I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.
One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.
I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”
First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.
Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.
I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.
In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.
Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.
Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.
When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.
What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?
What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?
What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?
Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.
Imagine then how well resourced education would be.
Although I write about a number of different topics, what I do, how I earn my living, is teaching. Elementary physical education, in fact, from Pre-K up to 5th grade. For the most part, my students love PE. They are excited to be in the gym, to play the games we play, to be active and loud and even silly with each other. I have a lot working in my favor before I even start class.
I’ve been at this for a while and feel reasonably confident in my teaching abilities, although I keep learning new things and rediscovering ideas I had set aside. Recently I’ve been aiming for more repetition in my lessons. That doesn’t sound very progressive but here’s what I’ve learned:
Because I teach PE all day every day, I tend to forget that this is not true for my students. They see me mostly 3 times per week for 30-40 minutes. That means that they may get to practice a group of skills 1-2 times, while I have gone through the instruction of those skills 4-6 times in the same week.
Students who repeat the same lesson are not bored! Rather, they are able to concentrate on the actual tasks instead of the format details (stations, practice sequence, etc.).
Students who repeat the same lesson derive confidence from knowing what to expect. The exclamations: “We did this!” “I know this one!” often indicate a positive familiarity.
Performance improves, often dramatically. From one lesson to the next, my colleague and I often brag to each other about how much better our students performed in a lesson the second or third time around. Over time, these add up to produce movement learning.
Repetition invites challenge. As students recognize patterns and feel increasingly confident they will, often without additional prompting, find ways to make the task more challenging.
In elementary PE, my colleagues and I aim to cover a lot of ground. We want to expose kids to wide variety of movement options and possibilities, and we do. At the same time, we must remain sensitive to their needs for competency, control, enjoyment and challenge in the PE setting. Repeating lessons, circling back to previously covered skills, playing a familiar game – these all help students establish their own sense of progress and growth over time.
I used to think that my students needed lots of novelty to stay motivated and excited. Sure they like some novelty, but not all the time. Like so many other aspects of teaching and learning, what is healthy and beneficial for students will have elements of routine and novelty, will offer repetition and introduce new tasks, embrace big challenges and celebrate the easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
The longer I teach, the more I learn. The better I learn, the greater the chances that my students will be able to do the same.
The school year has begun and we’re off to what appears to be a very fine start. While brunching with my oldest today I asked him a question that just popped into my head:
If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?
He spent some time thinking about it and even said, “that’s a good question.” The conversation that ensued was deeply interesting and proved fertile for a whole new crop of questions like Do you need to be an expert in order to teach something to someone else? What makes a class ‘academic’? Would you require anything of your students? How would you know what they are learning? And many others.
At the same time I was turning the question in my own mind wondering what my topic or theme of choice might be. And sure enough, another very fundamental question emerged: What do I mean by “teach”?
Give instruction? provide expertise? engage in discussion? offer guidance? tell? show?
Wouldn’t this be an interesting question to ask students? How might they respond? What would their responses reveal about their assumptions related to teaching and learning? What might we learn about our students as people with interests and enthusiasms by raising this question?
Taking the idea back to my own classroom, I want ask students about their special interests and think about ways I can offer them opportunities to actively teach each other. While I often remind them that I am not the only teacher in the room, I want to “put my money where my mouth is” and develop the idea into a visible practice. I wonder what some of them might be eager to teach. it’s time to find out.
There is no app for patience. Just as there is no app for respect, kindness or trust. I say this now in the midst of all the hoopla around the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference currently taking place in Philadelphia not so much because I want to rain on anyone’s edtech parade, but because I am missing something. So much of our focus on the use of technology in education has to do with speed, efficiency and scale – measurable features. We talk about technology as an accelerator of learning, we extol the virtues of tremendous reach when tens of thousands register to join a popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We laud countless applications and software packages which promise us time-saving and economizing means to teach our classes and “raise achievement” in the process. I get it. There are numerous digital tools which allow us to do things we couldn’t do before as easily such as locate, sort and store information. As individuals we can create media to share with a potential worldwide audience. And our societies are heading increasingly in the direction of more technology, of faster tools, of ubiquitous digitization of the billions of data points that make up our individual lives. I do not live under a rock. Nor do you.
Still, there is no app for patience nor will there ever be.
Patience is a human capacity to do more than wait. Patience describes the capacity to pay close enough attention, to develop the awareness of self and others to be able to recognize and evaluate when pausing, waiting, holding off will likely bring about a better, more robust and lasting outcome than not waiting in a given situation. Listening often requires patience. Cultivating anything that grows requires patience. Any learning process aimed at achieving depth demands patience. Not surprising then that patience would seem to be a prerequisite for any educational endeavor – whether teaching or learning. In our current discourse around education – be it policy, practice or vision – patience finds no mention, no foothold, carries no weight.
On the contrary, impatience is the working assumption. We simply cannot wait. We should not wait. And for many issues I would perhaps echo that sentiment. Impatience is warranted and called for in response to racialized police violence, in response to ending childhood poverty, in response to highly inequitable school systems. There are many areas where we as a society cannot wait to tackle certain issues. But when it comes to individual students and teachers and their progress, in their capacity to effect change, where is our patience and empathy? When it comes to policy makers setting standards for multiple school districts and expecting to see rapidly improved results within the 9-month sprint we call a school year, where do we find patience and common sense?
There is no app which will teach us or train our patience. Patience requires some depth of thought. Patience requires being able to slow down when the rest are speeding by in order to see precisely what is happening. Patience with our kids means daring to watch and wait before we rush in with an intervention. Patience with our teachers means trusting them to make decisions which benefit and grow student learning and not assuming that all the results of that learning will show up through standardized testing. Patience with our colleagues means listening and encouraging without shaming and judging. Patience creates space for individual variability. Patience provides a stepping stone for faith and positive belief. Patience allows us to spend time not knowing. Patience can teach us to listen first before we speak; to observe carefully before we evaluate.
Patience is something I miss in our education talk and behavior. We cannot copy and paste patience into our curricula or teaching practice. It will need to come from within us and our institutions. Creating space for patience in a school would require a seismic shift in culture and habits. Some schools enter through mindfulness practice. I hope more will choose to follow. For us as individuals swimming in this sea of accelerated everything, we’ll need to fashion our own life vests and buoys to keep us afloat and present to the situation as it is. We cannot turn off the machine. We can, however, moderate our own habits and ways of being in the world with our family, colleagues, students and strangers. There is no app for patience. We must grow and nurture and practice our own.
This morning I was out for a jog and something dawned on me: Great teaching is something that sticks with you. That was the start. Then the thought began to evolve.
Is it the teaching or is it the learning? I asked myself.
What great teaching am I carrying with me right now as I pick up the pace?
I began assembling my stories; stories of the great teachers, the great lessons, the deep learning I was sporting as I lengthened my stride.
Story #1: The speedskating race. I did my first long distance speed skating race on January 2nd. I completed 15 laps of a 2.1km course in a little less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. Throughout, I could hear my coach’s whisper at each step, “feet together, feet together.”
Story #2: Reading aloud. One of my greatest joys as a parent was and still is reading aloud to my sons (aged 20 and 7). My mother surely instilled and inspired this habit in me. Every time I hear myself read aloud with passion, I imagine my mother looking on with pride.
Story #3: Sticking with the run I was on. It would have been easy to stop and walk, especially as I was plodding uphill. And there I heard a variety of voices, including my own, reminding me that I could and would succeed because: I know how this goes, I’ve tackled this before, I set the pace, the choice is mine and look at the blessings that surround me.
Story #4: The will to keep writing. Several folks have had a hand in this one, yet my thoughts actually go back to two of my high school teachers, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Nelson, who encouraged me to recognize my writing as a definitive strength and that I should therefore dare to be confident in doing it. That lesson took a long while to kick in (some 20 years, at least). If they only knew…
So as I continued to chew on this line of thinking, I arrived at this: Great teaching, which often goes hand in hand with great learning, becomes great because it has staying power. Great lessons stick with you, are portable and transferable. Over time these lessons can become so uniquely and intimately useful to you as to no one else. This is what makes the learning your own.
I hesitate to draw the connection to education or schooling, because we know teaching, learning and lessons to be so much more, so much broader than what we tend to stuff into our favorite labeled compartments of education and schooling. So think big and broad with me here, let’s go deep and not linger on the surface. When you consider some of your own great teaching, learning and lessons, both in the past and to come, would you like that for here, or to go?
Personally, I’ll take all three to go with a big side of uncertainty because there’s the catch – we just can’t know or predict before hand exactly what will stick with whom and when. All the same, let’s have the “to go” model in mind when we are serving up our best fare to students, colleagues, and loved ones. They will thank us. Someday.
I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.
The post helped me see what I was not seeing.
To recognize what I have been avoiding.
To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.
The post I read was “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.
The first point that got under my skin was this:
Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…
…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.
YES! Content is always at the center, of course. And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience. I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.
Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”
The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.
This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:
One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.
As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.
Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.
The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.
We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]
and then this:
Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.
That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed: I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects. That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.
I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote. Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.