#63: Let learning run freely
CC licensed Flickr image by Pink Sherbet Photography
As the dawn of a new school year approaches, I hereby pass on a few personal and professional reflections on the topic of #learning. These are no doubt inspired by educational leaders from my own schooling, watching and working with other amazing educators, the media (I am so grateful for this episode on TED radio hour on ‘Unstoppable Learning’, which speaks to me in so many ways), and my own experiences over the last decade as a teacher myself. Here they are:
Life itself is a never ending journey of learning. Amongst the daily classroom hustle, bustle, buzz and chaos, I try to genuinely look, see, hear and feel the dynamics of what is happening amongst the connections between students on a relational level; to be with them in the present moment and all that is going on amongst them as individuals within a community. From that, I try and seize as many authentic opportunities as possible to teach life lessons, and I find that spending this extra time with them on these issues, empowers all of us to be engaged in richer, more carefree, cooperative inquiry later on. It also teaches me some life lessons as well. 🙂
Don’t let the curriculum kill curiosity! As teachers, we have to follow a curriculum, and doing so can often lead us to get caught up in the need to squeeze in all the subject matter in a race against timetables, allocated subject minutes, bells, transitions and reporting deadlines. However, learning that stems from organic curiosity can enhance curriculum-related learning. One of the first activities I do on the very first day of school helps reinforce an important motto I tell my students from day one:
Learning is learning, regardless of what the topic is. If you’re interested or curious about something, we’ll find a way to explore it in addition to covering the curriculum. Let’s share in the exciting journey of learning together and inspire each other!
The activity is simple. I ask the students to anonymously write on a piece of GOOS paper, 1-3 questions they have about the world. Anything goes. We then gather in a circle, and do a ‘snowball activity’, whereby the students crumple up their papers into balls (‘snowballs’), toss them into the middle of the circle, and then, when I give them the go ahead (which I also turn into a fun game with quirky conditions that determine who gets first grabs), they grab another snowball from the middle of the circle to open up and read. It’s always exciting for them to open up their little snowball gift and discover what questions await them. We repeat the process a few times and then engage in oral discussion about everything and anything they want to know, expanding the discussion to include ‘theories’, ‘comments/opinions’, ‘questions’ and ‘what they think we already know’ about topics of interest to them. This sets the stage for intrinsic learning throughout the year.
Get to know the real them and let them know the real you. In my first year teaching, I maintained a relatively serious disposition with my students. In my mind, this equated with being a professional teacher and while I do have a serious side to myself, I have an ever present creative, carefree and goofy side to myself too. After observing my free-spirited colleague across the hall who had a great connection with her class and was regularly playing practical jokes on and with her students (and colleagues), singing, dancing and just being her unique self, I decided to work on showcasing more of the real me. This is not to say that all teachers should explore a humorous side with their students, but that we should try bringing our authentic selves through the classroom door each and every day, whatever that may be. In my second year, I succeeded in being authentically ME. I shared some of my extracurricular activities with them (salsa dancing, reading, quality time with family and friends), brought in a loud, goofy sounding clown horn (that had been hanging on the wall in my parents’ basement for years), which my students and I took turns sounding and sometimes startling each other with (not to worry, this resulted in much healthy hilarity), I regularly made cheesy jokes with them (the ones that my adult peers don’t appreciate as much as my students do), took the time to have heart-to-hearts with them when situations called for it and simply let go of trying to be a certain way with them and instead just letting myself be. I immediately noticed a positive correlation with the connectedness I felt with my students and vice versa. Many of my students, on several occasions even explicitly communicated and expressed in words, the close bond and joy their felt towards me and the class as a whole, which was rewarding beyond what words can describe. I got to know them better as individuals and there was a seamlessness between social, emotional, and cognitive learning. In other words, learning was WHOLE and our learning environment bubbled with so much more happiness, motivation and engagement. Furthermore, there was greater seamlessness between work, life and play for me too. My job was not compartmentalized from other aspects of my life; it was woven into my mission of who I am and want to be each and every day.
Guide learning. I am a huge supporter of child-centered, inquiry-based learning (n.b., some children need more direct teaching, in which case this is what should preside if it’s what suits them best). As teachers, especially elementary school teachers, our role is not to deliver content, but to guide each student as individual human beings, through their optimal social, emotional, physical and cognitive learning path. This is certainly not an easy task and there is a lot of pedagogical research behind making this happen most effectively for diverse learners, but I find it helpful to start by looking at the big picture of long term developmental goals, and then, when papers, deadlines and schedules pile up and start narrowing my vision, try and take a step back and remember that one of the best things I can offer as a teacher is being a supportive, encouraging guide in their path and let learning take its shape freely. This might mean, just putting away the unit plans and curriculum expectations and being all the more PRESENT with that child. I feel that this is a big part of real learning and real, authentic teaching.
Whether you’re a teacher or student by profession or not, we are all teachers and learners in our own way. I wish you the very best in leading and following yourself and others on a free and authentic journey of learning. 🙂