Students reflect and I learn

This school year I’ve been trying to develop a new habit: offering students regular opportunities to reflect on their learning and sharing those insights in different ways.  Sometimes I do this near the end of class and students can share their responses with the whole group.  At other times, I ask them to ponder a reflection question while they change clothes and then try to capture each person’s statement in writing as they come out and line up.  I really enjoy hearing and reading their responses.  Many students generate valuable observations and excellent insights about their  learning.

Today, I asked my 1st and 2nd graders to respond to this prompt:

“So now that you’ve been through this obstacle course a few times, I want you to think about which things you would say ‘Whoo! that’s kind of challenging for me, I’d like to get better at that.’ and then which things make you say, ‘Hey! I got this! I feel confident when I do this’.  Don’t tell me just yet. Think about it and in a moment I’ll ask for hands.”

The responses were specific, spot on and best of all, everyone was eager to share responses to one or both questions, especially after hearing a few of their peers point to the cartwheel section and admit that they found it challenging.  Or when a few said, they’d like to work more on their forward roll.  When asked to share their strengths, again, many were eager to pipe up and claim one skill or another as their own.

With my 5th graders I ventured to survey their learning experiences after playing small-sided games of soccer.  This feedback is vitally important as I know that not every child relishes competitive team games and I wanted to find out what each child was taking away from the experience.

The question I posed was: “What piece of learning are you taking away from the games you just played?”

Here are some of the responses I received:

“teamwork and passing – because you can’t do it by yourself.”

“We weren’t working on teamwork, we were working individually.”

“I’m better on defense than on offense.”

“It’s better to pass than to go alone to the goal.”

“you have to jump in when your team needs you.”

“There was a lot of support in my group.  If we made a mistake, they would say, ‘good try.'”

“Defense is more important than offense” (His team lost 5-1)

“You have to take turns with offense and defense.”

“To be more aware of when the ball comes.”

“Teamwork matters more than you think.”

“I should score more; my life was on defense.”

“Soccer isn’t my favorite sport. Maybe if I participated more, we’d show more teamwork.”

As teachers, there is so much we don’t know about what is going on inside our students’ heads.  And it never ceases to amaze me what kids will tell me if I simply ask.  So why not make a habit of asking?

New habit: Asking, listening, processing, thanking


Old habit: guessing, assuming, blaming, detaching.

Learning involves stretching...
Learning involves stretching…

Students reflect and I learn.  This is a habit I can get used to.

Personal Professional Development

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a workshop on Team Building and Reflective Conversations.

Work in progress
Work in progress

It was a rare opportunity to pull together several pieces of my recent thinking on teaching, coaching and group dynamics among other topics into a lively learning experience for some of my colleagues.  In my planning for the event I arrived at some critical insights:

  • I don’t need to have all the answers,
  • I cannot plan others’ experiences, and
  • my job lies more in creating space than in conveying content.

These ideas helped me to let go of some typical teacher/leader/presenter tendencies to

  • above all, appear competent,
  • take up most of the air time,
  • fear the unknowable.

What I learned was that participants sincerely appreciate having a chance to do their job well: participate.  That is, to engage, be active, to give as well as receive, to hear and be heard.  Any time that we dare to stand up and volunteer to share our expertise, it is easy to fall prey to a host of expectations, real and imagined, which assure us that we will be doomed unless we have our hands on the controls at all times. And yet we forget that, in many ways, we are often among friends, or among colleagues or folks who share an interest in our topic.  We are surrounded by rich and remarkable resources in the particpants we have before us.  What would happen if we tapped into those resources more fully?  What could we create if we put more effort into facilitating exchange than in animating our power point?  What if we actively shifted the spotlight from presenter/facilitator to participant-contributor?

My guess is that professional development, particularly in the field of education, would be radically enhanced. If many of us who have been carrying the reform banner in favor of a fundamental shift from teaching to learning would actively practice what we preach, fewer educators would dread PD that may be professional but hardly developmental.  It’s also time to begin personalizing and significantly energizing the learning of our teachers.  And it begins by inviting more of them to take the floor, to share the stage and to be recognized as experts and researchers.  It is sustained by encouraging exchange, raising more questions than answers and accepting an outcome in which people may not know more but perhaps understand better.

Here’s what I love about offering a good workshop: many smiles, a good dose of laughter, genuine connection and a sense of time and attention well spent; another healthy investment in my personal and professional development.

Many thanks to my participants extraordinaire: Renee, Sheryl, Otti and Bonnie!

The learning habit

Dec 2010 Jan 2011 017 (Large)A few years ago, I decided I would make speedskating my winter sport. You know, speekskating – that sport that you only see during the winter Olympics and is dominated by the Dutch: Skaters in sleek suits, super long blades on their remarkably elegant boots, giant quadriceps, tremendous grace combined with outragrous speed on an unforgivingly hard and slippery surface. Yes, I thought, that’s the sport for me. Well not actually that form of the sport, rather a recreational, long distance format appealed to me and so during our traditional family outings to a beautiful alpine lake, I began taking a few lessons. That was 2010.

Jump to 2013. This summer I decided I needed to do more in the direction of developing my ice skating capabilities. I opted for lessons in inline skating. I had successfully avoided this over the last three years with entirely plausible reasons: not enough time, it’s too dangerous, it’s not the same…and so on. But the instructor I contacted proved persistant and eager and I simply couldn’t outrun my skating anxities any longer. It was time to hit (what a regrettable pun) the pavement. After three lessons, my newly appointed coach convinced me of the need to convert from traditional, pedestrian inline skates to the monster-wheeled and low-cut boots similar to the ones she typically sported. Well I was frightened and nervous and intrigued, and ultimately, game. By lesson 6 I was completing my first cross steps in the curve (crudely, mind you) and feeling reasonably stable when skating upright without too much attention to proper technique. I am of course not done with my lessons. Officially I have 2 more slots to schedule and the reality is that the lessons are really only beginning.

I mention all this to illustrate my larger point: learning is habit-forming. Consciously choosing to learn something implies investing time and effort with the intent of reaching some desired outcome: To understand another language, to reduce back pain, to relax… And once we get past the initial discomfort of feeling incompetent, naive and clueless, we can often begin to count our first advances large and small. There’s improvement. Some parts become easier while we expose ourselves to greater challenges. We’re not there yet, but we’re no longer lingering at the start. We have made progress. There’s growth. We’re learning. Even with setbacks, obstacles, false starts and dead ends, if we are truly alive, these experiences also create and deepen our learning.

Within the next two years I hope to participate in my first distance speedskating event. There is a lot of ground to cover between now and then. My goal is to enter and finish and to have mastered enough of the necessary technique to perform without injuring myself (or anyone else, for that matter). In the meantime, I celebrate the mini-successes along the way: skating downhill without panicking, daring to fall on my backside in order to stop…My life is richer for taking the repeated risk of learning something new. I’m hooked. Learning is my serious habit.