Reflection & Recapturing the Adventure in Learning (Part Two)

I’m not the most patient person on the planet, and like my URL suggests, I tend to cannonball.  My first few attempts were belly flops, but eventually I landed on an important realization…

Act Two:

Our Exploring Education class wrapped up quickly–too quickly, really.  School change takes root ever so slowly, and one semester was barely enough time to nudge our ideas into decision makers’ minds.  Following our students’ presentations to decision makers during which they shared their ideas, supporting research, and calls for change, we struggled to close with meaningful reflection and celebrate at the same time.  

The rushed experience highlighted for me the need for more flexible time in our schedules.

The ideal time to reflect on their presentations would have been immediately following them, and yet they rushed off to lunch and the rest of their day.  We attempted to unearth the residual excitement two days later at our next class, but the energy had left us and it felt disconnected despite our best attempts. Yet another example of the dissonance felt when a new model of learning is placed within traditional structures.  

Thankfully, our students continue to be passionate about their ideas.  They want to see change as badly as we do, and school change efforts move far too slowly for their young lives.  In motion are plans to completely remake one classroom with flexible seating, stand-up desks, LED lighting, and a fresh coat of paint, as well as grant applications to revamp all of our English rooms with new lighting.  In addition, two of our high school Science teachers–Amber Carbine-March and Kim Hoffman–were awarded a Rowland grant to introduce EPIC (Educational Path I Choose) Academy–a project-based learning model where students can opt into an immersive learning experience for nine-week rotations through the year.  In conjunction with this work, there is movement toward revamping our research lab space into one that supports independent, project-based learning–a perfect marriage between two of our groups’ visions.  

Jake & Ezra share their vision for a space to foster project-based learning.

With the realities of assessment pushing against the time we have with students, our push to balance time constraints with the need for meaningful reflection that sheds light on true learning remains a challenge.    

Act Three:

What I’ve realized this year in taking this deep dive into personalization is that

it is absolutely imperative to embrace self-reflection as the primary means of assessment in this new learning model.    

When I consider any meaningful learning experience I have had since leaving high school, the lessons came from deep reflection on experience.  If we seek to measure students’ understanding, that must be done through reflection, and clearly, we must be intentional in the teaching of it.  My sense is that it’s about asking questions repeatedly, looking at strong examples of reflection and dissecting them for meaning, and modeling. In short, good teaching.

In Learning: A Sense-maker’s Guide, Chris Watkins includes a chapter on “Helping Learners Make Sense of Their Learning,” in which he explains “four classroom practices that help learners:  notice learning, have conversations about learning, reflection, and finally making learning an object of learning” (28-29). Each builds upon the previous practice, and I noticed this exact pattern in our class.  Although I initially set out to help students reflect, I found that they were much more successful after we asked them specific questions about their learning.  Watkins purports that we should stop students when they are “in the flow” and ask them to notice how they are learning–another practice that would take plenty of un-learning, but would very likely result in deep metacognition.  I found myself coaching during our writing sessions, reading initial responses, discussing the why and probing for deeper thinking, and encouraging students to truly reflect. They didn’t like it so much–it’s not easy, it’s not a box to be filled in–but it’s worth it.

Production Team:

As Vermonters, we were given the gift of Act 77 to mandate change in our education system though our interpretation and implementation of that is left to local control.  I’ve seen numerous changes fail at our school because we lacked the systems and structures to support them regardless of how well-intentioned they were. In the Heath brothers’ genius book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the authors emphasize three important elements of making meaningful change stick: direct the rider (that is, build on your bright spots and make it clear where you’re headed), motivate the elephant (that is, make explicit the why of the change and then break it into small steps), and shape the path (that is, make it easy to switch and to build new habits).  Reworking the school schedule is the type of system change that has the potential to shift practice, and I’m looking forward to the changes our school has made with personalization in mind.  You make time for what you value, and schedules are a clear demonstration of that. Indeed, in this new school year, we have scheduled long blocks four days per week (all fixed days) with short blocks on Fridays.  I see great potential for Fridays as reflection day–a chance to think about what’s been accomplished over the week, what it means in the larger context, and how it might inform next steps.  

How might we encourage teachers to use this time to allow for student reflection?  I’m thinking there are two key elements: first, to model the importance of reflection with a deep dive into teachers’ own personalized learning plans (PLP’S) and second, to provide resources for encouraging, teaching, and assessing thoughtful reflection.  Katie Martin, author of Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius offers this thought:

“Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, but part of being a professional is working to meet the goals and expectations of the larger system.  If we wouldn’t allow our students to opt out of learning or trying something new, why is it okay for educators? More importantly, as educators, we should be modeling and sharing our learning, not just telling others to do it.”

Martin, Katie. Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius. IMPress, 2018 (239).

If we are requiring our students to create personalized learning plans complete with reflection, and requiring teachers to establish yearly goals and reflect on them, why are we not requiring teachers to use the same process we create for our students?  What better way to empathize with our students’ plight? And what better way to understand how we must make time for reflection during our classes if it is to be meaningful? I envision students helping teachers set up online PLP’s, suddenly in the role of expert as they share their struggles with platforms, with the time they didn’t have to document their learning, with the lack of reflection.  Goosebumps, right? (Or is that terror at the thought of creating one of these plans? Interesting…)

Does the thought of creating your own PLP terrify you?

The second element to encouraging teachers to use Fridays for reflection is to provide the resources necessary to make it worthwhile.  Here, a list to start:

WHY?

  • AMLE’s Student Reflection: A Tool for Growth & Development (Originally designed to garner student feedback on her teaching, Brooke Eisenbach discovered deeper learning in the 10-15 minutes she allotted each Friday for student reflection: “An activity intended to suit my own instructional needs became an activity that inspired connection, openness, diversity, metacognition, and sense of community for my students.”)

HOW?

  • Reflection Prompts, Journal Ideas, and Creative Reflection Methods compiled by Mark J. Jackson for the Service and Learning Leadership Team at Trinity Lutheran College (Helps frame reflection in a “What? So What? Now What?” fashion–concrete, attainable, and effective.)
  • 40 Reflection Questions from Edutopia (Arranged into four categories: backward looking, forward looking, inward looking and outward looking, Edutopia provides  a slew of different questions to jumpstart reflective thinking.)
  • R is for REAL Reflection by Tarrant’s Life LeGeros (The REAL framework is reflective and built on student engagement.  Incredibly helpful links in this article as well as ideas for taking reflection off the page and allowing students to speak their truth–literally.)
  • 3 Ways to Use Flipgrid for Reflection by Tarrant’s Scott Thompson (There’s a reason the #Flipgridfever hashtag exists.  It’s a thing. Better, it’s a REFLECTIVE thing.  And, it’s fun.)
  • Ideas for creative reflection in the form of metaphor: Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom by Dan Ryder & Amy Burvall (book & website) (This book should sit on every teacher’s shelf, dog-eared, highlighted, and pulled off weekly for fun activities to engage students in deeper learning and reflection by tapping into their creativity and exercising their playful abstract minds through metaphorical thinking.)
  • Allison Zmuda’s Learning Personalized website (If you’re deep into personalized learning and haven’t yet heard of Allison Zmuda, get your head out of the sand and check out her work.  This post from 4th grader Ava Strauss will warm your heart and convince you of the power of student reflection.)  

Last, a couple of resources from our class, should you choose to embark on a similar crusade:

  • Exploring Education blog (my class’s blog–examples of reflective writing and thinking about our process.  Hopefully you’ll see some growth.)
  • Our Exploring Education course description (Feel free to use this as inspiration to create your own course that leverages the power of student voice to move change forward in your school)
Image: Simon Migaj (Unsplash)

Learning feels like an adventure when students can dive into their curiosities and explore with abandon.  When we help them along the way by constantly questioning the why, we encourage them to notice how they’re learning and in turn how they will succeed in future ventures.  It’s common knowledge that most students enter elementary school full of curiosity and wonder and leave high school with it tucked neatly away in a small, forgotten place.  

Let’s recapture the adventure with them and reflect on the glory of learning!

Reflection & Recapturing the Adventure in Learning (Part One)

Image: The Principal of Change, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset

Setting the stage:

Three years ago, I set out to recapture the adventure in learning through a Rowland Fellowship.  I embarked on an amazing journey of discovery–visiting innovative schools, attending conferences with innovative educators, and embracing innovation as a matter of course.  Three years later, I’m still chasing adventure, working to encourage and implement the innovation I saw elsewhere into our small Vermont school. It’s been a slow process. Personalizing learning takes time, among other resources difficult to come by.  Still, I’m inspired by the hard work taking shape.

With each day I teach over the two decades I have already logged, I am reminded that

teaching is a practice that must continually be improved.  

This year, I practiced in the role of technology integrationist for Lamoille Union, a 7-12 school in Hyde Park, Vermont. In addition, I co-taught two classes: a semester-long course called Exploring Education (with my colleague, Pat LaClair) and another semester-long business start-ups course (with my colleague Bob Fredette).  Both classes had small enrollments of students (cannonballers like myself) in grades 9-12 who took a chance on a new way of doing things.  

Act One:

I dove deep into personalization this fall in Exploring Education. Our small group of seven students in grades 9-12 rolled up their sleeves and worked to make change at our school through the open PBL (project-based learning) structure of our class.  Over the course of the semester, and through a lot of research, our students decided on three main focus areas: flexible learning spaces, project-based learning, and revamping our proficiency based graduation requirements.

“Pretty much our entire class was just based off of how you wanted to learn and what you wanted to learn…It was really fun.”

The essence of the class was this: choose something you’d like to change at our school; create a presentation, and pitch it to decision makers.  Once our students chose an area on which to focus (a feat in and of itself), they did just that. They presented their pitches in January to our superintendent, director of curriculum, high school and middle school principals, two department chairs, and two guidance counselors.  

Backstage:

With each passing class, Pat and I struggled to find the best means to assess our students’ learning.  Did we really need to assign a grade to a design thinking challenge?  It felt as though that grade would somehow cheapen the experience.  

Eventually we came to the conclusion that meaningful reflection was the only logical answer.

We asked our students to consider these questions and craft a response.  Although we read them, we never graded the students’ responses. They remain in our Schoology course with the blaring blue “needs grading” flag beneath each student’s name.  And we never graded them because they were shallow. They were curt replies to our attempts to deepen understanding through what we thought were probing questions. However, from conversations with our students, I knew the writing didn’t accurately represent what they had learned.  And I started to wonder…

In retrospect, I can clearly see the disconnect between traditional grading and assessing project work.   Two of our nine students were on a traditional grading system, and the other five were on our new proficiency system.  In our minds, we had adopted the proficiency philosophy, and our discussions about how to translate an “emerging” grade into something between 1-100 shone a spotlight on the arbitrary nature of traditional grading.  For us, we felt that it was perfectly suitable to simply say that everyone was progressing. That said, it was clear to me that our students didn’t fully understand how to engage in the process of reflection.

I envisioned something similar to how this 4th grader reflected on her learning experience.  Was it too much to ask high school students to think about why they thought the way they did?  Was metacognition out of reach? Believing that more practice would help, we asked that our students reflect often on their experiences–from empathy interviews to school visits–and they still struggled.  We finally pared down and simplified our approach; we asked a few focused questions and drilled the WHY, and we started to see success. How do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way about it? What does that lead you to think about?  Why? Why? Why? We had to embrace our inner toddlers. We realized that there is so much UN-learning that must happen around quick answers and shallow thinking, and that takes time. Here, a great example to illustrate that idea:

The Backwards Brain Bicycle: Adventures in Unlearning & Relearning

In Handbook for Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools, Murphy, Redding, and Twyman discuss metacognitive competencies (one of which involves “evaluating one’s own behavior” (23).  The authors call attention to the fact that it takes “a period of years” to adequately teach these types of skills (23).

In short, I needed patience.

What’s in a name? That which we call personalized learning…

doesn’t smell so sweet.  I battled a serious case of heartburn reading this recent NPR article by Anya Kamenetz parsing out the different definitions of “personalized learning.”   Take a look:

“In fact, in speaking about [personalized learning] with more than a dozen educators, technologists, innovation experts and researchers, I’ve developed a theory: “Personalized learning” has become a Janus-faced word, with at least two meanings in tension:

The use of software to allow each student to proceed through a pre-determined body of knowledge, most often math, at his or her own pace.

A whole new way of doing school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students set their own goals. They work both independently and together on projects that match their interests, while adults facilitate and invest in getting to know each student one-on-one, both their strengths and their challenges.

Which vision of personalization will prevail? Pace alone, or “Personalize it all”? And what proportion of the hype will be realized?”

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

OH MY GAWD, LET IT BE NUMBER 2!!!

I spent last year engaged in a deep dive through an experience aptly named Learning Lab looking at this very question: what exactly is personalized learning?  With a group of incredibly talented educators, I grappled with an inquiry question around the importance of reflection in this new type of learning, attempting to refine my own definition. 

Lessons learned in stepping back: personalization in two student-centered classes (Business Start-ups & Exploring Education)

Still working on it.

Learning Lab 2.0 has launched with a new cohort looking at the same overarching theme, and diving into their own inquiries.  The range of questions is broad, but personalization in every context has a few things in common:

  • student voice and choice are paramount
  • students are partners
  • teachers act as guides, encouraging and inspiring, providing feedback and probing questions 

Part of my issue with Kamenetz’s article comes in this quote:

“At the beginning of a fad there’s a naming problem,”Rich Halverson says. He’s an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent the last few years traveling around the country to see personalized learning in action at public schools.

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

FAD??  

Come on!  Shifting practice so students drive the learning??  That’s a fad?  You understand the heartburn.  I hope.  If not, here’s my point about the danger: we have to get on the same page about what works for students.  The first definition offered (tech-driven pace-focused learning in front of a screen) can’t be seen as a solution.  Maybe it’s a part of a much larger whole, but when people make sweeping assumptions about a model like this as a solution to what ails public education, you get this.  Instead, let’s come to terms with the fact that students deserve a nuanced definition of personalized learning that always puts them at the center.  Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman’s definition is one I prefer: 

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.

Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

I love the idea of “progressively” student-driven, as it acknowledges that students do need some guidance; however, it suggests that students will eventually become capable of driving the ship themselves.  

If you haven’t seen Kallick and Zmuda’s Personalized Learning Sound Board yet, it’s a great metaphor for the mixing we must do as educators to find just the right balance for our students: 

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. “Orchestrating the Move to Student-Driven Learning.” Educational Leadership, vol. 74, no. 6, Mar. 2017, pp. 53–57., doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

Let’s acknowledge that we are professionals who understand that traditional teaching methods are not serving the needs of our students today.  However, the shift to update isn’t a simple answer but demands we consider the humans at the center of our profession.  The definition of personalized learning is as nuanced, multi-faceted and intricate as the students themselves, and that is as it should be.

Creativity: the cure to “you don’t know what you don’t know”

You don’t know what you don’t know.  And ignorance is not necessarily bliss.  How do we encourage our students (and even ourselves) to push past this block and discover what lies beyond?  

I visited NuVu yesterday for their Student Exhibition Night and was blown away by the young people whose excitement, passion, and willingness to talk about the design process was exquisite.  They spoke about projects they had developed–like a mechanism to help seniors stand up (as opposed to rocking back and forth in hopes of creating momentum to propel oneself out of a chair).  They shared stunning wearable art designed in collaboration with Heidi Latsky Dance–a company who celebrates diversity in its members–both disabled and not.  They created a Door Bot that opens doors for those bound to wheelchairs. 

In short, I was impressed.  The real bang came the next day, though, when I was able to chat with three girls involved in the designing of costumes for the dance company.  One student was from a public school and one from a private–two girls who had clearly developed a friendship through their work together.  We spoke about the transition to NuVu, and what challenges they faced.  Here’s what they told me:

“We just had to figure it out.”

“Coaches would lead us in a studio for a few hours and then they’d say, ‘Okay, now go do it.’ and we were like,’What?! I don’t know how to do that…”  And here’s the beauty:

the coaches didn’t tell them.

Crazy, right?!  How many times do your kids pester you for answers and  you finally give in and tell them just because it’s easier or you don’t want to listen to them whine anymore?  (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)

But that’s not happening at NuVu.  Students are figuring shit out.  And they’re designing prosthetic hands, interactive clothing that celebrates and brings attention to those lost to police brutality, interactive marketing tools…

Knowing my own tendency to “over help” and thereby cut off at the knees my own kids’ persistence, I pushed on this idea.  I wondered how they retrained their brains to adopt a new sort of thinking.  “What did you do when you were asked to brainstorm in a studio?”  The girls laughed, recalling their first studio where they would throw out an idea followed by an immediate discrediting–“oh, that will never work…”  They identified how short-sighted and self-limiting they had been, and how long it took them to develop the skill to think big, to dream the impossible in order to scale it to possible.

This is the beauty of design thinking, and why I think we need to embrace it regularly in our classrooms.  Being brave enough to dream the impossible, to share it with a group, and discuss how it might one day become something…that’s the magic of learning.  When we are so afraid to fail all the time, how might we redirect?  Might we start with our old habits of self-limiting narratives, and push past them to something else?

Authentic project-based learning (like what’s outlined in the Buck Institute’s HQPBL framework) is one way forward.  

If we want to graduate creative students who demonstrate skills, are truly lifelong learners, and persist as a matter of course, project-based learning is a clear path toward exactly that.  

If you’re not sure, take Sinek’s advice and step outside your box for a few minutes before you return to your classroom.

Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.

IMG_6425

I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.

 

In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 8.31.18 PM

Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.

 

 

Spirit animals & the power of reflection

While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL!  No, really.  It’s SQUIRREL!  It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses.  Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next.  I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact.  I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.

anthony-intraversato-445591-unsplash
Look at this guy…so ready to go get ’em!  Photo: Anthony Intraversato

All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection.  I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect.  Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?!  Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:

“We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.”

He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay.  I believe this.  Reflection is important.  And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect.  (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.)  While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect.  We failed.  Often.  We started by asking thought-provoking questions.  We shared examples.  We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY?  Why did they feel this way?  While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:

1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.

2. we need to vary our approach.

How might we do that?  Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by  Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall.  The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection.  In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply.  With Legos.  And Oreos.  Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:

That toilet?  Come on!  Brilliant.  We had two minutes and an Oreo.  Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation.  It’s metaphorical, right?  And metacognitive.  It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit.  While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection.  With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.

Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.”  It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!

Dan & Amy’s book can be found on Amazon.

Confessions of a first-year teacher (20 years later)

jeremie-cremer-4419 Jérémie Crémer

I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,

but instead, I landed my first teaching job.

I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me.  I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed.  These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day.  Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.

In short, they ate me alive.  But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face.  I blend easily with a crew of high school students.  But at 22, I didn’t want to blend.  I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?

Traditional classroom
Okay, maybe it wasn’t this bad.  But you see how clear the roles are??

So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description).  I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.

I wasn’t fooling anyone.  Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it.  They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them.  In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t.  I asserted that I had high expectations.

Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed.  So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students.  I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not.  I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn.  The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat.  I wasn’t even in the same sea.

To those students, I want to say I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.

missedop

It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year.  Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly.  I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.

Through these small risks, I built relationships.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.

Adversity is a teacher in and of itself.  The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm.  How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester.  I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up.  But I can’t.  What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now.  I invest in relationships with them.  I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it.  I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning.  I get it now.  I’m pretty sure.