Teaching Kids to Think for Themselves

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By Alyssa Nucaro

As the turn of a new school year approaches, I can’t help but ask myself the same questions I ask every year. Will I teach my students enough? Will they be prepared for the next grade? Will I teach them everything I need them to know? As I reflect on these questions and think about this year’s planning time, I also ask myself, will I teach my students to think for themselves?

Self-advocacy and self-reliance are an ongoing obstacle for many of the students I teach. We live in a culturally-diverse world, with many different viewpoints communicated to us on a daily basis; however, very rarely do we engage in those critical conversations during the school day. As adults, we learn best from each other and develop an understanding of one another when we have an open and reciprocal communication. I wonder to what extent this is being done in the classroom, particularly my own. Are my students able to express themselves freely in the classroom, so that they can advocate for themselves better and become self-sufficient members of the community?

To make my classroom more meaningful, I’ll need to incorporate strategies that increase the opportunities for my students to think on their own and formulate new ideas. Many of these activities and lessons can extend beyond the classroom. Here are a few ways that we can promote self-advocacy in the classroom and community:

  1. Empower kids to think differently. Participating in a learning community means allowing for opportunities to create new ideas and think freely. I make sure that my lessons include spaces to create arguments, think creatively, and discern between truth and fiction. For example, by reading Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water my students learned about the water crisis in South Sudan. They formulated their own viewpoints on the subject and responded to the text by making donations to the cause—by purchasing bracelets, with all proceeds directly contributing to the water crisis on Sudan. They also talked to community members about South Sudan water crisis and the knowledge they gained from reading the novel.
  2. Provide opportunities for self-reflection. As adults, we continuously reflect upon our actions and think about the behaviors we want to keep or get rid of. We want to give kids those same opportunities to reflect upon ideas, thoughts, and actions. In my classroom, I ask students to reflect on the day by talking to their parents or guardians about what they learned in school. I make sure to incorporate blogs and discussion boards into my lessons, so that kids can openly and freely engage with the content of the lesson.
  3. Give kids opportunities to participate in service-learning. My students are often eager to help with service-learning projects. Not only do these projects allow them to give back to the community and build strong ties, but they also help kids learn character education and civil agency. Opportunities such as food drives, clothing drives, or local community gatherings are all easy ways kids can engage with service-learning. In our school, we regularly participate in taking care of our community garden. We find time with students, parents, and community members to plant fruits and vegetables to eat ourselves or to donate to families who need it. In this way, all community members work collectively for the common good and to provide resources.
  4. Lead by example. Teachers are the most influential factors in a student’s academic experience, and we must openly engage with new ideas and allow for various viewpoints to be explored. In my classroom, I make sure to read different literature, as well as open up dialogue about important issues. Recently, as we read Monsters are due on Maple Street, we talked about conformity and what happens to our individuality when people follow the masses.

It is more important than ever to teach kids to think for themselves. By giving children opportunities to engage in a dialogue about issues and draw conclusions, we are setting them up to become productive and contributing members of our society. By continuously engaging in these opportunities as teachers, administrators, parents, and community stakeholders, we can model and lead by example what it means to think for ourselves and be self-reliant.

Alyssa Nucaro is a 6th grade special education teacher at Wooddale Middle School in Memphis and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

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