Focus on Learning: from wading to diving

An afternoon at the pool with my boys has me rewriting this post. I watched them jump off the diving board repeatedly, getting a little more creative as the afternoon wore on. At the beginning of the summer, swimming a few feet was an accomplishment. Now they are jumping with confidence into deep water. They watched other kids, listened to the rules for safety and then took a leap. When two years ago, my one child would not venture under water no matter what his camp counselors did, I concluded that he was like me and just did not like the water. I was completely wrong. He loves the water – he was just not ready two years ago to take the plunge. He couldn’t learn to swim until he was ready and willing.

I have spent my career worrying too much about my teaching and not enough about my students’ learning. The reason is simple – I have control over what I am teaching but actually very little control over what my students are learning. But without the learning, teaching is meaningless.

This year I am making a mental shift – I am going to focus on what my students are learning and not what I am teaching. I will probably spend more time working than ever before measuring, assessing, adjusting in reaction to my students. If I expect them to commit to me and my class, I need to commit to them, not just as a group but as individuals as well. I need to figure out where they are and what they love to do.

We take for granted that the system of grades and report cards will keep students in line doing what they need to do. We plan courses thinking about having enough assessments to be able to formulate what we believe to be a fair grade in the end. There is often an assumption that students will work harder for graded work than ungraded work. This may be true in terms of homework, I believe, but not classwork. Students do need to prioritize their time at home, and they would be foolish under the current system to not study for a test in order to complete an ungraded reading assignment for my class. I am not sure what I think this means about homework – that’s whole different blog post.

It is during class that we truly have an opportunity to encourage kids to take risks and to evaluate what they are really learning. Careful observation gives insight into how students operate. A conversation with a student yields far more accurate results about how much he or she is taking in than any form of written assessment that is submitted. Writing is important, and clear writing is an indication of clear thinking, but conversations are opportunities to process, test out ideas, and receive immediate feedback.

So, this year I am committing myself to those conversations and observations. It means allowing time for students to work and time for them to debrief. It means working the room while students are engaged in an activity. It means blogging with my students. It means keeping my radar up to pick up signals, but also being careful not to jump to conclusions. It means that I will be assessing all the time, learning along with my students, and being open to shifting direction as needed to address something that I see. It means taking time to talk to my students to learn who they are, what they are passionate about and what they struggle with. It means never assuming that just because they are not there yet that they won’t get there. My own children needed the instructions and the modeling as well as the motivation and courage to dive.

I hope to create an atmosphere in my classroom that puts kids at ease, earns their trust and encourages them to dive into history. I’m planning to create an informal space in my room, with a rug and a few bean bag chairs. My dream classroom would have students with their own computers, working in a setting where they are comfortable. I know very few people who are most comfortable at a desk with a hard chair. At the same time, I am conditioned to fear chaos from such an informal setting. That’s why I’m getting into the pool at the shallow end, one step at a time. Although I hope to take a lesson from my six year old boys and not wait too long to jump off the diving board.

 

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2 thoughts on “Focus on Learning: from wading to diving

  1. How many students do you have per class Molly? And, how long are your class periods? With 50 minute class periods, and 35 students per class, if a teacher does nothing but focus equal time observing/interacting with all students, that is less than 1.5 minutes per student. When one subtracts time for roll taking, teacher presentations to the group, dealing with anyone acting out, etc.; that 1.5 minutes becomes much less.

    I spent many years trying to develop a system in my classroom to do what you’ve described in this post. What I ended up with, and found relatively satisfying, was developing group activities that began with a short period of individual work to get everyone focusing on the same material, then small group (5-7 usually) activities to allow for group interaction where everybody could contribute, then a full class effort to reach consensus on whatever the goal of the day’s activity was.

  2. In all fairness, my largest class will likely be 18. Our classes are either 40 or 60 minutes, but in a year we will be moving to 70 minute periods. I agree that time is an important hurdle to this approach. I do still think I can do a better job. I was in a workshop given by Rick Wormelli, where he talked about keeping sticky notes on him and anytime he learned something new about a kid he made a note. Sometimes it is the offhand comments kids make that matter. It is also telling to see what kids choose to do when given choice.

    I like the class strategy you mentioned. I do that sort of class often. I am challenging myself to working harder at drawing in the students who use group work as a chance to go off topic, since they think I am not looking. I no longer want to accept from a student that “history is just not their thing.”

    I guess that’s the beauty of August – all things are possible even to a teacher of 20+ years! Thanks for your comment. You have made me think, as always, which I truly appreciate.

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