5 realizations that defined me as a teacher

Thanks to Jonathan So for the provocation:

In my own mind, I prefer to think of my list as realizations that defined me as a teacher.

Teaching grade one made me (professionally speaking)

I have spent a total of six years of my career teaching grade one or a one/two combined class. My very first year of teaching was a one/two combination. I knew nothing. I learned many things in my BEd degree (for example, I had an exceptional P/J mathematics instructor!) but my training did not address how to teach children to read. And I certainly did not learn how to do it in my very first year of teaching. I had no choice but to allow the wide range of my students’ competencies and confidences drive my own professional learning with respect to what I had to do to support each one of them in their journey towards literacy. It also clearly demonstrated that I had to learn with and from other teachers and make a commitment to continuous professional learning. These values and commitments continue to shape my learning.

My children changed my teaching for the better

I can honestly say that I did not have a real understanding of the impact of school and teachers in a child’s day-to-day life until I had children of my own (two daughters). I am guessing that most teachers with children would say the same thing. My knowledge before children of my own was completely one-sided, teacher sided. This is not to say that a teacher without children will/can never know; there are ways to learn. But, having children, and living the parent role and being a witness to children attending school, informed my approach to teaching at a very basic level. Among other things, I think it underscored strongly the importance of empathy, listening, relationships, and student passions/voice.

Who is in control of the learning?

I admit it. In my early career, I feared losing control of my class. Not only in the behaviour sense but also in the learning sense (and, of course, now I know they are both completely connected). I planned all the learning my students would do in advance of the day making pretty much all the decisions about how concepts are best taught (and learned by students). Of course, that worked for a small group of my students but many had “problems” that needed more time, remediation, reteaching. Those students were having difficulty learning. Actually, no… they were having difficulty with my assumptions about how to best learn it! This was a hard realization to let take hold of me. But it did. I was creating problems that should never have existed. Now my mindset is a clear one of learning reconnaissance, iteration, feedback, and true informative assessment—what do students know, how does each child learn, what is exciting to each one, where are they coming from, how does each child proceed, how do I do things that respects how children learn, how do I interact and support learning in a culturally responsive way, how can I model growth and co-learn, how can we make things and talk about things with each other, how do I put them in the driver’s seat of their learning and their lives? It’s a long list of questions instead of a long list of assumptions. That’s the key. The reason my blog is called makelearn.org is a result of this realization. And Seymour Papert puts it nicely (see the quote at the very top). Then, when I read Bo Adams’s post a few years ago, I instantly loved his notion of one “C” to rule them all.

Project-based learning & constructionism

If the previous realization was the “what/who” than this realization is the “how” or the verb that causes the action of learning. How do we get there? Projects! Passions! Play! Peers! Making things. Reflection and discussion. Iteration. Growth mindset. Design. And so on. I still remember the very first PBL-based activity session with my students. It was unnerving and exciting but I knew it was the right way to go. Voice and choice were honoured. It was very inconvenient initially as I did the heavy lifting of connecting the curriculum to the student’s learning (so that I could write report cards). In time, we did that together – we looked at the curriculum together and figured out a learning direction together. We made the map together. We learned about how we would know if we knew. The responsibility was shared and expectations were high. But the students were in the driver’s seat. Sometimes I was a bit like a driving instructor, sometimes I was a curious (and very interested) passenger.

Curriculum – segregated vs. integrated

This realization is a result of the PBL and constructionist activities of my students. The current curriculum is designed and communicated specifically for the convenience of teachers (and reporting), not students. It is segregated. Everything to be learned is clearly pulled apart, domained, listed, ranked, organized, and so on. In the process, though, a lot of the meaning and purpose is pulled out, too. In my early career, I felt responsible for reintegrated the curriculum and trying to find ways to inject meaning and authenticity into my students’ activities. However, again, those were my decisions and my plans that were set in advance and it pretty much ignored student interests. No student voice. No real choice. The curriculum still IS segregated into different domains. But everyone knows that the real world and real interests don’t work that way. Real learning is authentic, meaningful, significant and, I think, should be project-based and connected at the centre to student interests and social justice. This is not new. Cross-curricular and multidisciplinary approaches are common. But official curriculum documents usually silo domains of knowledge. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a curriculum was written to be convenient for students and learning rather than for teachers and instruction?

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