Humanizing Education: A manifesto on wanting more and working less


by Sara Henschell

I want more for my kids than some flat test results. I don't care who wrote the test. I don't care who vetted it. It is too finite. 

I individualize my teaching with tech and scaffolding, using blended learning. That is not enough. Scaffolding is not enough; all the little things we do that constitute ‘good teaching’ like chunking, engagement are not enough.  Project based learning is not enough. If you put a test or some standards first, sure, you might be a good teacher ( I have seen people who do it and are good at their job and they are the first there in the morning and the last at night and they last 3 years.), but you are missing the point. You stopped reaching too soon and putting too much on yourself.   If I make the (fill in blank standard test) my main goal, I have missed the point and made my job a whole lot harder because we (both my students and I) are slave to the test. It just doesn't feel human to me and I can't. I. Just. Can't. Anymore. 

Do I still have data sets? For sure, each kid has their own set. It lives in their hands. Do I use technology to track the class? For sure, each kid gets a copy of the class average in their email. I don’t hand grade multiple choice questions because I hate them (used only under duress) and hand grading them takes too long and is a waste of time. They take them online or I scan them with my phone and kids get instant feedback. Data only matters in so far as it is useful to helping them understand and show what they know and need to know.

What is the point of this? I am transparent. They have the recipe to the secret sauce and they are there stirring it along with me. There is no curtain and I am no wizard. The days of the 18 page excel spreadsheet with 1000 broken links are gone. I am not an answer machine and the great mystery is in the content, not my methods, not my ppt’s. We are all responsible for the learning in our room. We all have a point in the future that we are hungry for. It isn't a test; it isn't that finite. We wouldn't waste time on something that basic. 

They own what they learn, therefore, they are responsible for the content, our ability to interact with the consent and preparing for and participating in all the activities we do to learn it. They manage their class. I don’t have to waste time with it after the first unit or so. If someone is acting out, the class addresses it because they feel empowered to.

How does this work? I have things that I bring to class with me on the first day. A sample calendar and unit, a set of books and standards and two phrases: ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ and ‘you only get out of this what you put in.’  We sit down and decide the essential questions we want to answer about the text. Do I have some options for us to discuss? Sure. And I choose the text?  That I do keep for me. But I have changed texts and taught suggestions that students have made- “can we read Hamlet instead of The Road”  “Sure, tell me why you need it more?” 

My system is not perfect; it assumes that they will take responsibility. It usually takes a unit or two for them to get into the process. I do have to “manage” things a little more hands-on at first. Some days it crashes and burns. It usually feels messy. I am not in control of all the levers. (my ego doesn't need that kind of control).  I have to model how it should look, have samples and ideas how to help students get what they need, again and again. Do they question what I know? Yep. I want them to. It is part and parcel to them being self-sufficient

This is why I do it. Last week, when my students were done with their AP exams, they left that grueling three-hour slog absolutely elated. They ran around telling anyone who would listen.  “Ms. H, you should have seen Tevin, he was writing so hard.”  “I wrote the entire time.” “Guys, we did it! We all did it! We killed it!” It doesn't matter to us if they passed or failed. They won. They competed against themselves and each other. They had a stake in going through the process. They were hungry for a point in the future to which this test was just an appetizer. Plus, we were in it together, we were there for each other and they knew it and felt it. They celebrated themselves and took the test merely to confirm what they already knew. They know what they know what they want to learn. The don't need a flat finite test to tell them what to think. 


Sara Henschell is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and will be leading An Estuary's Summer Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

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