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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Prophets in Your Own Backyard

Living my educational life these days in a high school library media center, I see, hear, observe, and learn from teachers in all disciplines and students at all ability levels. I also view administrators, staff support personnel, and community members from this hub of literary and nonliterary activity. The engaged learning that abounds sometimes comes from the least likely source. Unfortunately, true and natural learners are often unrecognized and overlooked.
Students who cannot for the life of them pick a topic for a persuasive speech can spend hours on the Internet, searching for clues to Tupac Shakur's whereabouts. (If you are an adult who thinks that he is dead, talk to a teen; if you are an adult who believes that Elvis is alive, you understand.) Students who are procrastinating on an English assignment will try desperately to find on the Internet every available graphic of every lowrider (find that teen again) in the United States and beyond. These students are engaged, they are responsible for this learning, they cooperate with one another by sharing URLs of great Web sites. The challenge is to direct that engagement toward some curricular goals.

Identifying Engaged Learners

I defy you to find a student of any age who is not an engaged learner—someone who establishes learning goals, explores resources, and works in a group to research meaningful real-life issues. Small children may relate to characters in fairy tales or to Elmo or to Beanie Babies. Collectors of bugs and sports cards and coins and whatever-kids-start-to-collect are ready masters who love to share their expertise with any unsuspecting warm body. Middle school students in some communities see every movie the day it opens; their skills at film criticism should be explored. Students who babysit are eager to share the activity ideas they have developed to entertain their charges when the cable goes out.
Teachers exhibit strong engaged learning characteristics in the faculty cafeteria when they discuss credit card mileage benefits, travel plans, and car shopping. Support staff in our building have an investment club and are experts at researching potential buys; some of our custodians should be tax advisors by now. Many faculty and staff could advise seniors about colleges that their own children considered. And we haven't even talked about music or sports yet, two defining interests in our culture that are diverse and popular at every age group.
Certainly you recognize similar prophets in your own backyard and can begin to consider how to honor these experts in a manner that suits your school, district, and community. Lifelong learners should feel the respect that we owe them. Isn't it our goal to help our students develop into adults who are inquisitive and responsible for their learning and are willing to work with others to learn more and advance in any arena in life?

Learning As a Reward, Not Just a Goal

It is a rare educator who is not a lifelong learner, yet how many have an opportunity to share their passions, interests, and knowledge with their students? We cry that time is short, that we are covering "Plato to NATO," that so much already interferes with the academic day. Modeling ourselves as lifelong learners is neither extra nor noncurricular; it gives students a taste of our joy and energy as adults who have learned how to learn and who have lived through many academic days to become who we are; it helps students understand why we insist that they learn. Too many involved and talented educators show none of that life to their students. They focus on the curriculum, perhaps fearful of opening up to students. I see wasted opportunities where there could be such richness, such communication. Sometimes covering the curriculum reminds me of my favorite line from a Harry Belafonte song: "It's as clear as mud but it covers the ground."
I am not suggesting that we open all the windows and throw out the curriculum. I am suggesting that the time we take to let students know who we—all members of the school community—are is time well spent. This knowledge is important for students in the lower-ability classes, where focus and connection to the curricular material can be an issue; knowing their teachers as learners encourages them to relate to the material taught by those teachers (Allen & Romano, 1995). It is no less important at the highest levels of education, where our students are sometimes motivated only by anxiety and boredom. Because we so ably confine schoolwork to an airtight container, high-achieving students often do not feel the flow of optimal experience when they are engaged in schoolwork (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1984). We try not to let education seep into real life.
As noted in The Mood of American Youth, students who think positively about their schools believe that "their schools provide courses relevant to their future and offer opportunity for open discussion" (Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, 1997, p. 14). Those who think negatively about their schools "report a lack of interesting and relevant classes and little personalized instruction" (p. 22). We feel that precious time might be lost if we read a favorite poem to our students or discuss a controversial call in sports or ask for opinions about what musical style will follow rap.

Classrooms and Conversations

The whole-language philosophy, the school-reform movement, and our common sense tell us that students need authenticity and that schoolwork needs relevance to their lives outside of school to have an impact (Gardner, 1991; Goodman, 1986; Sizer, 1984). Sharing conversation with our students shows respect for them and interest in their opinions. Our students are adults in many ways; it is time we accept that reality and help them develop the skills that we use as involved members of our society.
The art of conversation is a skill that is no longer readily learned at home. We need to give our students entrance into what Frank Smith calls the "literacy club" (Smith, 1988). Pick a topic of genuine interest to you. Bring in a newspaper, model your expert reading—what did you think after reading the headline?—and lead a short discussion. On another day, bring in a news magazine about the same or a similar topic and model your expert reading again. Now the newspaper article acts as prior knowledge and will be used as a reference point (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995). In the next week, discuss something you saw on a TV news program or on the Internet. Do this for a related topic. Help your students build a frame of reference, a cultural literacy. Encourage students to be responsible for bringing in material, keeping up with the news in chosen areas, and leading the discussions. By selecting their own topics and contributing materials, they will take giant steps as responsible learners (Krashen, 1993).
Back in my life as a teen, informal learning happened naturally as the Vietnam war was broadcast into our living room and Life magazine lay on the coffee table. Walter Cronkite was the word, and we had built-in points of reference; the dinner table served as a forum in some homes. Today, teachers cannot expect that students are naturally learning about conversation at home. Parents work, students work. It is not the same world in relation to the literacy club. The membership is now meeting at school, and your classroom is the clubhouse.

Discovering Prophets at Home

As you look around your own back-yard, consider the following ideas for honoring the engaged learner in us all. Most of these ideas will take more than one inspired soul, so be prepared to give your colleagues permission to share their interests.
Carve out a "living room" in your building. Furnish the room with donations and call it a retreat for all staff, not the faculty lounge. Ours has a paperback rack for a book swap—bring one, take one. Our support staff are voracious readers, and I like to connect them with students who share their interests. Teachers, as they often remind me, have no time to read.
Create a database of experts on all topics. Construct a questionnaire and be sure to contact everyone who works in your building. Distribute a questionnaire to all students. (Be radical; make this a K–12 activity that crosses district lines.) Invite these experts into your classroom for discussions. For example, our triathlete math teacher talks to the physical education classes. I was a student of archaeology in another country, and I speak to the archaeology classes about my experiences. You may be surprised at the depth and breadth of treasures in your backyard.
Celebrate unusual holidays and little-known world events or make up your own. The library staff named one Friday in the dead of winter Tropical Friday because we live in the Midwest and work in a high school library all day—need I go on? We wore Hawaiian shirts, strung up smiling suns, played Jimmy Buffett music, and shared a Midwestern luau. June 1 became Brides' Day, and we brought in photos from our weddings.
Use showcases to display private collections. Involve all members of your school community, both inside and outside your building. Be sure to include information about the collectors so that students can contact them. Our displays have included oil paintings created by a special education teacher and the miniature car collection of a driver education teacher.
Hold a collector's fair along the lines of a science fair. Encourage adults to participate as well. Just think of the possibilities.You'll probably find collectors of baseball cards, first editions, salt and pepper shakers, and Noah's ark figures. Maybe a collector's fair is too narrow. Think about including hobbies, too; photography, quilting, woodworking, and book binding come to mind.

Honoring Our Prophets

Let's savor the moment when someone realizes that we respect the passionate interest that she or he has. We honor our prophets when we explain how much that interest means to the school as a learning community; describe how important it is to school improvement that they share their avocations; and acknowledge how vital it is that they be recognized as engaged learners who follow the principles that define a successful strategy in education. The ages and roles of these people are irrelevant; they could be teachers, students, counselors, administrators, librarians, secretaries, custodians, social workers, or nurses. We are all students of life, and we need to remember that our young charges do not understand that about us or about their own futures as learners. By sharing this side of ourselves with one another we will indeed add members to the literacy club and improve school climate by recognizing and honoring ourselves as prophets in our own backyard.
References

Allen, J., & Romano, T. (1995). It's never too late: Leading adolescents to lifelong literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (1984). The dynamics of intrinsic motivation: A study of adolescents. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education: Vol. 3. Goals and cognitions. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.

Goodman, K. (1986). What's whole in whole language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. (1997). The mood of American youth 1996. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, NJ: Libraries Unlimited.

Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading: The nature of constructively responsive reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sizer, T. (1984). Horace's compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Smith, F. (1988). Joining the literacy club: Further essays into education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gail Bush has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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