In my first college-level history class, I can distinctly remember the professor pulling out lecture notes from his frayed-edged leather briefcase. The worn legal pad pages were curled, having been weathered by repeated use. To say this professor had been at the university for decades felt like an understatement – rather, I’d say he had been there for generations. Though I’m sure those were not the original legal pads of lecture notes, they certainly had seen repeated use. I’m guilty of this, as well. Even though I currently do not teach a history survey course, I have kept my class discussion notes in a worn manila folder. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to throw them away. However, even if I were to teach those classes again, I don’t think I would use those notes as I once had. I may not have delivered monotone lectures, but they still represent my oft-static teaching practice.
In Paulo Freire’s seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he describes education as being in a “narration sickness.” Instead of teaching how to think, students are treated like empty vessels for teachers to fill with knowledge – what Freire called the “banking concept of education,” where “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” There are several problems with teaching to bestow knowledge – I won’t attempt to unwrap them all here. Of particular note is the way in which this form of teaching can be unresponsive to the individual students. The focus is on the teacher, not the learner, leading to a disconnect between the two.
Knowledge of, and ability to explain, content is only one component of effective teaching. “Ambitious teachers,” according to Grant & Gradwell need to carefully reflect upon three knowledge themes in their pedagogical decision-making: the subject matter, the students, and the school environment. There is nothing wrong with my discussion notes, but they were more a reflection of the subject matter, rather than a careful reflection of my particular students or the school environment. They represent how I saw teaching those courses as depositing knowledge in my students’ brains – they were the empty vessels, ready for all my wisdom to be deposited.
Before you send your angry comments, lambasting my ridicule of your carefully crafted lecture notes, be assured, that is not my purpose! You don’t need to throw them away! It’s not about starting over at the beginning of each school year. Instead, teachers should use materials they have created, allow them to evolve, and purposefully reflect each subsequent class. It’s not about disregarding your curricular foundation, but rather thinking about how we should continually reflect upon our teaching and consider how to be responsive to our learners. As sociocultural forces are in a continual cycle of change, so too should our teaching.
Thus, in order to be an “ambitious teacher,” my practice now reflects an intentional pedagogical shift towards positioning students as having valuable knowledge and experiences, or asset pedagogy. In asset pedagogy, students are seen as possessing knowledge assets, rather than having knowledge deficits. Put another way, teachers consider what their students do know, rather than what they do not. Many teacher education programs have preservice teachers perform “funds of knowledge” exercises, where they reflect upon the diverse forms of knowing students bring to the classroom – considering both formal and informal learning contexts. Preservice or in-the-field educators also benefit from such reflective exercises, as it challenges them to consider their positionality, as well as what may be taken for granted as “normal” knowledge.
By being responsive to students and providing them opportunities for meaningful and relevant historical analysis, students become a part of the educational process.
In the most recent Perspectives on History issue (December 2017), Jeremy Best at Iowa State University explains how he created classroom exercises responsive to his students. He crafted his approach to analyzing white nationalist posters by intentionally considering the composition of the university, as well as the particular students within his class. In this way, Best was responsive to students by incorporating their experiences into his curriculum and instruction, while also able to use those experiences to deepen their disciplinary skillset. When analyzing white nationalism, “students do not need our chastisement or instruction on what is just and what is good.” Instead, we should provide them with the skills to come to those conclusions themselves. He believes, “[w]hen we use the tools we possess as historians, many of our students listen, especially when we treat them with a respectful openness to discussion and debate” (p. 30).
As Best illustrates, re-positioning students in educative endeavors honors their knowledge and experiences, while also creating a more engaging classroom with meaningful, relevant applications. It does not have to be a complete overhaul of one’s teaching practice, but rather intentionally responding to the individual students walking into our classroom.
 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books, 1970/1993. 1970, p. 52-53.
 Grant, S.G., and Jill M. Gradwell, eds. Teaching History with Big Ideas: Cases of Ambitious Teachers. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010.