Examining language skills, evaluating commentary, and recognizing the power of voice. These are just three tools that English teacher Mary Pate, M.A., M.S.T. uses to burrow under students’ reticence to unearth their deepest thoughts.
Through the application of educational ideas learned through her University of New Hampshire graduate work, Mary has been developing and highlighting ways that St. Thomas Aquinas students’ voices can be more dominant in the classroom. She has incorporated considerations from Virginia O’Keefe’s Developing Critical Thinking and has leaned upon the understanding that classroom culture is essential to student engagement to frame her use of instructional protocols. “Trust is a key part to group comfort and exploration,” she notes. “If I am asking students to take risks and dig for new meanings by asking questions and presenting ideas, creating a classroom culture that is comfortable and where all the students know each other’s names will help the social dynamics, which will then help the academic learning.”
“The process of discovery is messy and time consuming, but this is when the voice is tested with questions, hypotheses, and ultimately discoveries to help create lifelong learners,” says Mary. “Students have been talked at for so long or been asked so many monologic (clarifying) questions, that they do not recognize their voice or ideas… Children question everything, but there comes a point when questions are dismissed. This is often associated with high school because there is less time, more demands, and students are being tasked to remember more information in more subject matters. Oftentimes, there is no time for discovery or dialogic (probing) questions because it can be told much more easily… thus, the power of protocols.”
Also incorporating aspects of the Harkness Discussion Method (collaborative, group discussion led by students with minimal teacher involvement), Ms. Pate considers everything from seating arrangements to group mentality when working with her students. “Students don’t often create the lesson plan and ideas for class; they often look to the teacher. This is why I purposefully remove myself from the Harkness discussions… If I am not at the table, they must determine when and what to question, when and what to answer, and gain the power to generate additional ideas.”
At the root of Ms. Pate’s processes, protocols and planning is the desire to keep students questioning. She notes from Neil Postman’s familiar saying, “Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods” that the teacher’s greatest challenge is in prolonging the percolation of questions.
“If students discover themselves, they are more likely to remember because of the discovery process that was taken. My role is important: to be a guide to help highlight the process for students to gain their voice… I am teaching the student, not the text. Allowing students to make discoveries helps me uncover aspects I had not considered- even after my multiple readings.
Throughout all of my investments in professional development activities and readings, I have discovered that to develop these skills, classroom culture is key: it helps develop empowered students who are critical thinkers. And it all begins with speaking and listening skills.”
St. Thomas Aquinas High School is proud to acknowledge that Mary Pate is in her 10th year of teaching at Dover Point Road. Our Saints are blessed to have her as their teacher, their advocate for creative, thoughtful communication and as a champion of their voice.