Looking back on my time teaching English, I know I didn’t include enough books by Black and Brown authors, or books by women. In film class, I predominantly showed white men telling stories about white men because those were the movies I knew and had watched and studied. I was limited by own life experiences and background, and I was hyper-aware that the students least recognized by the system were still not going to be fully recognized by me.
But I was determined to figure out a way to structure my classroom so that it did the one thing I thought I could do for my students: teach them to think for themselves and build critical consciousness, together.
Why try and build critical consciousness?
If students had the opportunity to practice critical consciousness, they’d be able to go out into the world and hunt down the information they needed, figure out how to follow their passions and learn how to stay present in moments and with people. All the while, their deeper understanding would help them maintain the energy and wherewithal to keep fighting injustice.
The ultimate purpose of education should be to help students build the necessary critical thought that energizes and empowers them to build a better world than we have.
I knew I couldn’t possibly teach my students all the things that mattered to them, or to their community, their world. But I could help guide them to their own path of discovery.
So, I set out to make my classroom human-centered, where students could be their full selves, where their feelings would be integrated into instruction, their knowledge leveraged, policies negotiated and projects co-constructed.
Read more about Human-Centered Learning and its principles in the publication Envisioning Human-Centered Learning Systems.
How to build critical consciousness in your classroom
Building critical consciousness isn’t just about sitting in a circle and investigating dilemmas. In any classroom, teachers can create space, time and structures that support real questions and interrogations of situations students are grappling with. Teachers can use what they know about the students in their room to decide the right time to pause, talk, reflect, journal, watch or read something together. Teachers can ask, “What’s keeping you up at night?” When we center students’ humanity and lived experiences, learning morphs into something authentic, purposeful and sustainable.
By giving students time in school to consider their lives and determine what they care about, teachers are modeling practices that lead to self-awareness, introspection, mutual understanding and eventually, action. When I let my students think for themselves, they almost always came to conclusions toward the ‘common good.’ Students are resourceful. They know how to leverage the tools in their hands to share their stories and come together. They realize that systems do not always incentivize cooperation over competition or people over profits. They see that years of history have come to impact the present and that we have a lot of work left to do.
Being the person in the room when they start asking why and how was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced. When my students started telling me how they’d like to try different projects, watch other films or read other books, it would hurt my ego for just a second. But then it would dawn on me: this was what education was all about, and the number one thing I could have ever done as an educator was to step back.