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How do I teach what I do not know?

How do I teach what I do not know?

Written by Janelle Bence
July 31, 2011

It’s funny how many times this question has come up in my career. When I first started teaching, I knew nothing about my students, their worlds, their learning styles. I was pretty much the exact opposite of my urban, mostly Hispanic, low socioeconomic, English-learning, at-risk students of North Dallas High School. How would I, someone who attended private school and college, teach students who were so very different?

Despite our differences, I quickly realized my students and I share common goals. They want a better future. Most of my English Language Learners came to this country for more opportunities and a good education that they didn’t have in their home country. I respect this, and it motivates me. I have learned to see our differences as chances to discover new ways to teach. What do my students bring to the classroom? How can I connect to this in my lessons? This allows us to work together to achieve what we both want: an education that prepares them for their present and their future.

Still, even after eleven years of teaching, I have the question of ‘how to teach what I do not know’ on my mind. For each class, for each student, this means trying different strategies and approaches. I continue to search for what works best for them, what reaches them, what keeps them coming back for more. The longer I teach, the more committed I am to serve a group of students who may not come from a similar background as myself but certainly deserve the same types of high-interest, relevant educational experiences I had. Slowly but surely, they are teaching me what works best for them.

At the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in November, 2010, I found a type of learning that just might fit the bill. I attended a fantastic session entitled, Taking Gaming to the Next Level, facilitated by Paul Allison and Grace Raffaele from the New York City Writing Project as well as Barry Joseph from Global Kids. They are working on creating game-based curriculum. During the workshop, we discussed our gaming habits, discussed how people have used games in their classrooms, and created games. Everyone was engaged–to the point that groups were becoming quite competitive. They wanted their design to be the best, the most fun, the most clever. Within that short time, people were taking real ownership of their work, identifying with their groups, and investing in the content.

It got me so excited. It made so much sense. I wanted to know more. I knew nothing about this other than games kept us as participants engaged, competitive, and thinking. I knew my students played video games for hours. I had to learn why games worked and what that might look like in my own urban classroom.

I was not the only one interested in this. Upon my return to campus, I had an exciting discussion of gaming in the classroom with my principal. It was clear that the potential for gaming curriculum had energized me. After my spewing of enthusiasm, my principal shared our campus’ very low PSAT writing scores. We talked about the new writing assessment on the horizon for next year’s freshmen. We wondered, “Could gaming in the classroom help support our students’ growth in academic writing?” I didn’t know, but I did know it was a strong possibility.

So with these questions in mind and the opportunity to create game-based learning curriculum for our incoming freshman, I had some work to do. I needed to become more comfortable with the concepts of game-based learning. It would boost my confidence. It would inform my practice. The following pages are lessons vital in helping me respond to that daunting question: How do I teach what I do not know?


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