“There is all the difference in the world between having
something to say and having to say something.”
— John Dewey, The School and Society
Every year I embark on a journey in which I attempt to engage my students through literacy. I spend the entire summer thinking of books that my students will enjoy and considering the types of writing they should master before they leave me at the end of the year. Fall comes and I am immediately reminded of how challenging this task can be, as the students moan about past English teachers, tell me they hate reading, or stare longingly out the window at their peers building canoes and roller coasters. I decided this year would be different. I would approach writing in a way that aligned with my personal beliefs about education. Anything my students wrote would start and end with them—their stories, their passions, their interests.
My class began with a basic project that I hoped would set the tone for writing throughout the year. By the conclusion of the second week of school my ninth-graders had successfully completed their first project: Our House on Discovery Street. We read Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, and each student was asked to write a memoir of his or her own that paralleled an event in the book. I provided prompts to help them revisit moments in their own identity development, those events that have shaped who they are today. For example, in the story “A Rice Sandwich,” the main character describes a time when she was embarrassed about her lunch because she felt as though it reflected her low socioeconomic status. I invited my students to write about a time they were embarrassed of what they had or wanted something that others had.
I approached this assignment in a way that seemed foreign to my students, as I told them they were to write for nobody but themselves; not me, not their peers, not their parents. I conferenced with each one of them every day and talked to them about the content of their writing, not the mechanics. They would leave my desk and say “Don’t you want to correct it?” I would respond “Who am I to correct your story?” I created a space for them where they felt comfortable, safe and free to express themselves without judgment. They wrote frantically every day, not because I stood over them and told them they had to, but because like every child they had a story to tell and needed a medium to share it.
As the year went on I continued with this mindset. My students learned advanced styles and structures of writing, while their peers and I played an active role in their writing process. I held one-on-one conferences with students to discuss their goals for improving their work and the areas they wanted to develop with my help. These ranged from grammar and mechanics to integrating vocabulary words and figurative language. Similarly, peers would critique each other’s work by discussing elements of the writing that struck them, questions they had as a result of reading the work, and areas of strength and areas for growth. The work always originated from the student and was always for the student.
Our final writing assignment was an iSearch paper that required students to develop a question and write about the process of their research. The paper included what they knew, what they wanted to know, what they could assume, and finally what they learned and what further questions they had as a result of their research. Initially, I was reluctant to utilize this format for a research paper because I feared it would not uphold the standards I sought for my students. Would it ensure they learned research skills? Would they learn how to properly cite their work? Would they learn how to write a formal research paper?
Looking back on this project, my apprehensions could not have been further from reality. My students each developed an essential question about a person they wanted to learn about. Questions ranged from “What motivated Kurt Cobain to commit suicide in the prime of his career?” to “What inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to rise above the tyranny of oppression?” I have never seen my students more engaged. They spent weeks at the library, reading books, watching documentaries and searching the internet to answer their questions. I was moved by watching them develop more questions as they found the answers to their initial inquiries. As if that weren’t enough to make a teacher happy, they proceeded to beg me for more time to write because they realized they had learned so much.
Over the course of this project my students reminded me how valuable student-lead inquiry can be in the humanities classroom. When I asked them to reflect on this process and its success their response was unanimous and simple: “I enjoyed writing an iSearch paper because it was all about me and my interests.” One student wrote, “Out of all the papers I was ever required to write I felt the iSearch paper really reflected me. Even though the topic was on a historical person, the paper was not filled with dry facts, it was more of a journal of my discovery while learning.”
I began my work as a teacher inspired by the work of John Dewey. As I enter my eighth year of teaching, I have come to agree with his position that one of the greatest dilemmas facing traditional education is that it does not reflect the child’s interests or experiences; therefore, students struggle to make meaningful connections to the curriculum.
In The Child and the Curriculum, Dewey stated that in education we often “…get the case of the child vs. the curriculum,” treating the two as conflicting terms rather than as part of an integrated whole (1900, p. 5). Setting the stage for future progressive educators, Dewey challenged this dichotomy by suggesting that the curriculum should be child-centered. This means that the curriculum must start and end with the individual child. As a humanities teacher, applying Dewey’s approach to writing was something that I grappled with. Am I responsible for teaching my students grade level skills or is it my job to construct an enduring learning experience? The answer is both.
Striking this balance required that I consider every child, for every assignment, every day. My heart always seemed to be split between developing writing skills and creating an avenue of expression for my students. Learning how to mend this split was uncomfortable and scary at times because it meant letting go. I had to learn how to stand and deliver and then step aside and coach from the bench. I had to let students experiment and then mentor them through the process of improving their writing for their own purposes. This meant developing projects that would foster the balance between child and curriculum that Dewey so often refers to in his work. Assignments such as the memoirs project and the iSearch paper were successful because through them students learned how to write using various advanced styles and techniques while exploring their own life experiences and personal interests.
Over the course of the past century, many scholars have misinterpreted Dewey’s theory of a child-centered curriculum as lacking rigor and traditional content. However, considering both the purpose of the lesson and the impulse of the student enables us to develop a well-balanced curriculum that is both rigorous and meaningful. In the humanities classroom, this means developing writing prompts that are relevant to the worlds of my students, explicitly teaching writing skills, and supporting students in mastering these skills while finding their voice. I set the standard high by teaching various writing skills, but beyond that, my students learned to value the revision process and to challenge themselves and each other in their writing. Students were constantly asked to critique the work of their peers, with the intent of applying a critical eye to their own work as well. With a focus on practice and revision, students learned that writing could be an outlet for them that was not just a one-time expression, but a process that could support their growth as a student and as a person.
R.S. Peters noted that for Dewey, the key to teaching traditional subjects in relevant and practical ways was to allow children to explore present situations and problems, teach them valuable problem-solving skills, and appeal to their impulses to express themselves through reading and writing (1977, p. 111). The iSearch paper provided an opportunity for my students to engage in rigorous work and master the skills that Dewey refers to, while also pursuing their intellectual and social interests. As one student noted about the process, “I think the iSearch paper worked for me because it was written from my point of view. This helped me to connect to the person I was researching, thus intriguing me to do more research. This chain reaction caused me to create a stronger final product.”
As educators we sometimes forget that teaching does not have to be an either-or battle between the curriculum and the child. On the contrary, student work can have a purpose driven both by content and by the interests of the student. Dewey (1938) stated that all curricula must have a purpose, and that impulse or desire alone is not sufficient to produce an educative experience. I believe that Dewey recognized the danger in a curriculum that was driven only by student interest and that lacked rigor; this is the delicate balance that we, as educators, must seek. Dewey advised that “an overemphasis should not be placed on activity derived from impulses, but instead upon intelligent activity” (p. 81). In my classroom I have learned to interpret this as beginning with an important skill that my students need to learn and challenging myself as an educator to make a connection between that skill and their world. This connection was what allowed my students to integrate their personal interests with the desired skills.
My greatest challenge throughout this process was providing enough flexibility to foster those connections, while still upholding rigorous standards. In a child-centered curriculum, one should not confuse impulse with purpose, but instead focus on using them in combination. If at any point during an assignment my students lost sight of the writing skills that I was asking them to develop, we would sit down and revisit the objectives of the project. I would remind them that while their interests were significant, they needed to complement these impulses with the skills they were expected to master. I would also remind them of the purpose for developing these skills, whether it was for a future job, college entrance or life. Daily conferencing, multiple drafts and frequent benchmark assignments allowed me to mentor them through this process. While this balance proved to be challenging for new high school students, by the end of the year they learned how to find themselves in the curriculum. They learned that while writing well requires various skills, writing itself can be an outlet for expression.
I have always believed in a child-centered curriculum, but for some reason I separated that belief from writing in my classroom. Dewey warned that when students are not the source of development for the curriculum, they become too removed from what they are learning. I couldn’t agree more. Most of us can recall scenes from our childhood of being asked to write essays like robots, free of emotions or interest. This year I challenged myself to integrate rigor and student-centered literacy projects into my humanities classroom, and it was by far the most rewarding year of my teaching career. My students were engaged in their work and their writing exceeded my expectations. Almost a century later, Dewey reminds us that going back to the basics is often what matters most. Ultimately our work must begin and end with the student.
Dewey, J. (1897) Education Today: My Pedagogical Creed. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Dewey, J. (1902). The Child and the Curriculum & The School and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: The MacMillan Company.
Peters, R. (1977). John Dewey Reconsidered. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Norris, N. (2004). The Promise and Failure of Progressive Education. Maryland: Scarecrow Education.
Page, R. (2006). Curriculum Matters. In Hansen, D. (Ed.). John Dewey and our Educational Prospect. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Parigner, W. (1990). John Dewey and the Paradox of Liberal Reform. New York: State University of New York Press.
Simpson, D. & Jackson, M. (1997). Educational Reform: A Deweyan Perspective. New York: Garland Publishing.