Lost and Found: A Teaching Philosophy

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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

Soccer unit inside and out

“Welcome to our soccer unit – highly anticipated for many of you – it’s on!”

(Some of them can hardly contain themselves, can’t wait to launch the ball towards the goal at record speed. Watch this one dribble like a pro, make the cross then execute that heel pass into the net right through the mystified goalie’s legs.

See how they run – chasing down that ball, beating the opponent – so much glory in 5 seconds before the ball is reclaimed by the better dribbler.

Soccer, my least favorite unit to teach. There, I said it. Yet, every year I get a little better at it. I let go of the reins a little more; observe and coach. I take on their input. I spend less time “curbing” their enthusiasm; more time letting them find their way into games they will deem satisfying. The know-it-all-bend-it-like-Beckham-watch-me-I’m-Messi Saturday morning experts can get under my skin if they press me too hard. But now I’m prepared for them: Yes, there will be games throughout the unit but small-sided. No, we’re not playing boys against girls, ever.)

*Students engage in free soccer play around the gym. No one is idle.*

(Why do I resist this unit so deeply? What am I afraid of? I can answer that. I am afraid of failing, of looking foolish, of missing the mark, of being mocked for my lack of visible expertise… Is that enough?

Every time I meet my classes, this fear is lurking beneath the surface – what if they resist my plans? What if they don’t follow the plan? What if they hate what I’ve written on the board? I am steeled for their push back and it almost never comes. Or when it does, it’s perfectly understandable. Like my Pre-K friends who resist anything with too much teacher directed structure. They all run in different directions and in their own way broadcast to me “WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR!! Which absolutely makes sense and they are simply demanding that I, too, make some sense.

So when it comes to soccer I am programmed for pushback. “Why can’t we play a game? When are we gonna play a match? This isn’t real soccer…” Feels like I have heard it all but actually, things go fine when I let them lead with their interests and introduce one bit of skill practice, a quick skill oriented activity and then another low stakes game that’s fun and lets players choose their level of active risk. It’s fine, fine, fine.  I’m ok.)

“What? It’s time to go? Are we doing soccer next time, too?”

One final kick into the goal. Smashed it.

Balls in the bag, please. Thank you. Tomorrow’s another day.

Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

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Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

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Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.

 

 

Summer Thoughts and An Urgency

A remarkable summer has passed its midpoint. And yet there’s still so much yet to come: excitement, thrills, reunions and first meetings; a publishing and presenting, adventure and lots of the unknown. It’s been almost 9 months since Sean Michael Morris approached me about joining the faculty of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It’s now July 2019 and we’re less than 2 weeks away from Day 1 of the Lab.

On the one hand, I can hardly wait! So many wonderful personalities gathered together for a whole week of reading, thinking, collaborating and creating. My mind becomes a flurry of enthusiasms at the thought: I get to be there! And not only that, I get to lead a track on Digital Identity!

On the other hand, I am also nervous. All of my insecurities come calling whenever I sit down to rethink my plans. I’m perfectly confident until I’m not and then I distract myself with Twitter and the downfall of liberal democracies everywhere and then I sit down to prepare and the cycle begins anew.

The good news is that as part of my prep I’ve been dipping into Sean Michael Morris’s and Jesse Stommel’s collected essays: An Urgency of Teachers, the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy and wow, I described it in my journal thus:

“like arriving in the harbor,

like finding a lost volume you missed on your shelves,

like arriving at a favorite but seldom visited restaurant and finding a bunch of friends thrilled to see you,

like being in a bar where they’re playing all your favorite songs, especially the ones you forgot were your favorites.”

Above all, reading their words helped me recognize how my thinking aligns with critical digital pedagogy. They also show me where I can find and create space in the field.

In one essay near the end, Sean describes how nervous he becomes before public speaking. The physiological symptoms sound both challenging and familiar.

I bring this up because nervousness – shaking, quavering, nauseated nervousness – is exactly what critical digital pedagogy feels like. Maxine Greene says that “experiences of shock are necessary if the limits or the horizons are to be breached.” It is therefore unwise to sit in our comfort when what we hope to do is unseat, to shrink when what we want is to grow. (From “Wide-Awakeness and Critical Imagination”, p. 271

Yes, exactly, I want to grow. I want to challenge what has been done before. I want to experiment and risk failure. So, heck yeah I’m nervous! And alive with all kinds of possibility. That’s the beauty. That is the frightening joy.

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image: ©Spelic

 

IDK

I Don’t Know

everything about everything or

All

about the things I choose to study.

I Do Know that I’m curious and

I wonder.

A girl who likes to propose

a good workshop for learners she’s never met;

A girl who thinks the topics on her mind

will make for a good conversation

among self-selecting walk-ins.

I Don’t Know

All

About the things I choose to write on.

I Do Know that I feel a certain kinda way

About some things

and that my health will thank me

if I assault the page

rather than a passing human.

Because I’ve realized that my writing, studying, presenting

Is less about KNOWING

and more about LEARNING.

My writing, studying, presenting  – all that’s about

moving somewhere,

changing my perspective (and maybe yours, too),

opening up spaces dark and silent

developing eyes and ears for connections.

What I know is

how to gather and marshal resources.

I know how to welcome what you know

and feel

into the room.

I know how to encourage

movement, spontaneous or otherwise

because we’re going places.

We’ll take our flashlights and hard hats

to investigate ruins and

sites of construction.

We’ll build stuff ourselves: relationships,

bodies of work, archives of resources,

towers of knowledge.

I know how to

raise questions

raise eyebrows

raise the bar

raise the roof.

Knowledge becomes a thing we

unpack

take apart

remix

re-imagine

reinvent

discover

refine

relate

recover

reassemble

.

It’s a dangerous, risky thing

to say

I Don’t Know.

Which is why I say, too

I Do Know

how to listen

for what the situation requires;

how to face the discomfort

of waiting to find out

what happens next.

I am a teacher.

This is my calling.

I know.

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Photo: © Alexandra Thompson

 

 

Written in great anticipation of a 5-day learning experience in Digital Pedagogy Lab, August 5-9, 2019 at University Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I will lead the #DigitalIdentity Course.

Please come and make it what it fully needs to be.

 

 

 

 

Space And Respect

“Space!”

“Find a space.”

“Is that a good space?”

“Find your own space.”

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I spend a lot of my teaching days talking about space – why we need it, what it looks like when we all have it, or when only a few of us have it. I talk about space and safety, space and movement, space as a strategy element, space as a necessity. I work in a gym where my students and I typically have an abundance of space. It would be so easy for us to spread out.

What I’ve learned, however, from watching kids in gyms for a couple of decades is that space is my priority, not necessarily theirs. My students are drawn into their classmates’ spaces like magnets. Students of all ages show a common need to be in close proximity to their peers in one way or another. On an Awesome Gym Day when kids are free to choose their activities, it is not uncommon to find the vast majority of the class in one half of the gym. Or while it would be possible for everyone to distribute themselves among the rings, ladders, ropes or trapezes, several routinely gather at one particular apparatus and wait in line, sometimes egging each other on.

I ask kids to make groups for stretching, or long jump rope, or some other activity and they huddle up near the white board or by the wall, nearly on top of each other while the middle of the gym remains empty. A circle of movers tends to shrink very quickly. Space evaporates between kids at alarming rates as they end up side by side and giggling.

It’s fascinating to me as an observer. Given a choice, most of my students choose to gather with other students even when each child has a ball, or a rope to jump in. They need to show off for each other – to see and be seen. They need to gab and catch up. They have social agendas that are complex, multifaceted and at times, uncompromising. In the space of the gym, students experience a context for engaging with each other that can accommodate serious volume, speed, and force. Many students feel unleashed when they arrive in the gym.

And coming from even the most inviting classroom, how could they not? An open gym simply begs to be run in and make noise to shake the rafters. But when they run, most still like to be in close proximity to one or two buddies. Their need is social and it tops almost all the other priorities they might have coming to PE on any given day.

I got to read an interview with a design anthropologist who is the first black and black female dean of a design school faculty. Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s approach to design begins with respect. She describes the curiosity that her title invokes in others:

People always say, “Design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.”

Which reminds me of what I am trying to do in my classroom, however crudely: “design the conditions for possibility.” I want my students to see, imagine, experience all kinds of possibilities in the gym. Even if the constraints of my lesson plans appear to run counter to what they might want at that moment, this does not stop them from creating new possibilities of their own. They are constantly in the process of refashioning the instructions they have been given to best suit their immediate needs, which more often than not tend to be, social.

Part and parcel of my process is remembering to respect my students’ deep and distinct need to be social – not just to chat but to experience belonging, connection, and purpose with others. These are the very big possibilities in the gym. If I’m doing my best work, then opening up the space for belonging, connection and purpose to flourish will be at the core of what’s happening. Sometimes it means that not everyone will be in their own space when I think they should be. Again, Dr. Tunstall:

Beginning with the notion of respect or respectfulness, the debate becomes about how you stand as a designer as opposed to what you’re trying to do as a designer.

How do I stand as a designer of learning in my gym? And to what degree is my stance expressive of respect for my students and our time together? These are questions I can hold onto and explore again and again, every time my students enter the gym as I ask them to “find a space.”

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

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I used to think…

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I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

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