[Author's note: originally posted on Classroots.org.]
I am keenly missing the #dml2013 fellowship this week. While I’m not quite writing Ignite talks that will never be heard (or drawing sad-face slides), sniffle, I am thinking a lot about how public school teachers, in particular, can make it safe for kids to participate meaningfully in their own educations. As I look forward to the videos of this year’s Ignite talks, I am also thinking back to last year’s talks. Specifically, I’m thinking of Nishant Shah’s fantastic talk on remix. (Harlem Shake = aura remix?)
As #DML2013 looks toward democratic futures, I look for democratic education and a remix of what it means to be a teacher – a remix that is a return (as Nishant might say) to the essence of teaching and learning both at once, all of us together.
I look forward to a time when we teachers remix ourselves
…from answers to questions.
Another way to put it: we should help kids find the answers to their answers. Our questions should be meant to elicit kids’ questions, not to cue “correct” answers, reward “proper” behavior, or trigger deflective behaviors that “justify” the punishments we dole out to kids. Inquiry should be our foundational pedagogy, but not our only one. Questioning our own beliefs and behaviors should come before questioning our kids. We should ask and learn to discover, not to confirm.
…from compliance to weirdness.
We should be norming classroom communities that help kids relate healthily, positively, and constructively to one another and their interests. Compliance should not be normed by consequence; engagement with learning should happen naturally when something is worth doing, and it should be creative, not coerced or conformist. We need to unpack our anxieties about how others judge us because they absolutely determine how we judge and attempt to coerce kids if we leave them unexamined. A favorite quote of mine reads, “A good teacher doesn’t have disciples, has dissidents.” I say great teachers, despite their own identity crises, let students be themselves.
…from work to play.
Asking students to complete traditional academic work is an exercise in confirmation bias. It is what the system does best to perpetuate itself. Differentiating by offering a menu of print-monopolized tasks doesn’t reflect a teacher’s regard for how kids learn. Instead, it reflects a teacher’s will to gatekeep status in the classroom. From time to time, however necessary any traditional assessment may be to us financially, we teachers need to let kids play. We need to let them organize the world through self-talk and the evolving rule-set that very nearly always emerges from play. Play is not so chaotic or unproductive as education profiteers would have us believe. In fact, we may not ever understand how a particular student processes the world, tests hypotheses, or creates meaning from learning without watching her play. Within the bounds of safety, we need to keep from managing or judging play, as well, and take it as information that teaches us to teach. If there is no safe place for open creativity in our classrooms, it is a mistake to take it for granted that students should or will take creative risks with academic work.
…from classrooms to makerspaces.
The best way to see the most kids play is to help them build a resource-rich environment. This doesn’t mean that kids need to be surrounded by expensive stuff; it just means that there needs to be a variety of media and tools for kids to use in – quite literally – constructing play, meaning, and learning. Cardboard and code. Markers and paper. Pipe-cleaners and pom-pons. Guitars and gears. Hot and cold glue. Kids understand their own play. Moreover, they understand what they make. If kids think it’s safe to play and make stuff in our classrooms, they will begin to feel safe talking about what they do. If kids talk about how and why they play, we can find entry points into asking them how they might connect play and making to the learning that we hold between us as valuable. We can make the work we share with kids more valuable to them by letting them play and make to learn. (I’m thinking of toy-hacking here and which might be more meaningful to a kid: a teacher-assigned essay explaining symbolism in a book or a teacher-invited action-figure-stuffed-animal hybrid-hack that represents the symbol and the book to the kid?)
…from scarcity to abundance.
This is so hard. When I am at my shortest with students – when I am diminished by my own knee-jerk reactions to events and behaviors that fail to meet my expectations (which are sometimes what I think others expect of me) – I go to a place of scarcity. Class has started! Get to work! Deadline this Friday! Put up the phone! We should at least know what a subordinating conjunction is! Really? Is the most powerful learning I can imagine shaped by class periods, telecom black-outs, and jargon? Of course not. But when confronted by the unexpected or even sub-optimal, my limbic system goes into fight or flight like anyone else’s. It’s just that I’ve been in school so long that my survival instincts come out as rhetorical questions about kids’ use of time. Really, though, for me, every issue and opportunity in the classroom is about my – and our – teacherly use and perception of time. It is not true that because we only have X amount of time it must be spent on purchased curricula; it is not true that kids will never get anything done at this rate; it is not true that a vision can only be achieved by first naming and quantifying its results. If we stop teaching and enacting the false scarcities of standardized schooling (and stop using the cognitive dead-end shortcuts of rote work to deliver and “cover” content), we can make class abundant with learning, possibility, community, and wonder. Once we stop saying that there isn’t time, there will be. It might fly, but it will be full of inspiring and inspired resources, work, and relationships.
Schooling isn’t sacrosanct; neither are we. What becomes sacred in the classroom is what we make to learn together with the time we have with just and due regard for who we are, who we want to be, and the communities in which we want to live.
We will only ever be initiates in our own learning, but that is better than being a master of content or kids.