Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Educational Puzzle

Recent events leading up to today have encouraged me to express my thoughts regarding the learning process in my classroom.  I care deeply about the students I teach and want them to be successful in whatever it is they do with their life.  I want them to explore their imagination, embrace inquiry and pursue their curiosities.  I want them to discover what they are passionate about, know how to work hard and learn how to achieve goals.  Yes, I hold these aspirations for all the nine and ten year old children I teach, the six and seven year old kids I used to teach, and all the students I will teach in the years ahead.  These are characteristics I think many successful people have in common.

In my years of teaching I have found a handful of constants in the educational process.  Two constants in my mind as I write this are the unique nature of learning and the bond between a teacher and students.  In both, there are moments of greatness, acts of compassion, and shining lights of brilliance.  With both there are also times of frustration, exhaustion, and despair.  But stick with me through this thought;  The learning process is unique to the learner, constantly shifting and is shaped by experiences both in and out of school.  It's more or less existential.  (Before you go running away in philosophical disarray, I ask you to continue reading.)  And, as Arne Duncan has been quoted saying several times, "a teacher is the single greatest influence on student achievement."  To be clear, I consider student achievement beyond that of standardized testing scores.  

I have to admit that my interactions with students and families are confined to what many refer to as "school".  I see my students in our building, I see their families here, and rarely does my life beyond my professional commitments extend to experiences outside of the "academic" realm.  I blame this more on the fact that I live in Chicago and teach in a suburb than on my willingness to be involved in the community beyond the school environment.  Growing up in rural Minnesota I am more than familiar with running into my teacher at the grocery store, seeing my principal at church, or having my teacher threaten to call my father because he knows where he works.  This begins to get at my focus.  Each child I teach, comes into my classroom with a world of experiences I will never be able to hear about and sees the world in a relatively unique way.  Life experiences are what shape individual's thoughts, beliefs and values.  Although some of my personal thoughts, beliefs and values may differ (or be the same for that matter), I work to develop relationships that allow me and my students to focus on learning experiences and outcomes.  I also want to help everyone enjoy the process.  After all, at some point learning should be fun.  

Let me borrow the words of Forrest Gump to illustrate more concretely what I'm trying to say.  Teaching is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.  And that is precisely when the puzzle begins.  There are so many different pieces to the puzzle for each child, teacher, principal, administrator and anyone else involved in education.  The final puzzle is like a mythical scene that is unique for everyone involved, we just all hope it looks good enough to frame and hang up on the wall.   I'll refer you to a post from Chris Lehmann about the ethic of care (This is a shorter version from his writings at that transcends the content and specific learning objectives to focus on the manner by which students and teacher can be empowered.  The only way a puzzle can come together is by searching through the pile of pieces to find the one that has the right fit and repeating the process until the picture is complete.  But as any real puzzler knows, once one puzzle is finished there's always another waiting.