I just spent four days working in a school district out in Plainfield, Illinois and after getting sideswiped by the blizzard Nemo on my way there and delayed on the way home by President Obama’s departure from Chicago at the same time as mine, it was a successful trip. Of course my travel woes are another blog and story all together!! And yet, are they?
As I was driving from Chicago to the Joliet, Plainfield area in search of my first school to visit I realized as I looked out the car window that although I was in Illinois I really could have been just about anywhere in America. On my left, I see a Target, and on my right a Home Depot. Lines and lines of chains from Dunkin Donuts to Burger King stood proudly next to their big box neighbors. And it got me thinking about the goal of so many schools and districts; heck the ENTIRE nation right now is fixated and obsessed with having everything in “common”. Common language, common expectations, common outcomes, a Common Core and the list goes on. And so I ask myself, what is so great about everything being the same?
When I travel I seek out what is different. Where can I find some little restaurant, café or shop that I have never been to before? Where is there something new I can try in terms of experience, food, or even atmosphere that will provide me with some insight as to what makes this town or city or place tick? How do people make their livings? What kinds of homes do they live in? Where are the tracks and what is on each side of those tracks? I enter these new places in the same way that I enter each classroom that I visit. What is different here? What do these students have to offer and what will I learn about them and how they work in the small amount of time I have to work with them?
My contacts and colleagues in Plainfield are two young dynamic women who brought me back to their district after a one -day workshop on writing in October to do some follow-up demonstration lessons in classrooms k-8. Before I arrived they asked me to send them some lesson plans for each day. And so I sat with the list of classrooms and the schedule before me and realized that I probably had not actually written a “real” lesson plan since I was an intern over 25 years ago. There was a bit of me that actually panicked and began making things up, but I knew in my heart that even if I took the time to write these plans that they would change. They would change based on the “read” of the students, where they were, what they knew and where we could go. And so I had to figure out how to send them something open and flexible but concrete as well.
And so I determined a list of my favorite mentor texts that I would be using and then a bullet list of possible teaching points for each text. I explained that I walked into classrooms with these possibilities in my head, but that I never really knew what I would be teaching before I actually started teaching. I realize how uncomfortable this makes so many people, but for me there really is no other way. Don’t get me wrong, there is a plan in my head, but before I begin to implement that plan I am responding to those students I am working with. My plan is a back up because ultimately I am there to teach the students, not the material. In fact when I focus solely on content I am removed from those I am teaching: lost in what it is I think I am “supposed” to be teaching…when in reality I am ALWAYS teaching the students. And so “what” I will be teaching depends on those I am teaching. In this way I almost teach in a “choose your own adventure” kind of method. If this, then that, but again I never know until I am there.
And so I enter with a bag full of books that I know and love, stapled paper (books), markers and an open mind. That is it? Yes. That is it. I quickly try to connect with the students, perhaps telling them something personal about me and then hear bits and pieces about them. As I am listening to them I get a sense of where they are and which book might work with them. Then I reach into my bag and the decision is made.
When I am in this mode of listening I realize that the possibilities are endless and so my role is to focus in on one or two or maybe even three different noticings that the students are making and ask them to talk about what they noticed and why they think the author has made such a move. If they do not notice then I begin by noticing something and ask that they then look for this same thing as I read on. I love these kinds of encounters with students. I am looking and listening intently for what is different in their thinking and what they notice.
After reading the book, A Stranger in the Woods by Sams and Stoick, one student notices that the animals are talking. Together we name this craft, personification as well as a couple of other crafts used by this author. I set the students free with a “book” made out of 4 sheets of paper stapled together and markers and to begin writing this book on anything of their choosing. I ask that before they leave the carpet that they first tell me what it is they plan on writing about and one kind of craft that they were planning on trying. As students revealed their plans, new plans formed in the minds of others. Taking this time allows for each student to leave the group with purpose and to get right to work.
One student in a second grade classroom decided to write a book about snakes and he was going to attempt to use strong verbs. As I approached his table I could see his book filled with colorful illustrations and great details as he worked with purpose. When I kneeled beside him I asked if he would talk about and read what he had written. He read with great inflection and voice and then came this incredible verb, “lurking”. I asked him how he came up with that word and he began to tell me that he loved snakes, that he was in fact, obsessed with snakes and that because he read so much about snakes he knows that lurking is what snakes do! He then ran off to his book box to find many different books on snakes. He poured through them showing me his favorite parts. This was unique and different than what anyone else was doing in the class and celebrating this writer’s moves is what I am all about. I asked that he read it to the class after telling everyone where he got his ideas and what kind of book he was writing about snakes. He talked about how he used the word lurking because another author had used it. I confirmed his smart writerly move talking about how all writers borrow from other authors. I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important. This is teaching in my highest self. This is where I find energy. This is where I long to always be. In the moment with a child as he or she identifies what it is they are working on and just what he or she is doing as a learner and how it is or is not working. I am always moving towards, “Getting kids to “reveal” what they know in order to discover where they might go.” Johnston, Choice Words.
And dare I even say that in these moments I feel a sense of synergy that I also find in my yoga practices. It is that moment of being in the “zone” where I can see things clearly and instinctively know where to go with each child that I work with. This does not happen all of the time, but when it does it is beautiful. It feels incredibly whole and complete and it has absolutely nothing in common with any other interactions I have with any other student. It is DIFFERENT. It is not the same and so I have to wonder in our quest for sameness, in our desire for consistency are we not losing the individual processes, identities and the creative thinking of each individual?
In my debriefs with the teachers after the demonstration lessons I am always surprised by what it is they ask and comment about. And after a recent rereading of Peter Johnston’s, Choice Words, I realize that so much of my teaching is defined in this book. The language we use and the responsive teaching is what I am always aiming for. And if you have not read this book then I encourage you to add it to your list of must-reads. It is essential for teaching our kids how to be independent agents in their own learning.
And so I left the same way I came in passing Best Buy and Lowe’s, asking myself, are we forgetting what makes life interesting? Are we aware that in our efforts to be the next Wal-mart that we are losing our downtowns and our small businesses? I am fortunate to live in a town that still has a downtown and I love walking through the shops and knowing and talking with those working in the shops. There is something wonderful about knowing people and seeing what is new and different that you would not find in a Target. And yet, it is a fight to keep our downtowns open because the big box stores are more affordable. But in the end, can we afford to lose what has yet to be discovered in each child in the name of what is simply common, consistent and so very much the same? Or am I just a boutique kind of teacher trying to survive in a big box world?