David Yancey is a middle school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. Yancey made waves recently when the public discovered his unique, artistic style in how he taught his students their lessons through music. David is an artist – and he uses his art in an unconventional way – to teach his students.
“Words can be therapeutic” David stated during a recent interview. “When put into a journey and a song like history, it is not only easier to remember but they actually become something learned instead of memorized.” Yancey has observed for some time a world where most people dismiss middle school students as too old to act like children and still too young to be treated like adults. He understands the misconceptions about young people in this age group and challenges others (and his students) to think differently. Yancey believes his students can do anything if you just believe in them.
Reflecting on his own childhood, Yancey recalls that math was always his favorite subject because it always “made sense.” Even when he struggled with a mathematics problem, he knew that it would always balance itself out because as he says, “it makes sense forwards and backwards.” From his father though, he learned an appreciation for history. His father taught him that it was important to learn about history because you learn about causes and triggers that apply to the events of the here and now.
One of the struggles he sees with his students today is that there is nothing countering the instant gratification movement. Constant, immediate gratification is going to have serious ramifications, Yancey believes. He remembers needing something for school and painstakingly trying to find it in a set of encyclopedias. He was sure to commit the information to memory so that he would never have to research that point again.
Today’s students approach their learning differently. Access to search engines and endless information negates the need to commit information to memory, because it will always be readily available. Students use their short-term memory and knowledge of technology more than relying on long-term learning. This may be a sign that today’s students are adapting to a world where information is not only available but very quickly changing. It is also a challenge for traditional learning environments.
Yancey speaks on earlier generations looking at today’s students and the search engines at their fingertips and the judgement to find it superficial. At the same time, he recognizes that we are connecting to the world in a unique way that was never before possible. What older folks fail to understand, is that along with satisfying their need for instant gratification, many students are using today’s technology learn new things at rapid speeds.
When asked about social media in school and education in general, Yancey replies “People at the administrative level are realizing how much power comes from it. We have to appreciate how much good can come and learn how to better filter the potential for false or poor-quality information. The biggest risk is to human interaction and that we as a society aren’t taking time to learn about one another anymore.” The emotional connection we get from seeing someone’s facial expressions in reaction to shared information is being lost.
While Yancey believes some focus needs to be drawn to teaching students to deal with the instant access world they live in, he sees that they already are engaged in the wider world. Recently politics has become a national debate taking place on social media. Yancey observed his students listening to and watching it all in real time. They understood the gravity of the issues and they wanted to learn what they could do to foster change, progress, and grow to be better people. Through the social media debate, they expressed a desire to learn about the past so that they could work together to build a better future.
There are additional issues in modern education that also require our attention; such as a lack of reverence for the autonomy and creativity of our teachers. One could argue a connection between reduced levels of respect for teachers and ever regulated, formalized curricula that are ever-increasingly the norm in schools. The system, Yancey says, used to encourage teachers to think outside the box when addressing a student’s needs and method of instruction. Teachers used to be able to adjust on the fly when needed. He believes that today’s education system puts teachers in the place of assembly line workers, where they must follow strict guidelines that do not adapt to the human element of students in the classroom. He also imagines this to be why many new teachers leave the profession with their first five years.
Yancey also advocates against treating students as too alike; forcing them to conform to a standard method of learning rather than figuring out what works for them. He wants to remind politicians and policy makers that students who do not perform are not impossible to teach, they simply need a tailored method of instruction and not a one-size-fits all solution. Front line teachers need the flexibility to provide those solutions to the students they serve. Short-term fixes in a long-term system will not yield success. Getting parents more involved and more active in the system is also a necessary goal.
Yancey is setting the example for his students himself. He currently has his master’s degree and is working towards obtaining his doctorate degree focused on higher education and leadership. He hopes that his students will see his experience and learn that they also can and should become leaders.
Yancey envisions a future where we find the right balance between doing what is best for kids, what is best for teachers, and what is best for the administration. “Every teacher wants to be that light for a young student,” says Yancey, and he looks forward to a future where teachers can inspire their students again and to help each child reach his or her full potential.