The Mistakes That Define Us

We have a problem with mistakes–

a problem with imperfection.

We yearn to avoid making mistakes; and we strive

to stop their stench from defining us.

 

We’re told to learn from mistakes–

to turn them into a positive.

But within that message, lies two contradictory nodes of logic.

In order to define ourselves by the lessons we’ve learned,

we must define those lessons, in part,

by the mistakes we’ve made.

In order to define this current iteration of ourselves,

 

we must build upon a mistake,

accept and own it as part of our history,

and use it as just another brick in the construction of our lives.

 

In order to learn, we must let our mistakes define us,

and not for the purpose of

dwelling

or

regret.

Rather, we can use our mistakes to show

That we have the capacity

To grow.

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Taking the Time to Listen

My voice has been quiet for the last two weeks or so, but my mind certainly has not been.  It’s funny.  Writer’s block is usually trying to tell you something, and I used to think that it was trying to get me to be more vulnerable, that it was trying to get me to open up, but it turns out that this time, that wasn’t quite the case.  In fact, this time, it was radically different.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 9.20.58 PMIt was trying to get me to listen.  And listen is what I did.  

Anyone who knows me well understands that I am a pretty vocal person, and they’d actually probably tell you that’s a drastic understatement.  I like to share my opinions, I like to be the dissonant voice, and I like to make others think critically about their decisions, but the bad side of that can sometimes be that it impairs my ability to truly listen.  I think this shortcoming of mine can even go so far as to affect my ability to teach.

We’ve been trained to believe that teaching is a prescriptive process — one where the teacher must be the all-knowing being in the classroom.  We’ve been trained to believe that if we know all of the best practices and the latest tools, that it will be simple to teach any child anything — that it will be easy to help them learn.  But what we don’t always realize, or maybe what sometimes gets pushed into the back of our minds, is that children are hardwired to learn. They’re hardwired to be curious, and by only telling — and meanwhile, rarely listening — we lose the ability to truly get to know our students, and we rob them of the ability to truly be empowered by their own thoughts and ways of being.

And so the past couple weeks, I’ve taken time to listen.

Sure, I’ve always believed that students want to feel seen and heard, and I’ve made sure to make listening and hearing my students a priority.  However, I’ve never done it to this level before.  I’ve never taken it so far as to sit back and merely document interactions and learning.

My first opportunity for this was with the “archaeological dig” that took place in my classroom, intending to give students the ability to observe, infer, and ask questions about artifacts they “found” in this dig.  Buried in plastic containers of moonsand, my teaching partner placed artifacts such as fake tools and animal bones to help give students clues and write a story for an ancient civilization.  It trained their brains to assimilate these artifacts into the context of their respective knowledge bases and into the context of their imaginations.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 9.21.18 PM“I found wood!” one student said.

“No, it’s a bone,” another replied.

“I found another thing!” the exchange continued.

As I watched these moments unfold, I learned not only about student misconceptions, but also about the depth of my students’ background knowledge and the way in which they perceive the world’s workings.  This pair, in particular, was convinced that wood, sunflower seeds, shells, and a cloth were representative of African civilizations.

“Wait, but there’s ashes,” the first student said again.  “I think it might be Pompeii.”

And just like that, my teaching partner and I were able to watch as this student’s thinking rapidly changed.  We were both fascinated by the fact that only one object could change the entire landscape of his conclusions, shifting him across continents and changing his perception.  But that was the magic of the lesson:  There were no rules, no consequences for right or wrong answers, and the only learning outcomes were curiosity, inquiry, and drawing conclusions.  But most of all, the time I designated to simply sit back and listen taught me something about teaching.

Sometimes, it isn’t our job to prescribe objectives, and really it is never our job to do our students’ thinking for them.  We need not tell, and we need not preach.  Instead, we can truly “teach”  by sitting back, provoking learning, and simply listening.

And with that time, our students can tell us more about themselves than we could ever manage to figure out on our own.

Teachable Moments: Letting Students Drive Your Lesson

In my first year teaching, I was quite possibly even more anal retentive than I am now.  In fact, right before I moved to California, I pulled out my old plan books, simply to reminisce on my first four years as a teacher.  I wanted to see what I was like just four years prior, so I could reflect on what I’d learned over the course of those four years.  It’s funny — we don’t always realize how much we’ve grown until we give ourselves the opportunity to actually see ourselves from the past.  I can even see it in pictures from just a year ago.  Many times, the differences are startling.

I sat in my old classroom alone and pulled out my plan book, a flimsy square of paper with a thin spring for binding, tearing apart at its extremities from all the stress, wear, and tear from my first year of teaching.  The first page screamed an eagerness for perfection, an unwillingness to release any of responsibility.  Instead, the meticulous plans, so beautifully crafted in cursive, filled every line on the page (And there were a lot of lines!) and represented my methodical need to plan each of the stimuli and the subsequent lessons that would follow.  But I soon realized, as many teachers do, that my methodical planning would not do me justice.

Sure, it helped me plan.  But it wouldn’t help me teach.

Of course, there’s a balance in everything.  I’d never recommend going into the classroom wholly unplanned.  I’ve done it before, and while on the rare occasion, it might work out, on many occasions, it doesn’t work out at all.  Even an experience that is student-driven requires knowledge of the resources, knowledge of pedagogy, and some sort of end goal to show student growth, no matter how flexible or subjective it may be.  But what I’ve learned through four years of teaching and through a fifth year in an experimental model is that nothing can ever go entirely the way you plan it, and it’s very likely that the trajectory you predict on Monday could rapidly change by Wednesday.  It happened today, actually, and with only one question.

“Wait, Paul,” she said.  “What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?”

Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of those words now in my vocabulary, or the fact that I came from a place with such avid readers, but that was never something I had to go over so explicitly.  And I wasn’t expecting it with this group.  Call me naive, call me stupid; call me anything you want.  But I straight-up was not expecting it.

I quickly ran to the board and explained the difference between the words. But I’d soon find out that wouldn’t be enough.

“But how do you know it’s fiction or non-fiction?” she asked.

Clearly, she was understanding the difference, but she was asking a bigger question.  My mind raced.  I had intended to have them break out into groups, read some more non-fiction texts at their level, and complete activities commensurate with their needs, as determined by the lovely rubric I’d laid out.  But I wanted to respond.  I wanted to let her know that sometimes the lines were blurred, and that sometimes it was really hard to tell if something was real or not.  I wanted to talk about the idea of truth, the idea of primary sources, and fact versus opinion, but that would be too much. What’s more, she’d asked such a great question, not only showing she was thinking, but showing that she cared about what we were learning.  I just couldn’t ignore it.  I just couldn’t stick to my plans.

“Alright,” I said.  “I want you to grab a pencil and a stack of Post-it notes, and meet me back here in two minutes.”

I quickly grabbed about seven books, each of different genres, some fiction, some non-fiction, and some blurring the lines between the two.  I placed them in a circle around the room, and I asked each of the students to go around to the books, classifying each story and writing on their stickies why they classified each text in the manner they did.  Check out some of the responses:

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While it might feel great to plan a week out meticulously (and believe me, I had something planned), it sometimes feels even better to let go, to give the kids control, and to jump on the teachable moments. What’s ironic about the whole thing is that, maybe if I didn’t have a plan, if I had not planned to introduce my lesson in the way the I introduced it, it’s highly possible this question never would have surfaced.  It’s possible that this student never would have asked what she did.

Let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to plan any less for next week.  But I am going to be ready for questions, and I am going to be ready to let the students drive the lesson.

 

Nobody Can Be Taught

there’s a certain humility that comes with learning something new.  in fact, the only way in which we truly can learn is through this humility; it’s through the ability to admit that there’s something out there that we, in fact, do not already know.  it’s the ability to admit our imperfection.

it’s the ability to be vulnerable.

and perhaps that’s why i believe that, while important, student interest is not necessarily the underpinning of academic growth.  instead i believe that the ability to take a risk, the willingness to make a mistake, and the humility required to accept defeat are the underpinnings of success — and not just in the classroom — in anything.

every so often, i rewatch brene brown’s talk on vulnerability.  her messages have become a staple in my cognition, even if they haven’t become a routine quite yet in my heart.  it’s hard to admit our imperfections, and it’s even more difficult to have the courage to let yourself be seen entirely.  i know it’s hard for me every single day.  it’s hard for me to fall into uncertainty, and it’s difficult for me to invest in the unknown.

and i’d imagine my students feel the same way.

but because i know this to be so difficult for me, i believe it’s come into the forefront of my teaching — not necessarily that i am constantly explicitly teaching the concept of vulnerability, but that within a lesson, i give my students chances to be vulnerable.  i want them to know it’s okay to take risks, and that being wrong — that being imperfect — actually gives us the opportunity to learn.  it gives us something to build upon; it gives us a start.

in fact, if not for this start, our students would hardly learn anything.  without the student’s ability to be vulnerable — without the student’s willingness to let their imperfections be seen — we would have no assessments, we’d have no data, and we’d have no information upon which to build lessons that help students learn.  we’d be powerless.

we’d be unable to teach.

but therein lies quite an ironic conundrum.  too often, we believe that teaching starts with us — that the ability for students to learn lies within the provocations we place in front of them.  but really, those things we place in front of students are merely a set of symbols and images — combinations of spoken words paired with visuals that are intended to catch on to something.  they’re intended to register and connect with a student’s background knowledge.  they’re meant to be manipulated, broken apart, and fixed to create something new.

but this recreation and manipulation is not something that the teacher can control.
it’s not something that we can predict entirely.

and if you think about it in this context, in the sense that the student must own the task so intentionally, it would seem that nobody can really be taught, for the word “taught” or “teach” implies a unidirectional flow of information from the teacher to the learner.  in fact, the word “teacher” itself implies that there must be someone who is “being taught.”

on the other hand, the word “learner” implies nothing more than experience, information, or knowledge being manipulated, reformed, and assimilated into an already established context.  therefore, it’s easy to see that learning requires choice, intention, and a will, and it lies within the ability to be vulnerable, the ability to be humble, and the ability to authentic.

by viewing learning and our lives in this way, success and happiness transform from dreams to realities, from products to processes, and from seemingly unattainable ideals to startling realities that aren’t so far off in the distant future.

instead, they stand right before our feet.

those who can’t do… teach

they say those who can’t do, teach.

and until recently, i would have told you were entirely wrong.  as a matter of fact, there is a piece of me that would still argue your inaccuracy, if not entirely, at least partially.  it takes a lot of knowledge to be a teacher.  it takes knowledge of pedagogy, knowledge of content, and knowledge of students.  it takes knowledge of self.   but i think the original intent of this cliché was misunderstood.  no one ever meant to say that teachers could not do anything; instead, it meant that we, as people, try the hardest to teach the things that we ourselves once could not — or still cannot — do.

photowhen i first started, i convinced myself i wanted to be a teacher of math.  it had always been a strength of mine, and it had always been something that i felt led me to success.  i told myself i wanted to lead others to that success, too, and within the first few months, i realized that i did not actually love teaching math as much as i thought.

four years later, i find myself loving so many more subjects than math.  i find myself loving to teach about risk-taking, mistake-making, and trusting the process to get us where we need to be.  i love to preach about empathy, vulnerability, and the power of making connections — both personal and abstract.  and i don’t love teaching all of these because i’m good at them, necessarily.

 

i love teaching these because i have struggled with them –
and still do every day.

 

i think we all fantasize of having the perfect life — of having a life with no mistake or no error.  we fantasize this way because we think we can learn from the mistakes of others.  we believe we can watch those who came before us and avoid their trials and tribulations, simply by watching them falter, in an effort to better ourselves and better the outcomes of our respective lives.  perhaps, in some capacity, that is possible, but what we don’t realize is that by hyperfocusing our attention on the previous mistakes of others, we very ignorantly make other mistakes — other mistakes that have managed to slip under our predictive consciousness.

those mistakes, then, become the things that we focus on.  they become the things we have to keep learning over and over again.  they become the things that make us struggle on a constant basis.  and as i grow older, i’ve started to realize that these are the things we that we teach.  we teach our these mistakes and try to impart upon our posterity and upon others in our lives to whom we feel loyalty and love.

 

we teach others lessons,
not necessarily because they’re the “right” thing to know
or because they’re the “best” way to be –

instead, we teach others the lessons we never learned – the lessons we wish we had for ourselves.  

Pumpkin Seeds, Observation, and Documentation

We went to the pumpkin patch today.  It was so adorable that I could hardly stand it.

But of course, my teacher self could not let it be.  I insisted that we incorporate some of our lessons on place value and estimation into this wonderful field trip, intended to celebrate the beautiful fall season.

We arrived back at the classroom, ready to crack open our pumpkins. My co-teacher started carving out the tops, while I prepped our anchor chart for estimation, and within minutes we had the kids gathered around us, ready to build upon our knowledge of estimation.  We started the day before, with a lesson involving candy jars, asking the kids to estimate which candy jar had the most pieces of candy.  The only trick was that all the candy jars were different sizes and that all of the candy jars contained different types of candy.  While this may seem like a rather benign task, it allowed for curiosity, critical thinking, and the evaluation of classmates’ predictions, based on the relative sizes and volumes of the candy pieces as well as the jars.

photo 1In order to add another layer of relevance to our pumpkin field trip, we did a similar activity today.  Students picked their own pumpkins, brought them back to the classroom, and before opening them up, they were required to make an estimate.

Just how many seeds did they think a pumpkin could contain?  

They listed their estimates on their plates, and began getting messy! While we would have loved to get my hands dirty with the kids, my co-teacher and I decided to take a different approach to this experience today.  Instead of getting our hands dirty, and instead of learning along with the kids, we decided to observe, document, and learn from the kids.

While students were getting their hands dirty and pulling out gobs and gobs of goo and seeds, we asked questions and challenged their thinking, forcing them to reevaluate their estimates as they saw just how many seeds were inside.

“I originally thought there were only three hundred seeds inside!” one student said.

“I estimated 29, but then I saw seeds under seeds.  Now I think it’s different,” another noted.

Through this careful process of questioning and documentation, students were able to voice their own change in thinking, as opposed to being corrected by a teacher.  Our role, then?  We simply asked questions, wrote down their thoughts, and documented the learning process that occurred throughout this fun activity!

photo 2“Paul, can I put my information up on the board now?” one of our students asked, referring to the number of seeds she found in her pumpkin.

“Sure thing! I’d love that!” I replied.  “Maybe you can find a good way to organize it!”

Before I knew it, I looked around the room, and our students were constantly evaluating, reevaluating, proving, and disproving their estimates, organizing and displaying data, and very independently and seamlessly applying many of our outcomes from the past few weeks.

Too often, we feel that learning has to come from the teacher, and too often, we feel that we are the sole providers of knowledge and instruction, when a lot of the time, the kids can do a lot of this work for themselves.  Sometimes, the impact we can make simply by listening, questioning, and documenting is beyond humbling.

Not only is it more fun for us… but it’s better for the students, too!

 

ten commandments for teaching

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i. know thyself
before we can truly know and understand someone else–our students–
we need to know ourselves.

 

ii. make success your number one priority
if students feel successful, they will try anything, regardless of interest.

 

iii. know when to follow the rules
there’s a lot of great information out there, and you are remiss as an educator if you don’t use it.

 

iv. know when to break the rules
while there’s a lot of great information, take it with a grain of salt, and follow your gut.

 

v. remember how powerful you are.
you hold a substantial portion of a child’s life in your hands. use it well.

 

vi. be humble, and honor the intelligence of those around you.
most importantly, honor the intelligence of your children. it’s impossible for one person to know everything.

 

vii. be honest.
and not just some of the time; be honest about everything.

 

viii. provoke more than you preach.
children need to interact with media and with each other more than they need to listen to you.

 

ix. be flexible, and let go.
you will not know what your children can do until you give them the opportunity to do so.

 

x. abandon the absolute.
even these “commandments” can be taken at face value. truth lies in our perceptions of reality, and when you have anywhere from ten to thirty perspectives around the table, almost nothing can be verifiably true.

 

instead, the power of learning lies in the process through which these perspectives and realities collide.