Teach Students, Not Content

When I pick up my 2-year-old Colette from daycare, she usually asks what I “taught the kids today.” For my own amusement I always tell her exactly what we did: “We read some Ralph Waldo Emerson and Daddy asked the kids what they thought about it; We discussed the nature of ‘coming-of-age’ as defined in an essay by Pico Iyer; We explored the cyberpunk sub-genre of Science Fiction in both print and film.” I just like to hear what she says, how she processes, what she picks up. And one day she picked up on something that reminded me of a recurring conversation I used to have as a first year teacher. When I told her, “We wrote about Walden by Henry David Thoreau and shared our responses,” she replied, “No, Daddy. What did you teach?”

My first teaching job was in Brooklyn, NY. The mentor I was assigned was plucked right out of central casting: thick Brooklyn accent; coffee and cigarette stained teeth; equally at home on a street corner as he was in the teacher’s lounge where our weekly meetings took place. His first question was always the same: “Whaddja teach dees kids taday?” If I replied then as I do now with Colette, his response was hers exactly, only with somewhat more bite: “Nah, kid. I mean, whaddja teach dem?”

With Colette, I turned it back on her and asked what she thought I should teach the kids. She looked around the car and out the window, and then recited everything she saw. If my curriculum reflected her response, my students would be learning about apples, houses, her little brother Cooper, trees, and trucks. My mentor in Brooklyn would have loved this response. “Eggsactly kid! It don’t madda what you teach dem, I mean content-wise. I’m askin’ ya what skills ya taught dem. What can dose kids do taday a little bedda den dey could do yessaday? You teach students, kid, not content.” He used to spit the word content out like it had soured or gone stale, while I would scramble to think of the actual skill or ability that was at the heart of my lesson.

So here I am thinking about all this again: a parent talking to the sponge in the car seat behind me, a teacher reflecting on my practice as the language of education becomes Common Core. And I think there’s something in Colette’s advice about how to decide what to teach. What is in the car with you is what is most important to you, and what passes by the car window driving through town are the concerns of the community. That is to say, in terms of content, consider whatever is within reach, or maybe just out of reach, and teach students the skills to actually grasp it for themselves.

~ Dan P.


4 responses to “Teach Students, Not Content”

  1. dennismagliozzi says :

    I appreciate that you’re encouraging us to be reflective as teachers. Your mentor questions me in your post as much as he does you. Ultimately, this is the only way we progress as teachers, by asking ourselves these questions. Thanks!

    • teachergirlblog says :

      What a wonderful post! I love the voice of your mentor in this piece! He’s such a vivid character. And I think the second paragraph is beautifully written! I would love to use this as a mentor with my students to teach writers craft. Thanks for sharing.

  2. evelynkrieger says :

    I think an even better question is: what did our students teach us today?

  3. Susan says :

    I love Colette and your voice. The spitting mentor will haunt me. Do you know the book by the infamous Lance Armstrong, It’s not about the Bike? I heard there is someone local who wrote a book called It’s not about the Hike. I’m thinking you ought to write one titled It’s not about the Book. Your first page is done.

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The Apples in My Orchard

A Reflective Blog about Student Enrichment through Education, Opportunity, Family, and Community.


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