Blue Skies, Oreos, and Student Voice

by: Alex Stubenbort Instead of putting a student in their place, put yourself in the student's place.-Todd Whitaker

At the ripe age of 15, I embarked on my freshmen year of high school. It was day one as I stepped foot into Mr. Burnett's American History class. It was my last class of the day as I settled in for another underwhelming proclamation of classroom rules and procedures; however, as I looked up from the desk I purposefully chose in the back of the classroom, I was taken aback at the sight of a dreadlocked, African American man dressed to the nines writing something on the chalkboard in all caps: WHAT COLOR IS THE SKY?


At that moment, I knew this class was going to be different. Mr. Burnett didn't wait for the bell to begin."Class," he addressed us as a collected whole, "by the end of this 45 minute period, you will be able to answer the question written on the board. You will need a pencil and plenty of paper. Please try to keep up."

Mr. Burnett spent the next 40 minutes of his 45-minute period lecturing the class about the scientific explanation for the color of the sky. He explained in detail the wavelength of visible light and the correlation such information has with Earth's ocean's reflection of sunlight. As he explained, his students' pencils moved tirelessly through pages of notes as they hung on his every word; writing incessantly the details of why the sky was, in fact, not blue. And with minutes left in his classroom he had finished lecturing, scanned the classroom for comprehension, and reiterated his initial question, "So, class, what color is the sky?"

Shuffling through my notes I mentally prepared an answer I thought best summarized the information he had bestowed upon us, raised my hand, and prayed for the opportunity to impress this man with my comprehension. To my delight, he chose me to be the master regurgitater of truth. Mr. Burnett and class then bore witness to a summary of historic proportions. 

As I finished, Mr. Burnett began to slow clap. At first I understood it to be a token of his gratitude for having such a brilliant young man in his midst, but I soon realized that Mr. Burnett was clapping with the type of unmistakable sarcasm that cut deeper and deeper with every clash of palms as he uttered the following words, "Congratulations! You've just successfully denied everything you've known about the world because a man dressed in a suit and tie told you it was a lie. Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you what you've always known: THE SKY IS BLUE!"

Mr. Burnett went on to tell us that his class will not be like other classes. He was not to be viewed as the expert simply because he carried the title of "Teacher". Instead, we were to question him regularly; share our stories, culture, and context; and never, ever deny what we know is true without a fight.

Flash forward 15 years. It's my planning period and I'm debating who I would like to observe teaching today. I remember that Mr. Crowley is doing something in his Science classes utilizing Oreos, and I've made up my mind. 

   Sitting in the back of Mr. Crowley's  classroom is a treat. The general mood of his classes are light even in the most strenuously academic moments. Today is no different. Small groups in the class are taking turns presenting their mastery in understanding the phases of the moon by showing what their groups had created with a sleeve of Oreos. The first group's presentation was silly and lighthearted but did the benchmark justice. Students in the group took turns taking bites out of the Oreos to represent the portion of the moon that is visible from Earth in relationship with the Earth's position to the Sun and Moon. The second group elected to munch on the Oreos in private and paste the remaining "phases of the Moon" on a posterboard which dawned artistic renderings of the Earth and Sun. As the third group prepared their presentation, I was beginning to hypothesize what would come next. Perhaps the group would show a video they created of them munching the Oreos into shape. Maybe they'd show a photo slide show of their Oreo moons to save themselves the public embarrassment of eating on camera. 

However, as the third group stood in front of the class and asked someone to dim the lights, something incredible happened! After tapping "Play" on their iPad the class' projector screen sprung to life! A slightly outdated globe (it had Russia labeled as the USSR) spun mesmerizingly around a blinding light, and as the globe engulfed the screen and began to pass, it happened. A white Titlis 2 golf ball was revealed in the shadow of the globe reflecting the blinding light of what I assume was a flashlight with perfect precision. As I watched the golf ball wax and wane my mind was tricked into "seeing" the actual moon. Somewhere in a dark office within the school, these four students CREATED space! Although I am hardly doing it justice, it was astounding. As the presentation came to a close, the class stared at the group in awe. The four young ladies that comprised the group asked if anyone had any questions. Without hesitation, Mr. Crowley shouted out, "So where were the Oreos incorporated?" The girls looked at each other nervously as the class stood agonizingly quiet awaiting their answer when the tallest one spoke up, "We ate them after finishing our film to celebrate a job well done."

In this moment, there exists a unique opportunity for teachers to prove their worth and commitment to engaging the minds of children. Mr. Crowley certainly could have allowed himself to be upset with the girls for not following the assignments rubric. He could have lectured the girls about the importance of reading directions closely. He could have told them that they would have to redo the assignment within a certain amount of time for partial credit. Instead, Mr. Crowley smiled from ear to ear and said, "What a novel way to 'utilize' your Oreos: as a snack!"

All too often, teachers pigeonhole themselves into classes and lessons where they are the sage on the stage as their subjects take notes in preparation for assessments that ultimately check a student's ability to remember lectures verbatim and do as they're told. And when students are assigned "projects" they are often so specific and spelled out that the end result is 22 cookie cutter reflections of what the teacher already had in mind at the projects onset. In these classrooms, students' lose the sense of importance and individual voice as they are simply vessels being filled and waiting patiently for the day to pour their contents into an exam. As educators, we must be willing to allow our students to share what they know, what they believe, and what they dream. We must be able to put our egos aside like Mr. Burnett and Mr. Crowley. We must give students the space to create. Who knows? They may just show us something that was so obvious that we've missed it all along. They may just show us that the sky is blue.