My experiences as a learner have been varied. I’ve been a victim of the notorious look up these 20 words in the dictionary, use them in a sentence and take a test on Friday. If I was really lucky I was also able to use them in a paragraph. Yes, spelling does count.
On the other hand, I have had the opportunity to take part in meaningful learning experiences that not only helped shape who I am today, but are ones that I seek to mirror for the students in my own classroom.
Learning experiences often carry a lot more power than we think. It’s easy to brush off some of the less painful ones at the moment, but the really toxic ones stick with us. It’s our job to find the good in them and rationalize our experience in an effort to better ourselves. To take that lemon and make lemonade. A lot easier said than done, especially when you are twelve.
I’ve made it no secret that my athletic prowess was virtually non existent in my middle and high school years. On particularly good days, I was able to get my mom to write an excuse note for PE, or volunteer to do extra credit by writing a report about baseball instead of actually having to play it. But my hesitation of, or better put, disdain for the class, did not surface from thin air. Some of my absolute worst learning experiences were on the field or in the gymnasium; a class that was supposed to be fun, energetic, and group oriented was basically my daily hour in the Underworld. I had one particular PE class that really put the pits of hell on my academic map. Our teacher did not really teach us how to play. He’d gruffly bellow out commands, but no real instructions were given as how to hold the bat, swing to actually hit the ball or even how to throw a basketball that made it anywhere near the vicinity of the net. No. We were told to “Play Ball.”
I was an A student in everything else. Even more so, I was THAT student who cried if I got a B. B=F. I’d stay up long into the night doing homework. No amount of effort was too much if it meant that 1) I learned something new and 2) I got an A. But this class was a whole new animal for me. I remember on days where team members would be picked by two teacher selected team captains. Students were chosen one by one, until the pack dwindled down the the very worst players, those injured, those who really didn’t care to try. And me. “You take her,” Team Captain A would say. “No, I had her last time,” Captain B retorted. At some point in the process, a compromise was made. “If you take her this time, we will take her next time.” Gee thanks guys. Meanwhile no intervention occurred on behalf of the teacher. The notion of a safe and secure learning environment that we all need to thrive was not there to say the least. Of course, then we made our way out to the field and the “games” began. When it was my turn up to bat, I remember wishing I could disappear. “Come ON. Hit it,” the kids would say. But the worst was when the teacher chimed in. “Are you even TRYING to hit it? Quit chopping trees already and hit the ball.” I guess I was a better lumberjack than a baseball player. My adolescent insecurities kicked in and I swung feverishly just to get it over with. Three wild times and the pain was over.
At the time, I thought it was MY fault. I just wasn’t athletic. I mean how hard was it really? Most of the other kids could pull it off and they actually enjoyed it. Of course in retrospect, as a teacher, an adult, (a human being with feeling and compassion), why didn’t anyone show me how? My teacher had a great teachable moment in his hands and he didn’t stop the game to demonstrate how to stand. How to hold the bat firmly in my two hands. How to swing so I wasn’t chopping trees. Instead, he told me what to do, but without that modeling or taking time to make a positive connection, he moved on to the next batter in the pack. And in doing so, left me with an even deeper loathing of sports. It’s one of the reasons I think I fell in love with running. Success looks different for everyone. I don’t have to be the fastest but I do owe it to myself to get out there. And keep trying. After three strikes, I refused to be out of the game.
On the contrary, I have also experienced many significant and positive learning opportunities that have shaped who I am. In my high school math classes, I was blessed to have a teacher that embodied all the qualities that make a great teacher. Mrs. Niimi showed us various ways to solve a problem, and always encouraged us to use the tools and strategies as learners that we felt worked best for us. There was not one way to solve or look at a problem, but rather many ways. She encouraged student participation and always asked us for questions. She’d spend a great deal of each class period just answering questions that we generated and even had other students come up to the board to show how THEY got their answers. Peers teaching peers; a community of learners all working together toward a common goal. On a very small scale it reminds me of what Erno Rubik stated in the video clip Rubik’s Cube- A question, waiting to be answered that “When the right person asks the right question, something amazing happens.” He states that, “Questions are probably more important than the answers,”(TL, 2014). This is something Mrs. Niimi knew and honored.The teaching and learning that went on in that classroom, both teacher and student as collaborative participants in the learning process: asking questions, finding various solutions to them and noting if there were any ways we missed looking at the big picture, all served as tools to make our learning meaningful, relevant, interactive and SAFE. All components of a learning environment that we must have to grow and become the best version of ourselves were present. It goes without saying I loved that class and the feeling I got when a productive struggle became a triumphant moment of success we could all take credit for.
In our weekly reading entitled Towards a New End: New Pedagogies for Deep Learning by Michael Fullen and Maria Langworthy, many connections surfaced with regard to my own learning experiences. The first aha for me came with the description of a teacher as a designer versus a deliverer of content. Teachers that resonate with students long term are the ones that encourage them to flourish, and in doing so create learning opportunities that capture their students’ attention. They design learning experiences that activate learning in partnership with their students, like Mrs. Niimi, my math teacher. The idea that “Learning is rooted in relationships and supportive relationships can unleash the potential of every student,” is so true (Fullen & Langworthy, 2013). In PE class, it didn’t matter if I was the best baseball player in the world. My teacher in that instance failed to make connections with his students, where as in math, that came first. She knew what all good teachers know:
In Will Richardson’s video The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools, he also alludes to how kids learn best and that creating conditions where learning sticks is what it’s all about.Those moments in the classroom that take into account our interests and gives us a chance to cultivate them. I remember in the 10th grade getting the opportunity to build a replica of the Globe Theatre or the amazing adventure where we were tasked with writing our own screen play and then recording it in my very own 7th grade horror movie. These moments, where school experiences and real world interests are honored and encouraged, seamlessly braided together so that one becomes the other, that is what we must strive for. We must work to change the face of education so that students, as Richardson suggests, are doing real work for real world purposes (2015). Richardson states that “Deep and powerful learning requires a personal interest in what’s being learned,” if we are going to carry that knowledge for the long haul (Richardson, 2015). He also states that right now is an amazing time to be a learner (2015). But it’s also an amazing time to be a teacher. Technological advancements give us so many options to encourage kids to learn and grow in ways I never had as a student. It’s exciting to think of the opportunities that surround us as educators when we work to reach new heights and fulfill our mission to excite and encourage our students in ways consistent with 21st century advantages. The time for greatness is now and as teachers we must never be afraid to plant our feet firmly into the ground, swing toward success on behalf of our students and get in the game. Find out what we believe and make that come to fruition so we can bench old beliefs and hit a home run in the face of new opportunities. This time, I’m ready to batter up.