When Students Want To Learn
Dr. Lisa DeLorenzo
This is an abbreviated chapter from my book, Sketches in Democracy: Notes from an Urban Classroom, published 2012.
What do urban students really want from school? Despite what the public may have us believe, urban students do want to learn. Look past the slumped figure, arms crossed at the chest, hood pulled down the forehead, “go ahead, just-try-to-teach-me face” and see instead, an active, creative mind. Peel through the layers of defensiveness and studied boredom to find a cache of curiosity and wonderment. There is something that makes every teen tick, something that gives way to profound interest, and something that generates excitement about learning.
At the urban school where I taught, that magic bullet came in the form of an electronic keyboard. Just after the holiday break, fifteen music keyboards were delivered to the school, thanks to the generosity of our partnering university. A new calendar year had unfolded bringing with it opportunities to start over again. The keyboards couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Students were fresh and alive from a long week’s break and nothing spells excitement like the chance to explore an instrument. Not just any instrument, but one that teens associated with popular music on the radio and music videos.
Journal Entry (January 8): Today was our first day with the keyboards. When each student put on his/her pair of earphones the excitement was palpable. Although the room was silent except for the tapping of keys, the students were completely absorbed in their “play” (The task: Find out what this instrument can do). It was impressive. Shakura was dancing in her seat to a demo tape with a huge smile across her face. Marissa kept yelling, “Guys, listen to this,” (with her earphones on she had no idea about the volume of her voice).
Of course some of the students immediately found “porno” sounds or at least that is what they imagined them to be. The “DJ” button was another major hit and many of the students spent their time playing rap-like percussion music. Their delight in the different sound effects was infectious and I found myself running from station to station, laughing out loud at their discoveries.
The smallest successes, like figuring out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or discovering a new sound effect on the keyboard, created a sense of exhilaration that was simply contagious. After the initial class, we began to create sound paintings through various colors and sound effects programmed into the computer. Eventually students wanted to read music. They wanted to play the music they loved such as the theme song from the movie, Titanic. One student was particularly drawn to the music, Für Elise (Beethoven), and began to slowly and deliberately to figure out the melody by ear. When others heard the music, they were enchanted.
From a democratic standpoint, preparing students to think intelligently and independently within a social context contributes to meaningful decisions that affect our society. If we agree that these are the kinds of citizens that forward the common good, then schooling must teach both for content and for the dispositions that drive stewardship.
The “need to know” is an impulse that emanates from the student. The artist teacher taps into that initial impulse and flies with it. Teachers begin to uncover latent curiosity by asking questions that provoke critical thinking and posing problems that do not always have clear solutions. The more students become engaged in learning, the greater their tolerance for complex problem solving. Along with this comes an increase in persistence, tenacity, and confidence in one’s ability to work through difficult problems.
We have to believe that great possibilities exist in each student. Without such conviction, teachers continue to follow their familiar mechanized routines in planning and teaching the lesson. Teachers who delight in their content and novel ways of engaging students, however, not only inspire reticent students but also keep that spark glowing. It is this inner glow that reminds teachers why they went into teaching in the first place.