The thing about learning is it is inescapably linked to the people around us.
In school, the room matters, the teacher matters, but the attitude of the people in the room matters the most. The people in the room determine how we see ourselves and therefore, defines our capabilities.
Frank Smith, in his excellent book The Book of Learning and Forgetting, agrees:
“All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.”
What this means is we need to foster community. We need to have students associate/connect/ with the achievement possible. That may be out of our hands.
I do know that we need to maintain the highest of expectations for all and we need to ensure the challenge of learning is in each of our students’ wheelhouse: just hard enough.
When students are a part of a community, they identify. They make each other see themselves as capable.
What image of capability is your learning community painting?
I have been engaged in the process of making my classes student-directed, inquiry-based communities of learning. I have worked hard to build the sense of camaraderie and ownership in the room for every student. I think it’s a process worth following.
But then, as I walked through the downtown core of my community, I see many people who are disconnected. I see people struggling to make their way through this life while social services are available, opportunities can be had, but whatever it is, they resist the feeling of community. They never feel like they belong.
Is this true of the one or two of the thirty kids in my room? Does the learning community mimic the broader community? Will there always be the marginal ones?
When classes are quantitative, students assigned to a seat and sitting in rows, they are easier to manage. Keeping track of them is normalized. When involved in a dynamic, inquiry based classroom, it’s not easy to keep track. That may be part of the struggle for teachers and why they are reluctant to “buy-in”. The management is not inherent.
Does giving up control, offering autonomy and parsing ownership provide more opportunity for the disconnected to stay disconnected? Or does it give a student a better chance to hide?
As school work moves more in the direction of connected collaboration, does this offer students more opportunity to get credit without making the demonstration?
Some top songwriters get credit for writing a song in which they’ve only polished one line. Is this happening in my open, distributed classroom?
I had this great conversation with a student the other day who has been struggling in my class. This student felt disconnected, was uninterested and proceeded to ask for “more regular English”. As this conversation continued, I asked this if they felt they were a member of the community and they said, “No. I don’t know anyone in this class.”
“How can that be? We have done so much team-building, group work and in fact, you’ve done real well on some of those projects.”
“Yeah but … these aren’t my people.”
To a certain extent, I understand. Then, on the other hand, I don’t get it. I watch this students interact with classmates and this student is fine. Not the most talkative, but not the quietest. This student, on the outside, seems connected. But, obviously, doesn’t feel it.
How am I going to connect this student with our learning community? How could I have missed this?
That said, I do take solace that this student felt comfortable coming to talk with me, though it is more than half way through the semester.
Does the nature of a student-directed, inquiry-based learning community lead to some members feeling disconnected?
I spend such a considerable amount of time building the community. It is my focus for the extent of the first day, maybe week. Even in summer school where the timelines are tight. I’ve got 32 students in this community of learners coming from the distinct cultures and learning climates of 13 different schools. To say, we are diverse is an understatment.
So we build. We connect. We compromise. We explore. We figure each other out. And eventually, we form community.
It is a noticable community. Built on ever-changing seating arrangements. Unscripted conversations, collaborative mind-mapping, presentations and more presentations.
By the end of week one, we are solid. We have a culture all our own.
And the pace quickens. Summer school is like that. We lose three members, yet we keep rolling.
By week three, it feels comfortable. But now, the end is near.
We only have three days more.
And then…it is over. The community that we’ve built must dissolve. It becomes, yet another example, of the fleeting feeling of learning.
I put so much emphasis on having a learning community and relying on them. But, I haven’t gone far enough. Because there is an aspect of learning that is solo. Personal. A place where we don’t want someone else to delve into and I haven’t spent near enough time equipped these students with this notion.
I like to ride my bike. I get on, get out to country roads and ride. Multiple hours slip past taking with it my worries and fears and enabling me to sit in the pocket of contemplation and celebration. This is the time where I can think. I write in my head. I process my fears. I allow myself to stroke my ego and then feel the burn as it is torn down by its maker.
This is all part of it. The learning community works, only if we revel in the individual. We need to take/make that time to be alone. Yet, I don’t emphasize that in class.
We won’t always have that ready-made learning community that a class provides us. We won’t always have the common, committed goal of analysis and exploration. So, are we prepared to learn on our own?
Are we preparing students to ride solo, with only their own thinking to keep them company?
A semester tied to the interwebs, with connection at our beck and call, my students talked not of Facebook and Twitter. They talked not of Google Docs and paperless classrooms. They talked not of iPads, iPods or Blackberry smartphones.
They talked of each other. They talked of the experiences of play together. They reflected on the world we had created in our little window-less room.
Many mentioned the corruption our classroom exhibited when trying to run our own nation. Many talked of the informal discussions that brewed into ideas and readings that weren’t connected to anything they thought they liked. They reflected that they could share in the learning of others.
The interaction, the community of the classroom was the most talked about phenomenon. Many said that they had never been in a classroom where they felt so close with their classmates. They praised the time they were given to get to know each other, the time they were given to challenge their ideas.
I’ll take that.
I’m happy with that feedback.
It may not have been curricular. I never assessed it. It is hardly reflected on any official documentation. But it was critical. It was essential.
For all the talk (mine too) of the changing nature of education, of learning, of our networked life, it is the community that brings us all back.
I taught in the “classroom of the future” this semester, it was student-centered. It had every gizmo and gadget a student could want and use to further their learning, and it did, but what resonated, time and again, was the people.
If today is tomorrow, community is learning.
This past weekend I ran a 30 kilometre road race. I ran the oldest road race in North America, Around the Bay.
If you know me you’ll know that I love putting myself into these endurance, suffering events, even though I am not a runner. My 220 pound frame does not let me float over the kilometres like a gazelle. Trust me, my poor knees feel every stride, but I do it nonetheless.
I have run Around the Bay three times now. Two years ago, I set my goal to run it in three hours. Nothing too fast, but a good steady pace for that distance. My first year, 2009, I wasn’t close. I ran it in 3 hours and 28 minutes. I suffered, I blamed it on my training and my inability to drop to a more efficient race weight. In 2010, I improved on my time and finished in 3 hours 12 minutes. Not bad considering my training was probably even more willy-nilly. But alas, I was short of my goal, again.
Now at this point it would be great if I could write that I saw the error in my ways and trained like a demon to improve my time and finally on the third shot did it. However, my training fell off through the deep freeze of February and although I continued running here and there, I didn’t put near the miles I needed to under my feet. But race day still arrived.
I tried to fake confidence. I tried to convince myself that my overall fitness was better, I was lighter, more mentally prepared.
And then it began…
My pace was great at the 1 km mark, and at the 5km, at the 10km, and at the 15km, even at the 20km mark I was ahead of my 6:00/km pace. I was feeling fatigued, but I told myself I was going to do it.
Then the hills came. I hurt. I struggled.
At 25 kilometres, I was drained, just in time for THE hill. The hill that breaks the spirits. I had just caught up to my wife who was running a relay, just in time, to drop into the valley and start the deadly climb up. I was exhausted. I had been fighting the road for almost 2 and a half hours. I succumbed to the negative thoughts in my head and I started to walk.
I needed to walk. I had nothing to give. ”Just until the top of the hill,” I told myself.
Out of nowhere, my wife caught up to me and started pushing me. She told me, in no uncertain terms, “You are not walking this hill. You will regret it.” So, I started chugging. After 100 metres, I started walking again. And again she came from behind and started pushing me. ”You’ll regret it if you don’t run this part, dig deep. This is what it is all about. This is the difference.”
I ran up the hill. And I ran the rest of the way to the finish line, finishing in 2 hours 59 minutes and 56 seconds. Four seconds ahead of my goal. I did it.
Now, I’m proud of my result. But the race became more profound to me.
So often we find ourselves, as educators trying to change things, alone climbing the hill. It feels like the hill we are climbing alone for better teaching, better learning experiences, and a new approach to education. Sometimes the hill does indeed break our spirits. It is exhausting. Sometimes, you want to walk the hill.
But I’m coming up from behind and I’m here trying to push you. I want to be that person who pushes you and tells you, “It’s worth it at the top.”
I need the push sometimes too.
Together, as a community of educators wholly interested in a revolution that emphasizes learning, not assessment, that requires us all to be great, not mediocre, that pursues education that is student-centred and directed, we can continue to push each other up the hill.
On those days when you want to walk the hill, I’m here. Drop me a line. Let’s push each other.
A kid stole an iPad.
From under my nose, for the March Break, it was gone. I didn’t know it was gone until I got to class Monday. It was nowhere to be found. I was panicked. I was stressed. I searched the room high and low, refusing to believe it had happened.
I asked for it back. In front of the whole class. Not because I was mad, not because I was shocked. I asked for it back because I trusted the members of my community. I refuse to live in fear and over blown distrust.
It was returned. Not explicitly, to my hands, with an apology. But it was left behind after class, hidden under a desk, where I had looked.
So now I know it was one of my students. The community that we have been building has made a misstep. I don’t know who, I could make my guesses, but alas it would be unfair. Unjust. I could succumb to the fear that too often overwhelms our sense of community and paint them all with the same brush.
But I won’t.
I was working on a blog post over the March Break about allowing teenagers to be teenagers and trusting that through all the drama and missteps, they are good. I was going to post about not expecting them to be people they are not. They are going to be caught up in trivial social drama. They are going to make bad decisions about what they write in their blogs. They are going to be late with their assignments, they are going to do all the things that teenagers do.
It is how we respond that teaches them. In fact, when we respond to their teenage ways with punishment, lectures, we reinforce their “teenaged-ness”. I’m not an expert in the psychology of teenagers, but in my experience we change nothing with the stick for the same reason we shouldn’t try to motivate with the carrot.
Even one of my students responded to the teenage actions:
“People my age get mad when adults or people of other ages put a stereotype on them. They say that not everyone is the same and I agree with that but when something like this happens and no one takes responsibility, everyone has to take some of the blame. How could you get mad over a stereotype when things like these are happening everyday?”
So, what to do?
I talk about community. I talk about our community and how these actions shape the community we are building and the community we’ve built thus far.
Can we operate in a learning environment without trust?
Does the stick mentality, despite feeling like teenagers need discipline, undermine the trust needed for community?
After an incident, misstep, bad decision, is the trust broken?
Even more important, is our community broken? How do we fix it, if it is?
An iPad is nothing, community is everything. The decision of one student, one teenager, has put the entire community at risk, so how do you respond?
I posted a Tweet in the middle of class today.
It contained an error. A grammar error. A small error, none of my students picked up on it.
My friend did though. She picked it up almost instantly. She corrected me for all my students to see.
The real story is that she corrected me instantly, from Ghana. From around the world, she was able to see what I was doing in my class and be a part of it.
It was that simple.
Anyone who tries to say that the internet and our connectedness hasn’t changed things is completely wrong.
My classroom door is open. Radically open.
The possibilities for my students are immense. They have an opportunity to stream the TED conference happening in Palm Beach live, in class. They can hear and learn from experts in the field. They can hear new ideas and witness what is happening anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, the world can be part of my class. They can ‘walk’ right in. I’m hoping to have @erinantcliffe join my class as she talks about the work she is doing in Ghana with Engineers without Borders.
For many teachers, that might be the scariest of thoughts. You never know who is watching. For me, it’s liberating. It allows my students access to the world. Connection and community.
The only thing I have to worry about is … my grammar.
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