Honoring Student Knowledge: The Importance of a Questioning Curriculum

“Everything I teach my students are things they already know. I just teach them that they already know them.” –  Frantz Jordan-Jerome

Why is it such a rare occurrence that students get asked what they want to learn–not to mention what they already know?

I was co-leading a lesson with my mentor teacher during the week of Thanksgiving, in which we were attempting to get at a more complicated telling of the pilgrims’ arrival in the present-day Americas. We started out by asking the class what myths or stories we had all been brought up to believe about the first Thanksgiving, and began writing them up on the board. All of the classic tropes were there: The arrival of the Mayflower, bearing the religiously-oppressed English onto Plymouth Rock; the deadly winter; the encounter with Squanto, who taught the pilgrims how to survive in the harsh, new terrain; the friendship struck up between settlers and Natives; the final feast, given in thanks for the pilgrims’ survival, to which the Indians were graciously invited; the two communities joining hands over a meal of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Once we had accumulated a sizable list, we turned back to the students and posed a simple question:

“Who knows what was actually eaten at what we now call the first Thanksgiving?”

A few students’ hands shot up–a fifth grade teacher whom they had had the previous year led a similarly critical curriculum. Several of them correctly pointed out that things like deer, squash and corn had comprised the majority of the Thanksgiving meal, and that it was debated to this day whether turkey was served at all. One student also stated that the Wampanoag people who had been invited to the feast ended up providing most of the food when the pilgrims were unprepared to meet the needs of the large gathering. We added both of these points to the right side of the board, opposing our original list of stories and myths.

“Now, given that we know we got at least one part of the story mixed up–that is, what was eaten at the first Thanksgiving–might there be other parts of the story that we didn’t get right? Could there be other things here in our list of stories and myths that we need to question if we want to understand what really happened?” The students thought for a few moments, then began to raise their hands.

“Had anyone from another country been to that part of the Americas before the pilgrims?”

“Why did the Wampanoags decide to help the pilgrims? How did they feel about the pilgrims living there?”

“What were all the different reasons that the pilgrims had for leaving England?”

“Did any Native People die during the harsh winter when many of the Europeans died?”

“Was anyone at the first Thanksgiving other than the pilgrims and Native People?”

We were going down our list of myths item by item, adding questions for each bulleted point, when I noticed a student in the front row raising his hand. Brendan, who has been struggling since the beginning of the year and rarely offers up his opinions or ideas without being urged to, had his hand up. When I called on him he asked, “How did they pay?”

A few students snickered, and one asked exasperatedly, “What are you saying?” I asked the students to quiet down, then turned back to Brendan.

“Can you elaborate on what you’re asking?” Brendan thought for a second.

“How did the pilgrims pay for the ship, and the trip to come across the ocean?” I was instantly floored by the shrewd insight of his question, and excitedly added it to the board. Immediately, the question Brendan had asked sparked more around the room:

“What happened to the Mayflower after the voyage? Was there a crew which worked the ship?”

“What happened to the crew after the voyage? What did they think of the pilgrims’ trip?”

All of these questions were added to the board, alongside the original myths. Each student then chose five of the different questions we had asked as a group to research and answer on their own. Yet for me, the most exciting and challenging part of the lesson had already happened.

By asking students to pose their own questions, the opportunity had been created not only for students to pursue research in the areas which most interested them, but also for their own experiences and perspectives to shape the kind of inquiry we engaged in as a class. I, as a middle-class educator, would never have had the wisdom or foresight to present a classed reading of the first Thanksgiving, but a young person in our classroom did. And it should come as no surprise, either, that the student who posed the most perspective-shifting question was working-class themselves, an identity which played a large part in their fraught relationship with the classroom and school. It was an exercise which focused not on memorizing or reporting correct answers, but one which called on students to ask their own critical questions, which had encouraged him to speak up. The point of the lesson was not for students to match their knowledge with that of the teacher, the textbook or the requirements of the state (the goal being to evaluate which ones did and didn’t come up short), but rather to create a space for them to bring their original thoughts into the fold, to rely on their own knowledge and experiences to lay a foundation for the dialogue in which we then engaged as a class.

Once, in an after school poetry workshop I was co-leading with a friend, one middle school student took a simple freewrite prompt and crafted a poem which dealt forwardly and unflinchingly with the gentrification of his neighborhood, poignantly describing the complex and painful class and race interplay as he and his community were slowly being forced from their homes. When my partner approached the student after the workshop to tell him what an incredible poet he was, he looked at her with genuine shock and said, “But I failed our poetry unit in school.” Why is it that the doctrine which we call education so rarely asks students what they are interested in learning about? Why is it that, with even less frequency, it recognizes how much students already know–indeed, what they might have to teach their teachers, and the elders of their communities? The purpose of asking these questions is not merely to critique traditional education, but to imagine a kind of learning which is a genuinely collective process, one which has the capacity to incorporate the voices of the entire community. Just as our class’ conversation would have never benefited from Brendan’s radical perspective if my voice had been the only one allowed to direct it, the only way for a truly transformative education to be realized is for those members of our communities who are traditionally silenced–be they immigrants, poor people, women, queers, or simply students–to ask questions, challenge the master narratives, and reshape the structures which have hitherto only existed to oppress them.

4 responses to “Honoring Student Knowledge: The Importance of a Questioning Curriculum

  1. Thanks for such a great post and great blog! I write a lot of about the value of asking questions on my blog, making/being in/staying in: Trouble too. I really like your idea about using questions to engage in collective learning and to de-center the teacher. Reminds me of Freire’s “Learning to Question.”

    • Thank you so much for your reflections and feedback. Your blog looks like an amazing resource, thank you for sharing it! The things that “troubled” and “troublemaking” students have to teach all of us about what learning ought to look like is something I have been learning a lot about lately, and I’m really appreciative of having a framework to help me place some of those new lessons.

  2. Pingback: No [Marginalized] History Month: Ethnic Studies All the Time! | RADICAL FAGGOT·

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