“Teaching and Learning” is a foreign language

Words matter.

The overarching takeaway from Educon 2.2 is that I’m learning a new language.  Not that I don’t understand the buzzwords that are in common use, but I don’t know how to express my needs as a teacher and my wants for my students.  Educon has helped a great deal simply because I have been engaged in this conversation for three days straight.  And although I have been repeating myself quite a bit this weekend, each time I give my schpeel (albeit a sincere, authentic schpeel) I get better at expressing what I want my classroom to be and what I see as the barriers getting in my way.  This weekend has been like a three-day long Dobbs Cohort meeting, only with people far crazier than all of you 🙂

At the end of the first day, although the panel discussion was a bit of a let-down, I felt hopeful.  By the middle (early middle?) of the second day, I couldn’t take it any more.  I had had so many wonderful interactions, I couldn’t bear to let it all combine into a cacophony of thought.  So I hopped on a bus and took a long, quiet bus ride to Independence Hall and spent some time with Ben Franklin’s ghost.  So there I was, standing in Signers Hall, listening to an overly theatrical Park Ranger give a very spirited treatment of the process of the founding of our country.  I didn’t let it go unnoticed that here I am in Philadelphia trying to start something from scratch (my vision for how kids can gain access to and affinity for modern languages), and I found myself in a room where a bunch of guys did just that!  And the overarching message of my would-be diva Park Ranger was that it was a MESSY PROCESS.  There’s a lot of blowback, even from the most noble minds in the room (the drafting of Declaration and the Constitution was anything but a chorus of like-minded cuddlebugs), and in the end the founders created an imperfect system that has yielded the most enduring democracy in history.

So, too, is the process that I’m undertaking (imperfect, that is).  I have come to be comfortable with failure, I have become comfortable looking a little farther afield than the next graded assessment, and I’ve become comfortable letting the students determine the path of their learning.  However, I’m still very much tied to the textbook.  I need to think of it more as a reference than as Assembly Instructions.  However, in the forefront of my mind is the fact that I’m not a veteran of answering these questions from DuFour:

  • How do I know students are learning?
  • If not, why not?
  • What do I do if they already know it?

I wonder if the answers to these questions become clearer after I’ve seen this type of learning occur.  Or do I need to get busy building rubrics that assess this type of learning?

Back to words.  Despite my allergy to institutional mantra and buzzwords employed by those trying to sell you their recently published book, I have come to realize that in order to build the environment that best feeds the wonder, intellect, and compassion of the teacher and the students, you need to be able to define the environment.  So, I’ve half-heartedly uttered words like collaborative, creative, design-oriented, essential learnings, etc., without allowing them to take on the full weight that they deserve (many, many other words, by the way).  So, as I (re)define my own teaching and learning, I hope to give deference to these words. And perhaps the modifications that I make in the future will constitute a renovation rather than demolition/rebuild of my teaching practice to date.

If nothing else, Educon taught me that there is meaning to these words, and for their full effect to be realized, we must use them in dialogue with other practitioners.

4 thoughts on ““Teaching and Learning” is a foreign language

  1. Dang, honey. Speaking of words…

    I like getting the vocabulary down, too. There is power in naming what you’re doing and in creating shared understanding.

    I’m still struggling with the idea of students directing their learning. I want that for my students so badly– I hate the glazed over eyes and the rote note-taking. I want them engaged in their learning, beyond anything I present. I’m finding it to be much harder to develop than I expected. Not so much our curriculum, or even teachers’ willingness or reluctance to try something new. I meet resistance from students themselves. Maybe this isn’t a surprise, but I keep being surprised. I had a comment in student feedback that parents spend the money on tuition for students to learn from the teacher and not each other. And my department head (whom I love) talks about making sure we have a base level of understanding. Of course, I support that, but I think the comments and the concern are in some respect beside the point. I’ve seen students truly engaged in their learning, making their connections and enthusiastic to share– once that is in place, it doesn’t matter from whom we learn, and that base understanding comes quickly, for all students.

    I’m willing to try and maybe fail, too. At some point, I’d like to succeed. Messy indeed.

    (BTW, I think formative assessments may partly address your question of knowing if students are learning. Try a book called “Critical Thinking and Formative Assessments” from Eye on Education. I’m working through this myself.)

  2. Wow Ted! I love reading your blogs! The comparison you made to the process of creating our democracy was very powerful and appropriate to your own process, and you made me realize that is applies to me as well. I myself am still trying to become comfortable with failure–I am not sure I am yet, but I am more willing than before to review, revise and redo.
    I am not sure that I have adequate suggestions for you with regard to the textbook because you teach a foreign language and I teach English. However, I can help you with answering some of DuFour’s questions; the key to knowing if students are learning is exactly what Wagner recommends: learning to ask good questions yourself. 21st Century Skills apply to us teachers as well, and we can only ensure our students get there if we are well versed in the arena too. By asking the right questions, you can informally assess whether or not the students have met your objectives. Have the students build their own rubrics. Once you have taught them the lesson and given them what they need to meet the objective, ask them on what items they would like to be graded–nine times out of then they will come up with a rubric that addresses all of the elements they need to know; you can work with them to finalize the product. I hope some of this helps because I do wish to return the favor of your compassion earlier this week. Thanks a million!

  3. This sentence really stood out to me: “I wonder if the answers to these questions become clearer after I’ve seen this type of learning occur.” Maybe my problem is that I am so dependent on physical examples in my learning process. Conversations laced with buzz words don’t do very much for me. I need to observe to understand. Of course, there are no perfect examples the first time something is done or in the early stages of the development of a new process. You are creating the example, which is why it is probably good that you are comfortable with a little failure along the way.

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