Why I Volunteered at Teaching for Change

Andy Grayson
Andy Grayson with one of the many books he learned about at Teaching for Change and he plans to use in his classroom.

By Andy Grayson

My name is Andy Grayson and I am a third grade classroom teacher in Alexandria, Virginia. This summer I began volunteering with Teaching for Change, an organization that I became familiar with after attending a district workshop focused on incorporating accurate Central American history into classroom curricula. I attended the workshop in early November, at a time when I was beginning to feel distant from my curriculum, as if it was running away and I was chasing after it.

I have been teaching for three years, striving to develop a student-centered, social justice-based curriculum that is both locally and culturally relevant for my students.  Although I have found success with some of my units of study, I constantly find myself shifting time and energy away from project-based units grounded in relevant history and towards the standards and skills needed to improve the state test scores.

While I work tirelessly to teach the state-based standards within my social studies units, I have found that teaching the standards without a deeply meaningful context is more “efficient” if the priority is solely to cover all of the required material. Yet each time I cut out some piece of my curriculum at the expense of concept coverage, I feel something missing within myself and my students. I see less active student engagement and a decreased feeling of community. I hear students trying to find the “correct” answer, rather than challenging the status quo or investigating questions further. In these moments, students are not owning their curriculum, but rather absorbing the prescribed skills set for them.

The effects of an era of testing accountability are far from invisible. In both New York and Virginia where I have taught, students are required to take state tests in math and reading. Due to pressures to improve test scores, structures are put into place.

For example, data for math and reading is carefully monitored and support staff is used strategically to target those subjects. Some schools alter their daily schedule to include additional time blocks for math or reading. I can only speak from my experience, but I imagine each school and district responds to its pressure uniquely.

Due to this emphasis on reading and math, I have felt as though I am fighting against a current in my commitment to deeply teach social studies. For example, in a four to five week time frame, my students are responsible for learning about:

  • the importance of government in the community, Virginia, and the United States
  • the contributions of seven famous Americans (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez)
  • Veterans Day and Memorial Day
  • how people can serve a community, state, and nation
  • how Americans are diverse in ethnic origins, customs, and traditions but united under the basic principles of a republic form of government and respect of individual rights and freedoms

This is an alarming amount of information to teach in a small window of time, and the topics are disconnected. Without teaching in the context of a time period or movement, the material becomes shallow and scattered. In this approach described by Paulo Freire as the banking model of education, students are viewed as empty vessels to be filled with information (Pedagogy of the Oppressed; 1968).

I believe that through social studies, we can create a more democratic, just, and caring society by giving students the tools to think critically about accurate history and to see the connections to the present. However, guiding students to understand historical oppression, to become media literate, to grapple with climate change, and to look at history from multiple perspectives requires space, time, and a meaningful context. I am constantly reminded of this dilemma throughout the school year.

Thus, I felt the need to connect myself with like-minded educators. Volunteering at Teaching for Change, an organization that supports a progressive education model that is grounded in social justice is not only validating, but it motivates me to continue fighting against the pressures of a “banking model” of education and to teach history accurately and deeply.

Andy Grayson is a third-grade teacher in Alexandria City Public Schools. He wrote “My Third Graders Love Reading ‘Wilfredo’” and serves on the diversity committee for his school district.