This week I had the opportunity to join four ROHS students at the 7th Annual Oakland County Diversity Forum. The awesome Jay Marks led the workshop. It was an interesting format. Students worked on their action projects in one room and the adults, a group made up of teachers and administrators, worked on developing understanding of social justice or extending their/our knowledge in another room.
Even though I have been to multiple Mark’s workshops I always seem to get something new and different out of them. Maybe this is because I always walk into these sessions with an open-mind? Nonetheless, my perspective changes slightly based on the people I’m grouped with. I learn something new and see something I didn’t before and that to me is the BEST part of these workshops.
This time I walked away with a better understanding of the concept of space. Literal and figurative space. How can we give our students space in order to grow? Sometimes they need us to provide a physical space for them. A safe space to feel, be, and express themselves in the way in which they feel comfortable. Sometimes we as adults need to step back and give them space to lead. This took me some time to learn as an educator, but it's something I still have to continually work on.
When I first started teaching I would make feeble attempts to start discussions. I would ask questions and instead of giving that “teacher wait time” I filled the silence with my own voice. Preaching to the students thoughts and ideas I had. Telling them instead of teaching them. Leading them to ideas instead of having them construct ideas. The classroom was the kingdom and I was the ruler. Maybe 'teaching wisdom' comes with age. I'm not sure, but I started to get more comfortable with not being the one in the front. I started encouraging students to take the lead.
As I worked in a studio classroom I developed a better understanding of teaching. There is just something different about a Visual Arts room that really caters to small group and self-directed learning. I started to hone my style of teaching. Then my world was rocked a bit when I was moved to the high school. Now I was teaching 32 students that were sucked into a computer screen. Rich discussions were hard. Pulling their interest away from their screens was almost impossible. Students would ask questions on how to do something that I literally JUST went over. How is that possible?! It became easy to tell them how to do something and give them the quick answer. I got into that telling slump. I, again, filled the space.
So when they started to continually asking the same questions the next day and the next, and the next... I knew something had to change. It was an easy fix in the moment, but long term, they weren't really learning in the ways I wanted them to and the ways they needed to. Sometimes what’s easy isn’t always right and what’s right isn’t always easy.
"Sometimes what's easy isn't always right and what's right isn't always easy."
It wasn’t until I took a class with professor Tessmer that I developed an understanding of the socratic method of questioning. I would ask him a question and he would ask me a question. It was strange and frustrating. I wanted an answer! More importantly, I wanted him to tell me the answer. I needed an answer... but what I got was so much more. With every question he asked, I started thinking more because he challenged me to do more. I used this strategy back in my own classroom. What did I find? That it was super easy of course! Or not... Nope, not at all. However, again... what is right isn't always easy...
When students asked questions, I didn't provide instant answers. I would ask them questions back. Leading them back to concepts we discussed in class. I was met with, "Why can't you just teach me!" and I replied, "I am teaching you. We are learning right now." : ] Eventually a routine was set. A culture was set. Students knew that they were not going to instantly get answers. They were going to think about their process. They had to review activities, research answers and *gasp* talk to their peers. Some resiliency was developed. Problem-solving skills were honed. Students started to become knowledgeable through their thinking process and they developed an understanding of how they learned best. They were developing and so was I.
Now, in this new role, I have to re-evaluate what space looks like. It's not the classroom space I am focusing on. It's space given for student voice. Giving students the opportunity to have a voice and be able to take action. This seems like a much more challenging task and one in which I am happy to meet head on.
At the workshop, Jay said that the best leaders are the ones that work in the background. The ones that provide space, support and sometimes facilitate. The people that have the ability to quiet their own voice in order to give others (our students) the opportunity to rise. Honestly, this is where I feel the most comfortable. I realized early on how important it was to not only figuratively give students space, but physically.
When we reconvened together in the workshop from being separated all morning I found the students fueled by the energy of the other students in the room. We joined the students as they finished the planning for their action project. As I sat at the table I noticed that the group of students kept looking at me asking me, "What do you think?" and a lot of pauses. They were waiting for me to tell them it was right or wrong - wanting me to guide their student project. They were so sure of their ideas when I was not there, but very critical when I was present. They wanted someone to say ok and take the lead. This is when physical space starts to be important and stepping into the background is necessary. So, I excused myself from the table to let them finish up. They didn't need me. They need us (MG) to empower them to make differences and to not stand in their way. The adults in the room came to the realization earlier that morning, that the students are far ahead of us and WE are the ones that need to catch up.
"The students are far ahead of us and WE are the ones that need to catch up."
This is the lesson I learned this week. I learned that sometimes we have to get out of the way. Sometimes our role is to be in the background. Sometimes we need to let good ideas flow. Sometimes it's an easy yes that lifts the barriers. And sometimes... we need to give students space.
I recently read a blog post about a 'one sentence lesson plan' (more on this in a moment) that made me think of my first teacher planner. When I first started teaching I had this really cool planner. I had plans to write in it every day. I was a reeeeal teacher now. I made good efforts to write down all of my lessons and activities. I thought I was doing awesome because I was planned and uber organized. I loved it. It felt nice. I relied on that planner, depending on it to guide me in my direction for the day/week. However, something weird happened... I started feeling trapped by the planner and found myself saying, "we don't have time for this or that..." I had self imposed due dates and couldn't easily deviate from my plan because I really liked it nice and neat. The pages and the class... However, after ten years in, I know that teaching is messy and unpredictable. Not everything fits in a little box. Students included. There's a lot of unexpected occurrences that happen daily. For example, the unexpected discussions. Sure, it's not in my planner- but it's super awesome when it really happens. Sometimes you can't plan for great things - they just happen.
After some reflection I started to change it up. I went to a digital planner and thought I could move things around more easily if my plans changed. Cool. Did that help? Nope. Same story. Different planner.
So after I moved to the high school and was tasked with creating curriculum from the ground up... my planning changed. Writing curriculum with very broad standards seems like an awesome freedom, doesn't it? There's no step by step guide and no definitive categories. Not only do you have to create all of your resources, lessons and activities, you also have to engage students. No pressure there. :)
When I first started writing curriculum I always envisioned where I wanted my students to be, what skills I wanted them to have and what their project outcomes may look like. I would section it up and make sure skills and concepts overlapped. I had to know what the end looked like to work toward the beginning. The beautiful backward design. An oldie but a goodie. It forces you to really know what you want from students. Define it in a way that is goal oriented. It's so simple that sometimes I think we forget about it. I actually forget I even do it because I'm so practiced in it. Now, instead of seeing things through just a projects lens, I am constantly thinking about how I can make sure to weave in skills that will help students when they leave ROHS. I also try to connect what we are talking about or working on to a larger concept or idea. Sometimes I think students only think as far as we give them space to, and I want to make sure I give them infinite space.
After creating a curriculum built on what I really want from my students in the very end, I found I became more flexible in my day to day expectations of myself and my students. I plan a day at a time and it's always based around where we left off the previous day. I am very aware of where I want my students to be and that there is some looming expiration time over my head... but somehow I always seem to hit that date and it all comes together.
The one sentence lesson plan made me think about being flexible and reminded me that knowing the why is the most important piece. Norman Eng's makes the one sentence lesson plan super simple. It addresses the WHAT, HOW and WHY.
I love this because it keeps it simple and really focuses in on the true pieces of a lesson. I'm all about the WHY. When I considered taking my current job, I had to do a lot of thinking about why I would want to accept a position that took me outside of the classroom that I loved so much. I had to come up with goals and a vision of how I saw this position 10 years down the road. I not only had to see it, I had to get other people to see it as well.
I used Simon Sinek's Ted Talk concept (I love Simon Sinek!) again in a different way when talking with MACUL attendees about flexible active learning spaces. Ultimately, they needed to know why they were going to make this switch. Was it to keep their jobs? Get new furniture? Attract more students to certain spaces? Etc. It didn't matter what it was, but they needed to know why they were going to do it and then develop goals to hit, to meet their own why.
I find when you know the WHY, you then are more passionate about your work because you truly believe in it. I would say that the same rings true for our students. When they know why they are doing something, they are more passionate (maybe a strong word) about what they are doing in the classroom. The hope is that they will get to a point where they truly believe in what they are doing and are passionate about their work (inside and outside of the classroom).
So, let me challenge you to think about the WHY next time you are planning a lesson, taking another job, making a move, changing the status quo, etc. Know the why and plan with the end in mind, but know it's not always going to be nice and neat. Such is life. :)