[Cross-posted on Edutopia, photo credit Amanda Thieu.]
Working with students over multiple years can provide teachers with unique understandings about learning, growth, and the potential of school. While a long-term connection with a student doesn’t inherently provide insights, a teacher’s questions, observations, and a willingness to listen offer an opportunity to learn more about the student experience of school. With these goals in mind, I took an opportunity to reflect with a student who was nearing graduation.
A Student Perspective
For the past three years, I had the honor of working with Amanda Thieu, an 18-year-old who just graduated from Science Leadership Academy. During this past school year, Amanda reminded me of the immense potential for students’ voices to occupy powerful positions in the world. Our teacher-student relationship also challenged me to understand and accept the complex dynamic of collaboration and supporting someone else through the highs and lows of creative and intellectual processes. A culminating experience for both of us was when Amanda’s essay on bullying was published and aired by our local NPR station. (It’s also worth listening to her self-recorded version that she mixed with music.)
Joshua Block: Amanda, I met you when you were in tenth grade. I remember you as someone who was timid but often motivated. What do you remember about your experiences as a student when you were younger? What challenges did you face and how did you view your schoolwork and your abilities?
Amanda Thieu: I’m the polar opposite of my underclassman self. My younger years were the awkward stage of not knowing who I was as a person, and I tried extremely hard to fit in with my peers. I remember specifically in your class, I used to get distracted a lot because I was talking to my friends and not focusing. I wanted to fit in so bad, my grades started to suffer because I was prioritizing my popularity over my schoolwork. I’m upset that it took this long for me to realize what is more important in life. I underestimated my abilities to produce work. I always put myself down because I thought, “Why would I try if someone else is going to outshine me?”
JB: It is fascinating to hear your reflections and compare them to my perceptions! While you remember social struggles, I remember focusing on working with you as an intellectual, trying to support you to produce work that was meaningful and high quality. What do remember about the types of support that were most helpful for you? What was not helpful? What should teachers know?
AT: Everything that I experienced throughout my high school career helped me in some way, shape, or form. Receiving critiques and feedback made me gain a sort of writing independence. I chose whether to proceed with the suggestion, mold the suggestion to my liking, or keep my original piece. I think it’s important to give suggestions to students if they ask for it, but not have an expectation of them changing it to your liking. In Senior English this year, you reached out to different organizations in Philadelphia to come and talk to our class about projects to use as models for our work. I think that’s the best thing that has happened for me as a student, being presented opportunities like a collaboration with a local radio station to produce and broadcast my work.
JB: At times, I struggle with figuring out how to distinguish support from enabling. This comes up is when a student is struggling to complete work. What manifests as a motivation problem is often much more complex. What do you think teachers should know about working with students who are struggling? Are there certain questions or approaches that have worked or not worked for you?
AT: As a student who struggles a lot to focus in class, I think the best thing that a teacher can do is be very patient with the student and check in with them a couple times before the assignment is due. It is crucial to be flexible with assignments. I wouldn’t be upset with students if they can’t complete a checkpoint on time. I don’t think asking, “How is the project coming along?” works very well. If you ask a broad question, you’ll receive a very broad response. My advice is to be specific, and to do this, you must listen to the student when they describe the work. You as the teacher must be interested and invested in the student’s process for finalizing the components of their project. Ask them questions like, “What led you into this direction of the project rather than another? Are there specific sources that you’ve researched?” This makes it more of a conversation rather than telling students what needs to be done.
JB: This year, among other things, you created work that told a very personal story of being bullied and then turning into a bully, and you recorded and published immigration stories from your family, some of which you had never heard before. In what ways has this type of work been important to you? How would your experience of school be different if you were not given opportunities to do work you felt connected to and passionate about?
AT: The work I’ve been producing has been extremely personal. While I write these stories for an audience, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’ve been writing these stories for myself. I’ve known these stories for years, but it’s a relief to finally sit down and get a chance to put my thoughts on paper. It’s therapeutic to me to publicize these personal stories. If school consisted of teachers lecturing the class, I would not enjoy going to school every day. I think that’s what I love the most about Science Leadership Academy. The opportunities made me go outside my comfort zone and gave me a head start in the right direction to fulfill my dreams of becoming a journalist.
JB: Amanda, it has been my honor to be your teacher. Thank you for sharing your reflections and insights. Congratulations on all that you accomplished this year!