What helps students learn? Giving them voice in the classroom – to discuss, to critique, to offer suggestions, to change the world!

Like most teachers, I’m often asked why I became teacher. Was there a particularly inspirational teacher I wanted to emulate? Did I have an overwhelming desire to impart knowledge to students in a classroom? Recently, I truly and honestly reflected on that question. After much soul searching, I knew the answer: it was because – in the ‘70s – I watched a TV show called Room 222.

When I started school in the 1960’s, I loved it. My teachers were caring individuals who deepened my love of reading and of learning. I missed school over vacation, and I was anxious to get back in class. But in sixth grade, all that changed. That’s when I met Sister Alice. Sister Alice stood about four feet tall, a little gnome of a woman, but she was – to this day – one of the meanest people I have ever met. She took great delight in embarrassing and humiliating her students. There was one girl in my class, who cried very easily. Each day, Sister Alice, would ask her to stand. She would then berate the poor child until she sobbed. Sister Alice was especially vicious to the boys in the class. She’d scream at them, call them names, and provoke them.

The saddest thing Sister Alice did, however, was that she silenced her students in the classroom. We were almost never permitted to speak. Our opinions and our views were not welcomed. Unless we were spouting a rote answer, we were to remain silent in class. What we had to say was not respected, and there was no such thing as a class discussion. Suddenly, I dreaded going to school. And all my friends felt the same way.

At about that same time, a new television show debuted – right when I needed it the most. It was called Room 222, and it was about a multi-cultural high school in Los Angeles, and, in particular, an American History class taught by Mr. Dixon, who was definitely one of the the coolest people on TV. While Walt Whitman High was about as far away from my mostly-white suburb and private school in Pennsylvania as you could get, I still connected with it. It was evident in every episode that Mr. Dixon truly cared about his students and valued their opinions, and I looked forward to watching the show every Friday night.

Room 222 definitely reflected the political and social climate of the 1970’s  – episodes focused on Vietnam, domestic violence, drug abuse, gay rights, and women’s rights. The students in Mr. Dixon’s classes sported huge Afros, mini skirts, and love beads. But they were insightful and intelligent, and their class discussions were deep. In Mr. Dixon’s class, students didn’t need to raise their hands to talk. They listened to one another, and they respected each other’s opinions. Most importantly, it was clear that Mr. Dixon heard his students, and their voices were valued in his class. Mr. Dixon’s students truly believed they could change the world, and Mr. Dixon believed it, too. I loved Room 222, and later, when people asked me what inspired me to be a teacher, I realized that one of the main reasons was because of this show.

I wanted to have my own classroom where I could have high-level and meaningful class discussions about politics, social issues, and the world. I wanted to be that teacher, who like Mr. Dixon and the other adults who ran Walt Whitman High School, would do anything to help my students succeed. I, too, wanted to help that student who was struggling and needed some support. I hoped to let my students know that what they had to say was important and that by speaking out, they could truly make a difference.

Back in the ‘70s, I’d ride the bus to school, and ask my best friend, Andrea, why our school couldn’t be like Room 222. Why couldn’t we take on the world’s problems the way they did in Mr. Dixon’s class? Why didn’t anyone think our views might be helpful? Why wouldn’t anyone ever listen to what we had to say?           

In Room 222 students’ voices were truly heard. When Jason or Bernie made a comment or suggestion, Mr. Dixon listened. When the students in Room 222 offered ideas or spoke out against injustice, their school heard them. The students worked through problems through meaningful class discussions. And in this way, the students were able to effect change in their school. They were able to help one another become successful. They were able to openly and honestly discuss their own education and what they needed to achieve.

I became a teacher because I wanted to give students a voice. I wanted to have my students truly understand a work of literature by discussing it in class, by sharing their insights with one another, and by knowing that what they had to say was important. I hoped that my students would be able to talk about problems and work together to find solutions. I wanted my students to recognize the power of their words.

When I go back to school in September – to Room 122, no less  – I want to continue to channel Mr. Dixon and all the fabulous educators from Room 222. Almost fifty years later, their message of listening to the voices of the students still rings true.

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