September 19, 2010 Mike Gwaltney , , , , no responses

Rigor, Relevance, and Making a Difference

Occasionally, we get word that something a teacher has done somewhere has made a big splash, creating a ripple effect that will benefit hundreds or thousands long after she’s done teaching. Such an impact was described by a Memphis newspaper this week:

Soft-spoken Triston Gillon, 11, is proof that a child can speak with a voice of reason.

As part of a persuasive-writing assignment in the spring, Triston, then a Sherwood Elementary fifth-grader, wrote to Peter Davoren, chairman and CEO of Turner Corp. That firm was general contractor for the new Yankee Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the world’s tallest building, the 2,717-foot Khalifa Tower in Dubai.

“I asked if Turner Construction could build us a playground,” Triston said Wednesday in a break from his sixth-grade class at Colonial Middle. “They responded by sending $50,000.”

Lachell Boyd is the teacher who inspired young Triston. Boyd had students write letters to real people, using persuasive tactics she taught them as part of learning critical thinking. Her idea was that her students ought to be writing for a real audience:  “I wanted them to see the results of the writing. I want them to see if you put your best effort into something good, people will support you.” And Triston isn’t Boyd’s first success story: Kristina White, who wrote to a Hewlett-Packard executive in 2009 landed her school a $100,000-plus computer lab and a visit from HP brass. Since Boyd began asking students to write for a real-life audience, the school has received several thousand dollars worth of library books, balls, badminton sets and jump ropes, thanks to the power of children’s voices and fine writing.

Boyd’s practical education strategy – teaching critical thinking by having students at a needy school ask for help from those who can afford to give it – is exactly the kind of teaching we need more of to improve education in this country. In an age when teaching to standardized tests is becoming more and more valued, the story of Boyd’s success reminds us that the best learning comes from designing authentic tasks for students.

What did students learn from this assignment? Boyd’s first goal of getting her students to see that they could make a difference – “I wanted the children to be thinking about the importance of leaving a legacy” – seems to have been met in ways she and her students couldn’t have imagined.  But did they learn to write well?

I once taught a writing course called “Critical Thinking and Composition”, which we began by considering what makes writing effective. Our first assignment, Logos, Ethos, Pathos, asked students to practice writing with three important strategies: logical argumentation, reliance on the authority of experience, and calling on the audience’s emotions. To do this well, students had to consider audience, purpose, tone, etc., all principles of good writing.  My 12th grade students generally understood the point, and in the end they produced some high quality writing. But, looking back, I’m sure putting them in a real-life situation like Boyd did for her 5th graders would have brought out the best in their writing.  Think of what it takes to write the kind of letter that can bring back a $50,000 or $100,000 donation. That’s some persuasive writing!

If we want students to get a rigorous education, we need to understand that the most rigorous learning is that which builds critical thinking, and the assignments that best build critical thinking are those that are relevant to the real world. Boyd’s 5th graders are analyzing problems at school, and thinking creatively of ways to solve them. By adding the real-life element, she takes the learning to a whole new level, engaging the students in the learning activity. Their product becomes something they can be proud of, and one through which they can leave a legacy for themselves and their school. Education can be transformational – regardless of whether the letters brought back a bag of dollar bills, asking the students to write a letter to a figure who was in a position to help them make a difference for their school ensured the students were practicing skills and habits of mind they will need as adults. Kind of beats prepping for a standardized test, doesn’t it?

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Mike Gwaltney