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June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

What I Learned from Rolo

When I reached out to a failing and undocumented student, his trajectory changed—and my teaching practice was strengthened.

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Walk into the science classroom I share with more than 120 adolescents and you'll notice our "What's in your head?" display: silhouetted profiles of heads filled with images and words depicting stuff that inspires us. Band names, stick figures of horses, misshapen footballs, phrases like mechanical engineering and the child I gave up for adoption. The words college and my future appear inside many heads, sometimes so small you can't see unless you get close.
This head-filling task begins a yearlong class project of getting to know one another as thinking, whole human beings so we can work and learn together as a community. A series of interactions I had with an enigmatic student early in my teaching life helped me learn to teach this way. Getting to know Rolo, being a key part of his school journey, and listening to his perspectives on learning environments helped me begin to coconstruct my teaching practice with students in ways that have made a difference to everyone's academic performance. Rolo became what I call a "student thinking partner," and we learned a lot from each other.

A Partnership Begins

I began teacher training after a career in science because I wanted to give students experiences that would help them understand and participate in the world around them. I wanted to challenge and support all students—not just those who already enjoyed science, but also those who hadn't experienced high-quality science education or who, like me, had studied with well-meaning teachers who hadn't quite reached them. Rolo was the kind of student I wanted to reach.
I met Rolo at my student-teacher placement at Gateway High School. He was in the advisory period my supervising teacher led and was briefly in a class I cotaught. Rolo kept his flat-brimmed ballcap down over his eyes and cinched his oversized pants with rubber bands. Kids moved to the other side of the hallway when he passed. I could guess the motives of many students who acted out, but Rolo's actions made no sense to me. He skipped classes, failed classes, evaded even well-meaning teachers, and affected careful nonchalance about his future. Yet his performance on an assignment to draw maps of the cafeteria and analyze which kids sat with whom and why showed me that Rolo was bright and a keen observer.
I finally cornered Rolo and asked why he was failing school. Why wasn't he really at school, even when he was? He looked left, then right, and told me he was undocumented. There was no college or future for him, so what did it matter if he was truant? Rolo told me that all the students I worried about (here he ticked off names) didn't have papers, either. There was nothing for any of them here.
I compiled a list of every scholarship I could find for undocumented students and sources of support available at local colleges. The day after I handed him a stuffed envelope, Rolo announced he was ready to take his long-overdue biology exam. He earned an A. He knocked on my classroom door during my free period the next day, folder in hand, asking if I had time to help with an assignment on power and respect. The next week, he brought sticky notes and a highlighter to mark up a text.
As Rolo knocked day after day that academic year, I began to learn how to ask him questions, get him to talk through his ideas, and help him pick search terms for his research. Rolo, meanwhile, started to revise his essays outside of school, brought me sophisticated questions about paragraph structure, and attended school more days than he skipped. I began to ask Rolo for his perspective on questions I had regarding teaching practice. I may have had the pedagogical content knowledge required to coach Rolo in his coursework, but he had the firsthand knowledge of school, particularly as an English language learner, that I needed.

Pushing Each Other's Thinking

At the end of that year, we made a somewhat unorthodox deal for a newly minted science teacher and a failing student. Once a week that summer, we met at the local library. I helped Rolo with his summer school homework; he then previewed assignments I was creating for my first full-time teaching position at another school and offered suggestions.
During my first year as a teacher of record, I continued to help Rolo when I could and to turn to him for ideas. Rolo helped set up my new classroom, advising me where things should go for a good flow. He asked me to help proofread his senior essay on immigration reform and to write a reference for his college applications. He invented the "What's in your head?" activity, suggesting that students' drawings of things that inspire them could support their efforts in trying times. I wrote letters and helped with paperwork so that he could apply for naturalization.
At times, Rolo analyzed classroom artifacts, uncovering patterns and suggesting next steps to better guide students. As part of an action research project, I had sorted a bunch of anonymous student work on concepts related to DNA, RNA, and proteins in cells into three piles: "Got It," "On their Way," and "Major Misconceptions." Rolo looked through the "Misconceptions" pile and sorted it into two different piles, one for misconceptions on DNA and one for misunderstandings about RNA and proteins. I was surprised and pleased to realize that some students had mastered much of the content and had only small gaps in understanding about the topic.
Our road, like many worth traveling, wasn't smooth, partly because I was an exhausted new teacher and it was hard for me to make the time we needed. Twice, Rolo fell into academic probation after large-scale family changes. Meanwhile, though, my classroom practice improved, and Rolo stayed afloat in school.
Rolo and I became thinking partners whose critical friendship gave us each, as Costa and Kallick put it, a "trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person's work." Although he and I were puzzling over different work—becoming a successful high school student and becoming a better science teacher, respectively—trying to help each other pushed us each to think more deeply.
After my first year teaching at the school near Gateway, I moved to teach in another state. I flew back a year later to dab my eyes as my "thinking partner" crossed the stage in cap and gown. Rolo is now working and attending community college. He says his classmates "see me as one of the smartest students in class. They don't see the scary Rolo at all." Rolo's performance in school, coupled with his family history, even paved a way to citizenship for him.

How Valuing Student Knowledge Makes a Difference

My professional partnership with Rolo was rich, even if it was difficult, for two important reasons. First, we made time for the work because we knew what was at stake if we didn't: Rolo's future and, increasingly, my students' learning outcomes. Second, we realized that our atypical alliance had implications regarding power and knowledge in schools. My carving out hours to tutor a failing, undocumented student from another school was just as unusual as my calling the same student to pick his brain about classroom dilemmas and problems of practice.
This experience has helped me successfully draw more adolescents into learning by teaching me that our students are important coworkers and should be treated as such. Teachers spend more time with our students than with our closest adult collaborators and thinking partners. Students' capacity for uncovering and building new knowledge is a vitally underused resource.
Meeting and talking with Rolo opened me to thinking about ways to tap into that capacity. My students don't set the curriculum, nor do they weigh in on all the assignments or norms in our classroom. But viewing schooling through a lens that values students' knowledge has been transformative for my teaching—and for my students' learning. Here are some ways teachers and students can learn from one another.

Share Your Learning Journey

When Rolo suggested the "What's in your head?" task, he noted, "Sometimes you come into class and things are bad [in your life]. But if you find your head and it has things that keep you going, you can remember why you are there. Remember you have got a place there—and get your work done." That connection between a sense of belonging and classroom performance resonated with me in my first years of teaching. I began wondering about engagement in learning contexts, particularly mandatory ones, and how to foster environments where all of us could do our best work and grow.
One of the simplest things that helped me create a motivating and engaging atmosphere in my classroom was showing students my own learning—even my learning about how to teach. I became more public in modeling ways teachers improve our practice—such as by explaining why I ask formative assessment questions or sharing with the class what the results of formative assessments told me about my instructional practices. Making these behaviors and the thinking behind them explicit cost me little time or energy. If we want our students to take learning seriously, we need to show them that teachers take our own learning seriously.

Check Out Your Assumptions

Uncovering the assumptions we make is a vital part of becoming better teachers. I had no idea what Rolo was going through when I first asked him why he had checked out. Many of my assumptions about students continue to be inaccurate at best, including assumptions about what learning strategies will be most effective—and why some strategies flop. Questioning students directly helps. If I introduce what seems to me like an engaging lesson and students act restless or roll their eyes, I'll stop, acknowledge what I'm seeing, and ask, "What's happening? What can we do to make this better?"

Ask Students in Many Ways

Students will share more of what you need to hear if you encourage lots of voices and show clearly that you value others' perspectives on your work. I ask for input in many formats: through writing, one-on-one conversations, whole-class discussions, and so on.
One format I love is panel discussion. During lunch or after school, three or four students chat with me about a question I have. In my first year of teaching, one such panel—a successful English language learner, a struggling student, and a young student taking advanced courses—helped revamp my classroom's frustrating peer feedback cycles. Building on one another's ideas, these three told me what was needed: very specific structures and guidelines that could be differentiated and that would help students feel more comfortable giving one another feedback. When I implemented their suggestions, the quality of peer feedback, and therefore of students' final work, improved dramatically.
Since my partnership with Rolo, I've continued to turn to students as thinking partners, although now I usually do so during class. After all, students have firsthand knowledge and experience of my work. Incorporating this knowledge into my practice has made a powerful difference in my classroom.
Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.
End Notes

1 Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the lens of a critical friend. Educational Leadership, 51(2), 50.

Kirstin J. Milks is a science teacher at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, Indiana, and a fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.

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