Sunday, August 19, 2018

Letting Go

by Mark Heintz

I'm a planner.  I plan my day. I pack my lunches and set out what I'm wearing for the week. And, I plan as many lessons before the school year starts. A few years ago, I told my dad, who was a teacher for 33 years, how planned out I typically was.  His comment was, "Robo-teacher, huh."

I'd like to think I'm not Type A, but I'm good at kidding myself.  The problem, though, the more I define what I value, I find that being so prescriptive goes against my beliefs about learning.  In a previous post, I wrestled with my values around learning.  Now, I'm questioning how I was able to plan almost the whole year before I'd even met my students.  Shouldn't who they are matter in the plan? I'm glad I am no longer a Type A person; otherwise, I might get stressed out by that comment...

The Problem: Controlling Learning

It's hard to admit it, but the major problem is me.  Since I'm such a planner, I think having the lessons all planned out helps students.  And to some extent, it does because it's easy for them. I'm essentially taking the thinking out of the classroom.  By planning the second Tuesday in October before the school year starts, I'm dictating everything.  Kids just have to sit there and wait for me to tell them what they have to do and the way they have to think.  While the students are good at doing what I'm asking, I don't think that's learning.

Last year, I was really lucky to have a kid named Robert.  Robert was a reader.  Which was great, because this year the plan was to read Persepolis. I thought I'd hook Robert. Use something he was already doing, although I'd already planned on doing the book before knowing he was such a reader. But, Robert was reading a different book.  And one day, as he read his own book, I asked him if he finished Persepolis.  He told me, no and then asked why my book was better than his.  He wasn't being disrespectful, he just really wanted to know why he couldn't read his book.  I could have gone into teacher mode, but I didn't... only because I didn't have a great answer.

Back to Learning: The First Days of School 

How can I still plan everything, if that type of teaching goes against my beliefs about learning? Now that I've come to terms with my values, I basically have to throw out my plans. It's a struggle to do it. I had to make a new calendar, but I only could put down a few ideas.  As I continue to tell my Type A mindset to shut it, I'm keeping my focus where I want it: on learning.

So, what do I do?  For the first two days of school, my "plan" was to have the students and me come up with a common definition of learning and pledge to hold each other to that definition throughout the year.

To get at this, I asked them to define learning.  Here were a few of their responses:



I asked the students a few follow-up questions related to their definitions and almost immediately their definitions crumbled.

The students had been in school for the last eight or nine years, and no one had a great definition of learning.  Next steps: they read my blog post about learning.  Here it is again if you want to read it.
I asked them to tell me what they thought of my defintions.


We all talked about the post and my definition. We were starting to come to some agreements on learning. To push them a little more, they read two more excerpts. One for Seymour Sarason and Carla Shalaby.  
Your beliefs came from your experience, and you should change those beliefs on the basis of new experience and not because someone says you are mistaken.  Your obligation to yourself and your teachers is to listen, to “hear” what they say, to reflect on it, not passively to assume that the voice of authority requires submission.  Productive learning is a struggle, a willing struggle from which comes a sense of change and growth. It makes no difference whether you are a first-grader or someone entering a teacher preparation program.  Productive learning has its joys, but they are a consequence of intellectual and personal struggle.-Sarason

Reading #3: Schools engender trouble by using systems of reward and punishment to create a certain kind of person-”a good student”-a person suited for the culture of schooling.  Good students sit still; they listen; they follow directions; they conform; they take order; they adhere to the terms and standards of childhood as a marginal social position and to the whiteness as the ideal.  Students do well in school and will be counted as good when they allow others to exercise power over them.  -Shalaby 
As they read, I asked them to pick out something that struck them.




The conversations were amazing.  The students saw that learning should change you and be a personal struggle. One of the things I had to point out to them, even though they wrote it down, was that teachers should listen. They were taken aback by that.  Teachers are learners, too. If I am going to be less of a planner, I need to listen a lot more.




They also saw that schools favor compliance.  Schools reward the passive thinkers and the planned instruction.  But this year, I want the classroom to be about their personal journeys with learning.  I need them to hold me to that.  So, in the end, the class came to a few conclusions that we are a going to try to hold ourselves to.  
  1. For learning to occur, we have to want to learn it: interesting.
  2. The learning has to be useful in their lives: relevance.
  3. It has to be a struggle and should force them to change: challenging. 
The first two days were amazing. It wasn't easy and it took a bit to get them to buy into what I was trying to do.  But, there was a major power shift.  The students have the power now.  They are in control of their learning, and it is a very freeing feeling for me.  I am not sure I've been this excited about "teaching" in a long time.  I'm glad I'm letting go, but now I'm off to make my lunches and pack my clothes for the week

Side note: During the last two days, my students 

  • read articles that were at 12th and 13th grade level
  • read more than my students historically have in the first two days of school
  • wrote more than my students historically have in the first two days of school

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