big endless cycle that we can’t seem to stop.”

It was so neat, because they were investigating two completely different questions, but were sharing theories and ideas, finding connections. This is the power of fostering a knowledge building community in the classroom.

By the end of the period, every single student had something to add to our knowledge building board. Arrows were being drawn, connecting ideas.  I stood back and watched, listened. Even if they weren’t all talking at that point about their inquiry, I was witnessing something special, a little bit of magic. They were connecting intellectually through the inquiry, by sharing ideas, critical thinking and questions. Perhaps more importantly though, they were connecting as individuals, relationships that we had built over the year were strengthening.  I realized that all of the work we had done at the beginning of the year and throughout building relationships, getting to know our each other’s stories, talking about issues of injustice and equity in our world, exploring Indigenous perspectives in connection to the land, had laid the foundation for this deep inquiry work and knowledge building to happen, so organically.

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.

Teaching this way is not easy, it is so messy, so unpredictable.  It does not work beautifully every day. Kids are resistant sometimes, they aren’t always engaged, not every one of them, not all the time. Sometimes I wonder if they are learning enough. Do I give them too much freedom?  Do things need to be more structured or less structured? Am I giving everyone what they need? Are my expectations high enough? These questions are important for me to keep asking. We need to be reflective about our practice and what is happening in our classrooms.

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Even though it is messy, I believe in it. I’ve seen the impact that teaching and learning like this can have on kids.  The power of Knowledge Building and PBL was so clear to me that day. Teaching this way empowers students, gives everyone a voice, deepens the learning and creates communities of creative and critical thinkers, global citizens who are starting to realize they can be a contributing part of our society now. It helps students develop confidence by discovering their strengths and realizing their passions.  Isn’t that what school should be about?

My students make me want to do better.  

My students inspire me to learn and to grow.  

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.