Perhaps it is the season--the long nights lend themselves to reflection, and the onset of the new year offers always the opportunity to look back and take stock of one’s goals and accomplishments. As always, I find much to see, much to consider, much from which to learn.
The bar raised high
I began this school year with the bar raised high: integrated reading and writing that would be differentiated, articulated, and archived; instruction connected to experience and centered on each child’s needs; goal-setting modeled and expected; be organized, be inspiring, be fun. And I based my intent not on lofty, unattainable goals, but on the tried and true examples of my peers, my betters, you to whom I look. Always are the possibilities open. I find myself wondering, however, how those people raise themselves to such moments, to such understandings. It isn’t the latest twist in education that makes them inspiring; it is their heart, their spirit, their humanity.
Recently, I began reading the book Wounded by School, by Kirsten Olson. I was drawn in by her learner’s bill of rights that I found referenced on the web. And though I must admit that I worried that this book was going to be a whiny diatribe on all-things-bad, Olson has won me over. She is a voice of mindfulness and moral purpose--something that can be lost in the day to day. Olson’s work focuses on the whole child and the social-emotional effects teachers and schools have on students’ view of themselves as learners. Highly anecdotal, it nonetheless stresses the incredibly important influence we have on children’s self-image.
If all we do and say leave permanent marks upon each other, and we teachers and students spend more than eight hours a day together, then serious reflection and time (not just sound bites: "don't comment on how a child looks, what she wears" was a take-away from a recent professional development workshop) needs to be given to how we interact with each other. A culture of acceptance needs to be built, for we know all too well that the popular culture in our world is one of labels that, in the end, lifts no one up toward a better way of being. It only acts to separate and divide.
Olson's stories are ones of hope and caution. Labels of gifted, creative, average, underachiever, perfectionist leave a mark and not necessarily the mark intended. We deal with the formation of young brains and every child has the right to feel valued and accepted, to take chances and make mistakes, to question and search. And it is our responsibility to build this up--our charge and our commitment.
Chris Opitz, a math teacher from Anchorage, is a remarkable example of the balance
between purpose and practice. What Chris offers is not some new gimmick, some new bandwagon--and it’s not the same old-same old. Chris is inspiring because he embraces his students’ unique abilities, gifts, talents, deficits, and he does this all with respect, humility, and grace--embodying the principles Olson discusses in her book. His focus on making visible the thinking of his students, has sent me on the path to finding ways to make more transparent the real purpose of teaching: to develop critical thinkers. So often, I can become focused on the work that needs to be completed, the schedule that needs to be maintained, the assignment routine that needs to be followed. This isn’t to say that reflection, social learning, and self-assessment aren’t part of my classroom, it’s just that I see how I need to make the invisible act of thought more transparent to the students in order to deepen the understanding.
Empowered and influential educator Shelley Wright recently posted a great article reflecting on how she has grown as a teacher. There is so much of value in what she is saying--it is reflective of what many of us say to ourselves each and every day--and it is shaping the nature of what we do in our classrooms. Her focus on creating self-regulated learners is what pulls all of this together. I appreciate especially her comments on grades, recognizing the need to let children develop at their own pace, and the push to have students own their learning.
Self-ownership, created in an atmosphere of respect for each learner’s ability and
pace, is built up over time by making the purpose of learning transparent, meaningful, and worthy of our time. This I see to be the revolution. It isn’t just about “no homework”, or “differentiation”, or “the classroom that seems to run itself”. These are tools and not our purpose. It is about all of our actions coming together in a balancing act of human growth.
My fifth grade teacher
Reading about these individuals started me thinking about two things: one, the
teachers who have influenced me, and two, how much that inspiration has changed what I do. Much has been said about the qualities that create the exceptional teacher as if it is some mystical concoction. And many of us have stories to share about “that” teacher: the one with whom you connected, the one that everyone loved, or hated, or left an indelible mark. I have many, too. My fifth grade teacher, Maureen Mitchell, in my child’s eye, transformed our classroom into a prairie cabin--she created an authentic learning experience and brought joy into my life. No one in my small rural school had ever considered something so radical. I have held onto that moment my whole life and it greatly influence how I would approach teaching--even before I knew what I was doing and why: learning experiences should be multi-faceted, multi-sensory, and child-centered.
I don’t know to whom my fifth grade teacher looked for her inspiration. Maybe it was Kolb, perhaps even Dewey, but her use of experiential learning put her on the right track. Having the knowledge we educators now have about brain-based learning, educational psychology, and the value of social and connected learning sets us apart from our predecessors. Each day we have a chance to improve upon what we do and the fact that we can converse globally, sharing our successes and failures, offers us an advantage.
As I reflect on the goals I set back in August, I find myself looking to these inspiring educators to find some balance: focus on the whole child, deepen thinking through social learning, take out what isn’t working, and make it fun.
It’s that simple.