We were watching Star Trek. Bored with the cooking show his mom had going in the other room, my seven year old son, Henry, padded up to me where I was reading with hopes of watching something that didn’t involve garnishes or plating. We clicked through Netflix and settled, sensibly, on some time with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
The first thing I did was start scrolling through episodes. I’ve been a Trek fan for a long time and knew the episodes I’d steer him toward (Devil in the Dark, maybe Mirror, Mirror) and away from (please, not Spock’s Brain). As a second grader, he hasn’t seen enough Star Trek (yet) to be a connoisseur. Truth be told, in this age of Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, I figured that the pacing and special effects of the 1960s show ran the risk of falling a bit short in the eyes of “kids today.”
So as I clicked past Amok Time and The Tholian Web, thinking I might capture his attention with Captain Pike and The Menagerie, he stopped me at The Apple.
When I say he stopped me, I mean that from his nest beneath a blanket he’d wrapped up in, he kept saying:
Fighting it would have been like trying to stop Tribbles from multiplying.
So I pushed PLAY and we watched as poisonous plants, exploding rocks, and a wondrously 1960s lightning bolt killed off redshirts. We saw Captain Kirk punch a garish alien with a white shock wig, Chekov woo a yeoman, and Bones pronounce someone dead. As our heroes approached the snake-headed rock that the aliens called Vaal, I thought: Henry is really digging this. Why?
I mean no offense to any Trekkers out there, but The Apple isn’t on many top ten lists. Sure it raises some philosophical issues, as the best episodes do, and Chekov wooing …well. With a pinch of moral dilemma and an idea rich point of view, The Apple isn’t bad, but my son’s interest in the episode outweighed the red painted aliens and fake jungle we were looking at.
And then it hit me why. He’d chosen it.
This investment in The Apple made it more meaningful to my seven year old than any episode I might have selected. We were watching it together because he’d picked it.
It was a good reminder for me as a principal of the importance of giving students choice and a measure of control over their own education.
One of the biggest changes in education as we leave the twentieth century farther and farther behind is the amount of choice afforded students both in classes and beyond. Students, so comfortable with the huge variety of options in their lives outside the schoolhouse, are more inclined than ever to embrace the increased level of choice at school too.
Terms like “personalized learning” and “student centered learning” have emerged to capture some of this independence, and I’d argue that we’ll continue to see even more choice and freedom in education in the years ahead.
That’s a good thing.
It doesn’t, however, mean that the kids are totally on their own.
Just as I sat with Henry and watched The Apple, enjoying his interest and occasionally joining him in discussion of Spock’s ears or Kirk’s angst, teachers work magic when they engage with students, guide them, and show them they really care.
The students I’ve met in my twenty plus years in education are overwhelmingly curious and come to school with hopes of learning something that will matter in their own lives. As a teacher it took me a while to recognize that not every student in the English classes I taught wanted, or even needed, to read Mary Wollstonecraft or know who Leibniz was; if I was clever, I could introduce them to both, but alongside other material that was more easily recognized as relevant to them.
Giving students more choice, often within some parameters that I explained in a way that “made sense” or seemed fair, helped too. By the end of my teaching career I allowed more choice to students both in what they read and in how they demonstrated what they knew. I don’t know that I would have ever been accused of providing “personalized learning,” but I do know that students felt that they had some say in what they were learning and how they learned it.
Not long ago a few teachers and I got into an extended conversation about the evolving role of the teacher. I had one take on it, another person I respect offered a different point of view. These healthy debates, even as we continue to rebuild our ship at sea (as Neurath would say), are important to helping support students as education continues to change.
I relish my role as a principal in facilitating this discussion. The work we do with students matters greatly, and developing what that work will look like can be energizing for both teachers and their students.
One thing I do feel sure about is that great teachers will promote meaning by engaging students in their learning, and that choice is an increasing part of that.
Where will the kids go with this?
I’m guessing they’ll go boldly where no one has gone before.