As we sit down to write this, with layoff notices in mailboxes and schools scrambling to pick up the pieces in the midst of deep division and loss, collaboration, teacher agency, and student learning might seem like luxuries we cannot afford to discuss now. These times, though, call us to speak out, to question, to make a case for an education that all students in Philadelphia deserve.
The recent data around college admission and graduation is alarming.
Despite this evidence, which the District must be aware of, they are proceeding with reforms that rely heavily on test taking. Test scores are improving, but entrance to college and four-year college graduation rates barely budge, and this is not just limited to Philadelphia.
Critical thinking, vital in every discipline, is absent from these tests. They are instead consumed with identifying discrete bits of knowledge and applying that in a timed setting. This narrow focus on low-level comprehension skills sets an even lower standard for student achievement and does little to prepare students for higher education.
The heavy emphasis on teaching eligible content in 11th grade, for example, among many, many other examples, proves that we are asked to teach to the test, instead of providing a learning experience rich in critical thinking, analysis, and student connections with the work. Still, the District seems to be ignoring the data that is in front of them and clinging to an ideology of testing.
In the SHARE program at Parkway Northwest, we decided on four skills that students needed across disciplines to create a college preparatory curriculum. We relied on the work of leading multicultural and Afrocentric theorists, with measured, documented success, as well as local knowledge of our students. We built a community of learners dedicated to research, critical thinking, demonstration of knowledge by teaching others, and collaboration.
We decided we would start from 9th grade because we wanted to have the student work transform the District’s senior project from the minute they walked in the door. Still, the project incorporated many students who were closer to graduation. As one junior reflected,
"In college, I will need my leadership skills and a good work ethic in order to make it to where I want to get. I can honestly say that I’m glad I learned those skills at an early period because if not, I might walk into the actual college environment unprepared for the college life. I cannot wait to actually step into that environment and show them what I have to offer."
The four areas we dedicated ourselves to in this project:
- Research - Rather than use subjective, watered down textbooks, students were required to use authentic sites for research such as authoritative scholarship, primary sources, well-established periodicals, documentary films, and other sources. Our library was a learning hub, with projects spread out on tables, student-led interviews, planning meetings, and reading groups all happening simultaneously.
- Critical thinking - Students had to make decisions about broad topics such as what areas they would focus on, how to design instructional materials, as well as make collaborative decisions, work independently, examine research for bias and other real work that engaged them in critical decision making. Further, many students came to question why this information was so new and not being taught in the schools. For example, the world history book that the SDP uses has about four sentences about Belgian Congo, an atrocity on scale with the Holocaust, and the aftermath of which still has catastrophic consequences for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A 9th grader commented, “seeing what happened to people in the Congo was eye opening, especially since it was happening to them in their own homeland."
As teachers, we held ourselves accountable for offering our students exciting and relevant content that went beyond the mandated curriculum. This curriculum had no boundaries, disciplines were completely integrated, as disciplines are in real life. Another freshman said, “working on this project has enabled me to venture out into new learning worlds and not be afraid to learn about something outside of the USA.”
SHARE allowed us to view students through a different lens, one that reveled in their passion, their eye-opening discoveries, their moments of fear.
- Demonstration of knowledge by teaching others - Another 9th grader said, “In SHARE we got to learn about current and past events we wanted to learn about. We were passionate about it because we knew we had to teach it to others.” These sentiments were expressed by the vast majority of students who participated in the project, and prove that students will respond to respectful, culturally appropriate pedagogy.
- Collaboration - Autumn Burdo, a social studies teachers who was vital to the SHARE team wrote, “Learning is inherently social. I believe this but did not know exactly how to apply it to my classroom. Participating in a collaborative teaching and learning project has been one of the most beneficial experiences in my teaching career. As teachers we had the opportunity to capitalize on one another’s resources and we showed a level of consistency and camaraderie to our students. Being part of a collaborative process truly made learning active. Students were creating knowledge and being held accountable to their peers. The teacher and student roles overlapped where students were the experts and teachers were more of the designers and guides of this experience. Students were truly engaged and demonstrated their ability to handle challenging situations.”
In a climate where the vast majority of public discourse concerns finance, violence, test scores, and power, it is essential that we add teaching and learning practices to the dialogue. There seems to be little attention to what could happen if students were offered substantive, culturally relevant curricula, and if teachers were afforded much more agency as well as opportunities to develop interdisciplinary project-based instruction. This would likely lead to higher levels of engagement and more sound preparation for higher education.
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