Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Myths and Facts about School (part two)

Originally posted as a Facebook note on August 12.

I just want to make it clear up front that I am not trying to target any one person, but rather what I see as prevailing attitudes and mindsets. If this does apply to you, please do not take it personally, but rather view it as a call to approach school differently and perhaps gain more from your educational experience than you would have otherwise.

Myth: I'm a unique individual, therefore I need to learn independently.


Myth: I am in a constant state of competition against my peers (for good grades, for popularity, for the teacher's approval).

Fact: I'm a unique individual who can uniquely challenge and be challenged, encourage and be encouraged by others working together in a group setting.

Learning is an inescapably social experience. Think about how you learned to walk and talk so many years ago--did you do it by sitting alone in your crib reading book after book about walking and reading? No, because you didn't even know how to read! We learn those basic skills by watching our parents, siblings and others and as we gradually break the process down and attach meaning to each step, we become more comfortable trying it out for ourselves: taking that first wobbling step, trying to say the word "daddy" or "bottle". Do we do it perfectly the first time? Nope. But we keep watching, keep trying and eventually we become comfortable with those skills to the point that they are second nature. Learning in school is much the same. We need our peers and we need our teachers. Our teachers function in a similar capacity to the role that our parents played as we learned how to walk--our teachers model for us a whole variety of skills. I, for example, am very intentional about volume, speed, eye contact, and gestures as I talk to my class because I want to constantly model effective presentation skills. And, just as parents offer a helping hand and encouragement to their child as they start to walk, so teachers must offer guidance, encouragement and ample opportunities for practice in school. When a child falls over, the parent doesn't laugh and then walk away as the child cries and struggles to stand up again--the parent helps the child up and allows them to try again. That's my calling as a teacher--to be patient and offer an endless supply of encouragement and support (while at the same time not being a crutch--the child will never learn to walk if the parent carries them everywhere).

However, school isn't just a student watching the teacher--we're surrounded by classmates! Each student has a unique personality and a special set of gifts and abilities. In short, each student offers something to the classroom environment that their peers do not, but in isolation, those gifts and abilities will only take the student so far. Students need their classmates, regardless of whether or not they are friends with their classmates, even regardless of whether or not they like their classmates. A perfect illustration of the necessity of a healthy group dynamic comes with peer editing: the fact is, when we write an essay, no matter how many times we reread it or try to edit it ourselves, we are going to miss mistakes that we've made and overlook problems with our content. If we give our essays to a few other students and together we discuss the essay, we'll find out right away what the others liked (validating our strengths), what wasn't clear, what we should do differently... and this causes a ripple effect as the classmates who read our essay begin to think of ideas for their own essay based on what they observed in yours--perhaps something that they would like to try with the style, or organization, or a mistake that they caught in yours that they now know to avoid. We bring each other up by working together. And this isn't just true of peer-editing, but think of any classroom activity: discussions, presentations, simulations... we make progress based on the comments, feedback and questions from our classmates.

This simply can't work if we view the classroom as a hostile environment or even a competitive environment. Competition has its place, and can be used well, but only as a tool and only occasionally--if a spirit of competition pervades the atmosphere of a class, the first thought will not be how to encourage or support our classmates, but how to put ourselves ahead (or even how to belittle or sabotage others). The classroom needs to be a safe and trusting environment so that students can reach beyond themselves and take risks without fear of being scorned or laughed at (which are the primary reasons we don't take risks in school--our sense of failure is largely dictated by how we feel others will respond to our messing up. You take that fear out of the equation and things change very quickly). I know from experience that a classroom environment can have that level of trust--one class that I taught last year came to view themselves as a family, and that feeling still persists even months after the course ended. Did that mean that cliques evaporated and everyone hung out all the time outside of school? No, but it did mean that students felt safe bouncing ideas off of each other and especially delivering presentations in front of each other. This isn't radical or next-to-impossible: This is how every classroom should be. I challenge you, my future students, to appreciate your classmates and the value that they have to your learning experience and to come into the school year ready to love, encourage and support. There's no other way to do it right.

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