What I hope I am teaching

people-31339_640Let’s face it, when we teach, we never really know for sure what we’ve accomplished. We may see or hear fairly convincing evidence of our students’ learning. But determining exactly how much or which parts of that learning are actually attributable to our daily heroic efforts remains elusive. The space between teacher teaching and sudent learning strikes me as remarkably mysterious and ultimately unknowable territory. And I think that is part of what can make teaching feel so frustrating. Teach as much as we may – we can never control the learning.

Here’s what brought me to this cluster of thoughts: Working with my 4th and 5th graders on volleyball skills. So far, the majority of my students have been having a lot of fun with this unit and also a surprising amount of success. They have a nice selection of softer, lightweight volleyballs to work with. Several show signs of previous exposure and playing experience and we’ve been working on volleyball elements in fits and starts for a couple of weeks now. So today when I asked them to make small groups and practice returning a tossed ball over the net, they learned some new things (or so they said): “That it’s harder than it looks.” and “We need to call the ball.”

The critical piece for me was in recognizing that this lesson had less to do with improving those individual skills of serving, bumping and setting and everything to do with encouraging their intrinsic desire to act – to respond to the ball – to do something and feel confident in making any attempt. And so I found myself in the middle of the gym cheering wildly for a team managing more than one hit in their return and celebrating a first hesitant bump by my currently least skilled student. I told one group: “Of course I could go around and correct you all the time, looking for proper technique – but then you wouldn’t learn how to play. I really just want you to figure out how to respond to the ball each time, because it’s always going to be different – where you are, where the ball is, where your teammates are… I want you to do something, anything…”

I am not in control of their learning and (not but) I have a great deal of influence on the conditions and context for their learning. What I hope I am teaching is that my teaching is not the point. Rather, what I actually do is set up structured opportunities for my students to practice their many skills. I provide context, material, space, time, some frameworks and my enthusiasm for each of them. What lessons they take away from those experiences are theirs entirely, not mine.

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.