Learning with Purpose

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When we look at the things that each of us has learned most deeply in our lives, the same certain conditions almost always apply: Among other things, we had an interest and a passion for the topic, we had a real, authentic purpose in learning it, we had agency and choice, deciding what, when, where, and with whom we learned it, and we had fun learning it even if some of it was ‘hard fun.’

– Will Richardson

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There is not much more to say. When did you learn something that was quite difficult? What were the conditions under which you learned it – was it forced on you or did you want to learn? Did it matter to you? Was there a reason to learn it? In other words, did you have agency, choice and an authentic purpose for learning? This, more than any imposed requirement, leads to the deepest learning. Once we have acquired the basic reading, writing and math skills, it is then up to us to determine what we want to learn and how we will learn it. This is the work of schools and education.

What’s the recipe?

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Do you use a recipe or do you let your senses, intuition and previous experience guide you when you cook? Do you closely follow directions when assembling a piece of furniture or model? Are you willing to experiment with the “known” – the instructions provided?

When I first became a teacher I was surprised to learn that the teacher editions of all textbooks/curriculum provided the words to say when giving each and every lesson. They are the recipes for teaching – the precise recipes. That’s nice to have, I suppose, but what it fails to take into account is the dialogue and conversation that is essential to learning. If we stick too closely to the scripted directions of lessons, we can miss the very thing that makes learning so worthwhile.

Learning is a dynamic process. The dialogue between teachers and students is nothing short of eye-opening and inspiring. The conversation goes well beyond the directions and instructions, instead pushing us each to learn and grow in many different directions. There is not one best recipe for learning or teaching. There are millions. The first is to be who you are each every day and to recognize the children in your schools and classrooms for who they are. It is by being willing to put aside the mandated conversations and instructions that we grow as learners and yearn for more. Great cooks know that recipes are meant to be adjusted. The same can be said for great schools. Learning is an ever-evolving recipe based on the essential ingredients the students bring each day.

Decisions Matter

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decisions-and-impulsivity

If you’ve raised children, you know that there are millions of decisions made in the process. Children push us to be deciders, to give permission and, of course, question the decision or lack of permission. They want to know the boundaries, and we are typically quite happy to provide them. You also know that often choices are the order of the day. Do you want to wear this or that, eat this or that, or go now or in five minutes? We repeat questions similar to these every single day, often multiple times each day. We want to allow our children to have some ownership over their decisions and to learn to make decisions.

“How do we create leaders if we don’t let kids make decisions?” I was struck by this question posed by Alice Keeler, a leader in technology education in one of her recent blogs. I don’t know that I ever equated decision-making with the creation of leaders. It makes sense, but I didn’t draw a direct line. Leadership roles require the ability to make decisions but also to know what decisions are critical, somewhat important or perhaps inconsequential. Just as it does not really matter if a child wears a blue or brown shirt, it may not matter if a meeting is held today or next week. However, it absolutely matters if a child holds your hand to be safe in crossing a street just as it matters if this person is qualified for a position and another is not.

The trick is balancing these decisions and making sure that others know you have faith in their ability to decide and will stand by the decision that is made. If your children or your co-workers think you will second guess them at every turn, they will effectively be hampered from making any decisions in their lives. And, as Alice Keeler states, how will they assume leadership roles if they don’t have this practice along the way?

Do You Want to Learn?

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If you want to learn something, I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn it, I cannot teach you.

– Wynton Marsalis

Heather Siple-First Day-Rm19-1As I listened to this podcast about creativity, I not only learned a great deal about the lives of a variety of people we would all consider to be creative in very different ways, I was inspired to apply these ideas and experiences to education and children’s school experiences.

At the same time, in talking to a teacher who was attending classes to become a certified Montessori teacher, she shared the idea presented that small class sizes can be detrimental to the idea of children gaining independence. The thinking is that in order to become independent, make the best decisions and learn from mistakes, it is important to have freedom. Children need freedom from adults watching every move they make. They need space for experimentation, for creativity to allow growth in ways they can’t experience if all they know is the “right” way to do things and the rewards are established by someone else, either a person or institution. We need to establish environments that allow students to set their own goals and assess their progress using criteria that continue to evolve through various iterations of a project or assignment. If we don’t allow for this process, students will struggle to become independent and make decisions throughout life. Continue reading

Get Ready

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polar vortex.jpgEveryone likes to be prepared for what is to come. Some of us may enjoy a surprise or two, but typically, we humans like to plan and be ready. This winter has done nothing if not taught us how sometimes even the best preparations are not quite enough.

Last week, many parts of the U.S. experienced a deep freeze of historic proportion. Residents of cities like Chicago and Minneapolis are quite accustomed to cold temperatures and snowfall during the winter. What they have not seen is the subzero temperatures that gripped that part of the country – temperatures that made it hard to carry out even the most mundane task such as starting your car or going to work and school. Meteorologists predicted this weather, but it exceeded expectations and was not part of anyone’s plans. Everyone had to adapt and adjust to new circumstances.

Life often hands us situations that require us to adapt and change. In some instances, nothing prepares us for the change ahead. In others, we have a few warning signals and can begin to think about what it means to change. One of the goals of school is to prepare students for the next steps in their school and work life. Educators pride themselves in helping students be ready for any situation that might arise. Is that reasonable? Or, instead, is it more beneficial to prepare students for the uncertainty that is sure to greet them, if not next week, then next month or next year, or years down the road?

Schools are preparing students for an uncertain future. We know what we know today, and we know the rate of change is faster than humans have ever experienced in history. We can embrace the change, adapt our mindset to one of seeking knowledge, understanding and learning rather than staying the course that was implemented when educating our citizens began. We continually face new and interesting challenges that require more from us. Are we ready? More importantly, are our children ready? They are our future.

The Power of Stories

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Today I happened to step into a classroom in which students were watching novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk. It was the starting point for a writing lesson about stories. If you don’t know it, it’s worth 18 minutes of your time. We all tell stories, and of course try to make them interesting for the listener or reader. What makes a story interesting? What makes a story balanced? Why do we have a need to tell stories?

Most of us probably don’t remember the first story we heard or the first one we told. We are surrounded with stories from the beginning of our lives, probably shared with us by loving family members. Some are the stories in beloved books. Others are stories handed down through our families, perhaps through generations. Through this sharing, the stories may have evolved to be somewhat different from the original. However, they are shared over time and become part of the way we define our lives. They provide comfort and add to our identity as we grow from childhood to adulthood and often repeat the same stories and share the same books with the next generation of little ones in our families.

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The Best Laid Plans

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Some days go along smoothly and stay that way. Others, not so much. One of the interesting things about working in a school is that there is seldom a dull moment. That may sound like things often go wrong, but that’s not the case. Things just go “differently.” A child who navigates assignments and social relationships nicely may hit a snag and need support. A teacher who is reliable and always on top of things may encounter a challenge that requires her to further develop her skills to best address the needs of one particular student, though these skills may eventually serve many. A well-designed schedule may be interrupted by a fire drill or an unexpected visitor. Things change, and we need to be ready to embrace the changes.

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Hard Work

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IMG_3200Most of us think working harder will produce better, different and desired outcomes. This may work when trying to learn to ride a bike or clean a room, but it may not. There is something to be said for hard work. It is the stuff the American dream is made of. However, it can also be said that some things that are easy for one person may be quite challenging for another. If you pay attention, you will notice this everywhere you look.

Most adults drive a car, typically learning it as a rite of passage of their teenage years. Some people are better at it than others. There is much more to driving than learning how to turn the car on, put it in gear and operate the various switches. For instance, figuring out where to look, how to make sharp turns, and how often to monitor the mirrors and cars around you matters… a lot. These skills may be intuitive or not. They may require lots of practice, which may or may not lead to substantive improvement. We all know those drivers who just aren’t as attentive, careful or skilled when we see them on the road. Continue reading

Preferences

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At a recent staff meeting, we conducted a survey of sorts. People were asked to line up along a wall according to their preferences about a variety of things: introvert/extrovert, lots of light/minimal lighting, quiet/background noise, math/language, spare/busy environments, etc. The goal wasn’t to solve a problem or change anyone’s mind about their preferences. It was simply to bring the preferences to light.

In our homes, offices and classrooms, our surroundings tend to reflect what makes us most comfortable or productive. For example, I prefer a very well-lit space at work because it keeps me alert and engaged. However, at home I don’t turn a lot of lights on, using only those for the task I am doing. As teachers we need to have an environment that is comfortable for us, but first and foremost, the environment needs to be conducive to learning for the students we are serving.

The environment serves as a teacher in a Montessori classroom. Through a well-prepared environment, students are able to have great success. They can easily move throughout the space independently, needing a teacher as a guide not a facilitator. They don’t need to ask where to locate materials or how to use them. Once a lesson is given, the children move independently throughout the space, gathering the materials needed to perform a task. The classrooms allow students to experience the same independence adults have; the materials are accessible to all.

In order to allow each child to succeed, teachers need to create an environment that is suitable for their needs. How many teachers have asked their students what they prefer or have experimented to see what leads to greater productivity and learning? Have we observed how children interact with the environment and remedied any glitches that are noticed? Classroom environments must allow for independence and access. They serve their occupants – students and teachers alike. Everyone needs to be comfortable and capable of navigating the space. How do your surroundings reflect your preferences? How do they meet the needs of the students who spend much of their days in them?

 

 

A Little Help from My Friends

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During the past few days, I’ve had several different educators outside of my school reach out and ask a question or two about something they are working to figure out. The topics have ranged from policy and procedure questions to challenging employee situations and “How did you handle this?” questions. None of the people expected a solution to their particular problem. Instead, what they were seeking was a listening ear and more information to help them as they work to solve their particular version of a problem that I may have struggled with.

This week I was also struck by the fact that we also ask students to help us as we try to accomplish our goals. Our school has a team of students who are working toward making the school a greener, more environmentally friendly school. Those students met for the first time this November and are buzzing with ideas, excited about the changes they will make to impact our school. Middle school students have been asked to run assemblies, create an admissions video and support other students in various ways. They’re invested in making a difference and making contributions to the community.

We do not stand alone. We are all part of groups, small and large. At times we lead, at others we follow. Sometimes we are the helper, and often we are being helped. The common thread is that we seek information and support from others, counting on them to help us learn and grow, not to do our jobs for us. As adults we recognize the need for this and seek information that helps us to make decisions or do a particular job. Schools must replicate these experiences for their students. Children need to see us asking for and receiving help, refining our thinking based on new information, and leaning on each other to do the best job possible. They need to know that doing “their own work” often relies on information and a helping hand from others. Schools, workplaces and all of life depend on our interactions with each other and conversation and questioning that leads to greater understanding, learning and action.