I Worry

I worry.

When I hear the call for help that comes by e-mail looking for a

trainer,

consultant,

someone

who can help us

“have conversations … about these areas.”

I worry.

When I hear the institution is prepared to pay good money

to hear what they already know and continue to pretend not to understand

what is really required for change.

One can always call a task force, form a committee, commission a study

while power remains in trusted hands, there to insure

that the transformation we keep hearing about

does not get out of control, does not go too far,

lest we perish

and our storied bodies turn to salt.

I worry.

When the urgency is so sudden,

the need so dire

since last week, last month

but not since 2014 or 1995 or 1986 or 1968.

When the solutions sought

are thought best to be provided,

imported from elsewhere,

laid upon the institution like bandages

with magical powers.

I worry.

When I hear administrators talk about the need

“to empower students”

and that it’s now, now

“more important than ever”

“to confront the ways”

which were tolerated for decades and centuries with nary a care

about how that looked

to insiders, outsiders or anyone else.

I worry.

When we mistake saying for showing

when answers come before questions

when there is no time for the time it takes

when power relations never enter the room

I worry.

When I worry

I may forget to wish

that we dedicate ourselves to learning as we teach

that we practice having the conversations we need

and get better

while we go deeper.

When I worry

I may forget to remind you

to look around

and consider the resources right where you are.

I bet you they’re there.

When I worry

I may forget to dream

dream

dream

Of what I hope tomorrow

might bring.

 

 

 

 

The Toll

Too much\ too many

enough\ enough\ no end

how things add up\ take their toll\ leave you drained

Not my child/ or my nephew

Not my brother/ or my uncle

Not my niece/ or my cousin

Not my best friend/ or my co-worker

Not my neighbor/ or his son

No one I knew

personally

And yet, all of them

all of them

my people

gone.

 

 

#BlackLivesMattering

#BlackLivesMatter

And #BlackDeath over and over and over

viral

and inescapable

Now makes it possible for you

to wrap your tongue around those

three bold words

and suddenly see the shadows of

400 years worth of distributed brutality

as part

of the problem.

#BlackLivesMattered

I fear the past tense.

It’s a killer.

 

 

Black (and Outdoors) At A Time Like This

#31DaysIBPOC_BADGE

Cleveland, 3400

Grass/lawn/tree/rosebushes/honeysuckle fence

tree lawn, front lawn, home, backyard – in that order

One summer garden = zucchini abundance, asparagus dearth, too many tomatoes

I grew up seeing green from my window not realizing

how and when this would become a lifetime requirement.

IMG_20200521_163722
Me or my look-alike ca. 1967

 

 

List

trails, hills, woods, stony beaches

mountains, meadows, lakes, streams

Give me all of these

they belong to who I am.

 

IMG_20200521_163714
Vermont, Summer 1983

 

#BlackAndOutdoors

feels like that’s always been me

but I’m not a hiker/ mountain biker/backpacker

I’m an attendee, if you will.

One who shows up in nature

and attends.

I listen and look and pause

and wonder

how I got here

or here

or here.

IMG_20200521_163649
Once upon a time at my godparents’ with my oldest, ca. 1997

AT A TIME LIKE THIS

There are not enough of the right words

to explain

why it matters and what it means to be Black and claim the outdoors, the great outdoors as one’s own, as part of one’s being, as central to one’s every breath and thought. Hanif Abdurraqib has 13 poems with the same title “How Can Black People Write Poems About Flowers At A Time Like This” and each one is so exquisitely distinct. Black people and flowers match up for funerals in the popular imagination maybe, or for Easter hats and brilliant attire. At A Time Like This which has become every time all the time, when, oh when, would Black folks ever have time for flowers? At A Time Like This when might we take pause to contemplate a flower’s beauty and complexity, meditate on flowers’ metaphorical bounty. Apparently that is not for us. There are not enough of the right words to explain. You wonder at this. Or you don’t. Maybe you’ve never seen Black folks striding out into the woods, along the river bank, up the mountain trail; sitting cross-legged around the campfire, as natural. Because our bodies in open, green and spectacularly floral spaces can so readily be misconstrued unless they are laboring on what you presume must be

someone else’s land.

IMG_20200521_163804
What it meant, what it means: outdoors(y)

What Outdoorsy Means & For Whom

Not everyone who spends time outdoors can be

outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy qualifies and codifies belonging:

read privilege

read price tag

read middle class and up

read whiteness

read suburbia.

No one calls the homeless outdoorsy

or migrant farm workers outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy is a fashion line,

Outdoorsy completes a dating profile;

Hot or not, it means what it means.

I love the outdoors and I am not outdoorsy.

 

Places I Have Seen With My Own Eyes That Have Also Seen Me (A Visual Poem)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Late Invitation

A life that holds promise

carefully

like a delicate bouquet

requests the pleasure of your company

in a vision of nature

happening wherever you are/ I am/we be.

Claim it children,

chase it children,

be gentle children,

Let it be.

Let us be

us.

 

 

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Parisa Mehran and Alison Collins have entries today as well. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Janelle W. Henderson (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

All images belong to the author, Sherri Spelic, @edifiedlistener

 

 

 

 

 

I tie their shoes*

Em, do you need help with tying your shoes?

She nods slowly and

my hands are already at work on her sprawling laces.

We can move on.

Tying shoes on small feet: an efficiency

I try to remember to ask first

L insists he can do it on his own.

His fingers labor while his brow furrows

It takes time.

He sits in the middle of the tag game

tying his laces just like he learned

one bunny ear, two bunny ears…

C kneels beside him and offers to tie the other shoe;

L weighs the option.

The game swirls all around them both.

There they plant themselves

in communion with the trouble of laces

determined

focused

suddenly successful.

I look away

and they have disappeared into

the frenzy of tag

squealing as they dash and dodge

shoes tied

and proud.

 

Shoe laces, fine motor skills, independence, asking for and receiving help. These topics populate my teaching days. When I squat down and perform the miracle of quickly tied laces, I am reminded of service as a point of connection. The child looks down at my busy fingers and can feel the care embedded in the act.

I ask if they would like some help tying their shoes. Some say yes, others no. I respect that. So often I am grateful for the material realities of learning. Shoe laces – tied and untied – ground me in my practice demanding that I remain observant, flexible and attentive to what the student in front of me requires: help or time or both or something else entirely.

 

*I found this draft in my pile. It was from September 14th, 2019. Reading it now provides a familiar comfort. Considering where we’ve been and now come back to, thinking about these small gestures matters.

 

 

See Sherri Teach.*

4915750A-CA99-4D63-AD63-CDB88BDD2167

Video on. I jog in front of the camera and start the exercise. A bear walk, a crab walk, bunny hops, hopscotch. I jog back to the iPad, stop the camera. Over the course of almost 8 weeks I have adjusted to putting myself, my living room and balcony on display in the interest of teaching and learning. I have tossed, caught and kicked socks, stuffed animals, t-shirts and scarves. I have crawled, rolled, skipped, jogged, hopped and galloped across the floor, the yard, my mat; sometimes smiling, other times, serious. And the constant is that I have to watch myself again and again performing a kind of instruction.

Performing instruction. Teaching by video, in my case, means creating a visual invitation to either join me directly or to watch my example as a template for practice. With video I can show things in a way that encourages imitation. My students and I are currently working with an “I do – You do” model. What we’re missing is the “we do” piece in between. They respond with a video or picture of their own, with a note or a voice message to tell me how it went. I watch, listen or read and convey my approval. I write, use emojis, or speak my appreciation. It’s a transaction, not a dialogue. It’s friendly and there’s evidence of relationship, yet we lack the opportunity to genuinely build on what has transpired. As soon as one lesson has been completed/consumed, it’s time to make space for the next.

At no other time in my teaching career have I ever spent so much time watching myself attempt to teach. And what do I see?

  • I see myself trying to remain familiar and recognizable to my students. I wear the same PE garb as usual. I’m showing the movements we’ve done before.
  • I see a healthy relationship with imperfection. I mess up, I try again.
  • Smiles that seem to come out of nowhere which means I just gave myself the internal reminder.
  • I see a surprising level of flexibility and strength and I also notice my age. Post-video I also feel my age significantly.
  • I see a repertoire of good guesses about what might work and for whom.
  • I see someone who actually enjoys a lot of what she’s trying to do.
  • A manner of presence specific to the particular audience (“Hi Pre-K!”) and not designed for universal consumption.

I’m thinking about what all this “seeing” is good for. How will it change my practice? What’s different already?

I never wanted to be that performer teacher who had all the moves and little understanding of the curse of knowledge. But on video for my kids I may seem like that, which is part of why my misses and flubs need to be in the mix. I also notice how some of my students deliver a kind of instructional video in response to my lesson prompt. Like young how-to youtubers, some will introduce their plan, narrate the steps, and of course, thank me for watching. It’s charming and also a stark reminder of this shared online reality. They recognize platform templates and begin to imitate them. And what I am shown are literally snapshots of effort. I have no control over or confirmation of how long or successfully anyone worked on a given task. So much of this emergency teaching and learning endeavor requires a new level of relational trust. I have to trust my students and they must trust me that we are all doing our best at the moment.

What makes the video “lessons” for my students different from some Youtube PE teacher? It’s the relationship. My students will watch and follow a video by me because we have some history, we know each other. They respond to me personally. What begins as a teacher to class initiative becomes a collection of unique one-to-one exchanges. When we started distance learning, I’m not sure either side, teachers nor students were fully prepared for the oddity of this dynamic. That said, through our individual interactions it’s also true that this is how we remain present for each other; entirely real, the opposite of imaginary.

When I watch my videos it’s also one way to make my efforts entirely real to myself. There I am, that middle aged Black woman moving to and fro, here and there, up and down. Hopefully doing more than entertaining. Ideally, I’m inviting, encouraging, welcoming; offering reminders of what we do and think about in PE even without mats, balls and all of our classmates. Before this I had very little visual documentation of my years in the gym. Tons of pictures and video of kids and classes but almost none of me doing what I do. Seeing myself now, 25 years in and on the daily feels like both a gift and hurdle.

It’s no longer a question of if that’s me, it’s what will I do next to shake the tree of student interest and engagement?

See Mrs. Spelic teach.

See Mrs. Spelic skip. See Mrs. Spelic run.

Watch her jump! Watch her hop!

See Mrs. Spelic turn a cartwheel!

Teach, Mrs. Spelic, teach!

 

*The jury is still out on the title, “See Sherri teach.” I keep asking myself: does showing constitute teaching?

“See Sherri Invite Her Students To Do Something, Anything Related To PE On A Given Day And Share A Response As Evidence Of Engagement” – just not as catchy, right?

image: edifiedlistener

No Good Mourning

It’s not a phantom sadness

because I know its name

and where it lives.

I  know the mood that conjures it,

the temporal passages

it favors.

 

No, this is a sadness

that inhabits me by now;

sometimes it stays small

in a pocket,

a piece of lint I needn’t notice.

 

Then other times it covers me

inside, then out

looms like a fog, like smog

that doesn’t lift

easily.

 

Not a phantom sadness

by any means

Rather, a steadfast messenger

always prone to remind me

this life is neither short nor long

but chosen,

chosen.

Remote Possibilities: A String of Thoughts

Scrolled learning

Tell me an order – abstract-1846059_1280

  • From top to bottom or
  • is it top down?
  • From beginning to end
  • but the learning never stops

 

 

 

Activity feed

Interactive to-do list

scroll up, scroll down

sideways is for walking

or dodging while distancing

not for this app.

Scrolled learning (resumed)

“Messy learning made tidy!”

“Clear instructions, clear demonstrations, clear outcomes!”

“Turn up, tune in, take off – your learning adventure can begin!”

I think of all the promises

we heard and wished

in our heart of hearts

they could be true.

All the while knowing

that for learning tojapan-956073_1280

take root and become a growing thing

it’s the messy parts

that make it even

possible.

 

App -etite

An app can work wonders with things

count, sort, tag, track and archive –

measure, deliver, broadcast, keep –

link, link, link and link again –

An app can give us the impression of movement

a single stream of discrete activities

flashes and pops as we scroll down;

our learning past:

axe-984008_1920

a straight line collage,

an imagined education

in snapshots and clips,

yet nothing designed

to stick.

For that would halt the

endless scroll

of consumable tidbits.

Because in order to make this all work,

to handle the volume of posts,

it’s important to prune the feed,

to archive the couple days’ old content

and put it nicely out of view.

Out of sight, out of mind –

but here it means

out of the way

of what’s next,

of what’s coming up.

 

What it is not   lumber-84678_1280

An app is not a brain.

Constructed with code; clever.

It tells us which way it will work

and which way it wont.

Brains develop and adapt

That’s what they do.

We can’t pay a platform to adapt,

or

entreat an app to be more flexible.

An app is not a brain.

The platform is not a curriculum.

Robin says, “Modality is not pedagogy.”

But why does it seem like we are just learning these things

right now?

As if this were news?

 

Even this blog frustrates my need to put things side by side

I cannot really compose the way I want

I compose the way the interface allows

We have an agreement:

I will make do.

 

Not A Song, A Dispersion

This is a song (although it’s not)

For all the things we can’t see, hear, catch

of/from our students tucked behind screens.

The motivational battles that rage within

and without,

The confusion that crops up,

the relief when a hurdle is crossed,

the questions that never get asked.

The nail-biting parents aching for a moment’s peace.

The pace of the guide, the scope of the sequence

these become pearls that fall off their string.

Instead of a necklace

we have a dispersion

with no means

to recover the order

we knew.

 

 

Real Talk

Can we be honest and not mistake the clean interface and charming video responses

for deep learning?*

Even if it’s the best we can do for now and doesn’t seem half bad, our kids are learning

all the time

and it may not be that carefully prepared content we’ve prepared after 4 or more video takes

that sticks and stays.

It will be other things: a postcard in the mail, a cat that came to zoom and wouldn’t leave, the way family felt different from before school closed, that time the teacher called on the phone.

The platform does not make memories. That’s something we do. We humans. We teachers, learners, adults, kids. The platform stores our artifacts. We humans, we users, we learners, we are art. We are fact.

Let’s use the apps we need. Rely on the platforms that serve us.

Let’s make our art. Let’s share our facts. Let’s weave our memories and make them count.

 

 

 

*(Understanding, too, that deep learning is not a given in classrooms either. It’s a long term gamble, the thing we hope against hope for but almost never get to witness when it surfaces 5, 10, 20 or 30 years later…)

images all CC0 via Pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

Three weeks in, I’m wondering.

low angle shot of green trees
Photo by Hoàng Chương on Pexels.com 

I went for a long walk this morning and for the first 5 minutes I wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. And what for? What’s there to cry about? It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I can leave my house and walk up into hills with lovely vistas, vineyards covering the landscape. I’m free to leave for an hour or more if I choose. My middle school child can manage his tasks well enough on his own. My spouse is working from home and is available if necessary. I’m not due on a call before 12 and it only makes sense to begin responding to my students’ responses to their posted assignment in the afternoon when most have had time to complete it.

My list of privileges is long. In this time of outrageous uncertainty, I live in a country where social distancing is well established and the health care system is both universal and functioning. My own teaching situation is advantageous to say the least. PK-12 1:1 devices, iPads, chromebooks or PC laptops. At the elementary level, lessons are currently asynchronous. We’re finishing our third week and considering the circumstances, I suppose we’re doing very well.

Nevertheless, as I continue to create short videos for my students encouraging them to stretch, strengthen, toss, catch, jump and balance, after a while it becomes hard not to wonder at the purpose of it all. Yes, it’s meaningful for students to be able to still connect with their specialist teachers in addition to their classroom teachers. I see it in the smiles and exclamation points that come back to me in response to the assignments I post. Yes, it’s a useful pedagogical exercise to consider the best ways to offer physical education activities that are creative yet simple to practice and differentiated for various grade levels. Yes, I’m learning as I go – about myself, about my students, about families.

That said, I’m still asking myself about what I’m doing; what all of this emergency distance learning is.

I create mini lessons that I upload onto a platform. These can be scheduled so that they appear in the student’s feed at the appropriate time. Sometimes I make a video demonstrating the things I want them to try. Other times I may create a slide that asks them to follow a video or two and then tell me which one they preferred and why. I try to switch it up and keep it varied. Novelty and surprise have a new role to play in sustaining motivation to keep tuning in.

What I create is a performance. A performance with an invitation. “Follow along!” or “Alright, everyone, try this at home!” Literally. I am not delivering content, per se. No, I am cultivating relationships with students, often with parents and caregivers, and it’s centered on presenting movement as enjoyable, valuable and familiar. I’m not trying to teach discrete skills. Instead, I set up possibilities for students to practice. In one video I pull out my imaginary jump rope, in another I show 3 kinds of target games that I played with my own son. You hardly see us in the video, only the socks and stuffed animals we’re tossing in our living room towards a laundry basket or bucket. As a response, I asked students to create their own target game and send a picture or short video. (I could not have predicted how much joy I would feel watching some of their game ideas.)

None of this is rocket science. I see the difficulties of my own child navigating this new terrain. Even with the most engaged teaching and class meetings per hangouts, it’s hard to stay motivated. Yes, we want kids to be able to keep learning but how does it not become a differently moderated series of homework tasks? Everything that students do now is homework because home is where we all are and the fact that tasks are completed in response to teacher assignments makes them a form of work. I’ve called distance learning with a device “interactive to-do lists.”  That seems unfair considering the remarkable work I know my colleagues invest in developing lessons that are engaging, topical and invitational. But from the child’s point of view, how does it seem?

I worry about our educator tendency to respond heroically to the storms with which we are confronted. I worry about our tendency to make lemonade out of lemons even if there’s no sugar in sight to sweeten the deal. I worry about the ways we rise to the occasion when we are also carrying our own children, elders, or other major concerns on our shoulders throughout. Our perpetual drive to remain productive poses a real risk to our health and well being over the long haul. These are not normal times. We are not simply having an interruption. The world is fighting a pandemic that ” is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways.

While my own family here seems safe, I worry more about family in the US where medical care and attention can be very uneven and likely, racist. While I think about what good my “teaching” may or may not be doing, there are other, deeper concerns that lurk in my mind. None of this under my control. Whether or not my lessons seem long enough or evoke enough of the right kind of engagement is not what I can or will fret over.

If you’re in a similar boat, and many of us are, let’s agree that we’ll take some deep breaths. Let’s steal some time for exercise in whichever ways we can, ask for help when we need it and even when we don’t think we need it (that second part is hard, I know). Let’s stop pretending that this is an occasion for business as usual. I’m not saying toss out routines or healthy family habits, I am saying please check your pulse and your blood pressure, figuratively and literally. Notice when you’re overwhelmed and spent and know that you have every reason to feel that way. If I go out for my walk and I need to cry, I’m giving myself permission, even if the tears won’t come.

The Education Can Begin: Meditations on Midlife

Middle age keeps surprising me.

I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was

mistaken

misinformed

under a false

but lasting impression.

These surprises are not always pleasant

or friendly.

some carry a force upon arrival

that’ll knock you down

flat

especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought I knew love,

thought I knew racism,

thought I knew how to show the former

and counter the latter.

Middle age presents the tests

but doesn’t ask if you studied;

doesn’t question your readiness.

Middle age says

work this out.

And there you are

grasping at straws

watching the clock

scouring your memory.

And there you are

stuck and stuck and stuck

unprepared

to be so utterly clueless.

But middle age saw you coming,

sees your indignity

at being caught

unawares.

Now, she says,

the education can begin.

 


 

Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?

I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.

img_20200221_192510

At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.

I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.

In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:

The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)

Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.

Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)

I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.

Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.

I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.

It doesn’t matter if I say

how much it hurts

the answer is always a question:

what did you expect?

Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.

“Now, she says,

the education can begin.”

 

References:

hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.

 – Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.

 – Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.

Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Lost and Found: A Teaching Philosophy

stone-tablet-2185080_1280
image via Pixabay

Recently, Amanda Potts asked a few of us on Twitter if we had a teaching philosophy to share. I said, “I’ll look in my files.” Now nearly a week later, I finally remembered to follow through on my promise. I found one. From 2012 and wow, it’s kind of stirring, in its own way. It’s a bit more formulaic than I would like but OK. My beliefs are recognizable and still feel very true. Here it is:

Sherri Spelic

Statement of Philosophy of Education

Connection, curiosity, struggle, and celebration: These are the four elements of my philosophy of education.

All humans are wired for connection with other humans. We are the quintessential social animal. Much of our learning is motivated by our desire to make connections with others through communication. Understanding this principle is central to surviving a room full of chatty 5th graders or squirrelly kindergartners. When children are left to their own devices, they are remarkably adept and entirely prepared to carry out their own versions of psycho-social research. They play tag. They approach and run away from each other. They exchange secrets. They form groups. They select leaders and determine outcasts. They build hierarchies and create rites of passage. They initiate, react, observe, assess and reassess. They are marvels of social activity and organization at every stage of their development.  For this reason, the social life of the child at school becomes his or her bottom line.  Who are my friends? How will I keep them? What do they like about me? What will make them like me more?  These are only a few of the questions which drive children to engage in the types of social “research” described above.

In the classroom, it is important to acknowledge this reality and work with it rather than against it. Remaining sensitive to our students’ needs of connection and belonging goes a long way towards setting the stage for academic learning to take place. Successful teachers are masters at creating the safe, welcoming and encouraging environments which allow children to explore and develop their very individual paths towards friendship and participation in the group.

The second element in my model is curiosity.  Because children are innately curious from an early age, I wonder what we as adults and educators can do to foster and enhance the curiosity mechanisms that are on fire at age four and often seem to peter out by age fourteen. What types of educational experiences help children and adults maintain their natural and very individual forms of curiosity? This is the question that most interests me. And I have no definitive answer to this. What I do have is a deep appreciation for programs in which care and attention are devoted to developing students’ confidence and competency in raising their own questions and where students are also given opportunities to seek and present their own paths to solutions.

Struggle is closely tied to curiosity and stands as the third element of my model. When we are curious about something we are often willing to work to close our “knowledge gap” (Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 2007).  We struggle to find the answers we feel we are missing: How can I get accepted to the college of my choice? How long will it take me to lose 5 more pounds?  What do I have to do be able to run a half marathon without stopping?  The key lies in the fact that the struggle is specific to us as individuals and its outcome must hold meaning for us. When we struggle with a task, our internal curiosity rises: Can I really do this? How far have I come? How much further do I have to go?

Our students need the benefit of struggle. They need opportunities to grapple with bunches of goal related questions and derive their own responses and test these repeatedly before arriving at one solution or several. In its ideal form, the struggle turns into an experience more valuable and rewarding than arriving at the destination. It becomes the tale we love to tell, the story that leads to new ventures, questions and the next struggle.

The fourth element in my model is celebration. I use celebration to indicate any instance in which we acknowledge to ourselves and perhaps to others that progress was made, a goal reached, a milestone passed. There needn’t be fanfare and champagne, but stopping along our paths of struggle and recognizing the signposts of success along the way enables us to prepare for later successes. If we fail to celebrate our accomplishments both small and large then we cut ourselves out of a significant opportunity for growth.  Indeed, celebration and recognition whet our appetite for more challenge and embolden us to strive towards the next opportunity to flex our struggle muscles.

Connection, curiosity, struggle and celebration are the four critical ingredients I would look for in a classroom, on a faculty, in an administration, in a school community.  Every individual has a need for human connection and belonging. Each of us has a natural, intrinsic curiosity which needs opportunities to stretch and grow. The gift of struggle lies in its capacity to stimulate our resourcefulness, persistence and resilience, while celebration and recognition have the power to stoke the fires of our ambition and spur us on to new adventures.

These four elements of my educational philosophy are interrelated and interdependent.  They begin and end with the experience of the individual, yet they also apply to groups and systems.  Looking back, I see that I have spent my teaching career cultivating these elements in myself and my students.  Mine is an experientially based philosophy and its formulation here confirms my belief that some of my best teaching happens when I step out of the role of knower and become a student again.

 

 

 

November 2012