Andrea sent me an article last year, it was 17 pages long on the constructivist theory of learning. We simply cannot do it alone. The article was looooooong but it made me think about every student, every teacher, every classroom and every table I had the privilege of sitting around – listening and learning and figuring it out. I did it every single day for 26 years.
I work from home now. I have a new job where I am based at home and much of my work for the past two weeks has been virtual (in track pants and a nice blouse like news reporters) and much collaboration with new and exciting roads ahead.
I found myself paying closer attention to twitter and the learners and leaders I respect and follow and who push me when I want to pull. But the school year did not really start until I sat on a courtyard step with Aiden (not his real name).
I had stopped in at a secondary school to drop off some materials to my friend Amber Clarke who was going to help me in a pinch – like she always does. I signed in and I met Mrs. Neumann-Stevens on the way with her class getting books from the book room. She proceeded to say she had wished I had been there the day before as she had created a character sketch with her class – for a character in a book they had yet to start reading – at a tea party in her classroom. It was a big fat gossip session where the students had received a piece of gossip about the character and they had to integrate the gossip while communicating with their peers. They pieced together the gossip to create a character sketch. Listening to Kirsten tell me how the learning had unfolded was incredible.
I walked into Amber’s room and she was playing one of my favourite 1:57 long videos from Google about questioning – the one with Rubik’s cube – she was introducing 20time. They were mesmerized. I weighed in a little about 20time and what it meant to me to watch students explore what matters to them and how their teacher was really going to make it about them. They were curious.
I signed out and was greeted with a hug from my long time teaching friend – Melinda Chalmers. We chatted and she said, “I have a student you need to meet.” She sent me to the steps of the courtyard where Aiden was sitting yelling and waving for help. I asked if I could sit down and help him – if he trusted me to. He asked if I was an employee and I assured him I was, even though I was seconded by the ministry I was still technically an employee of the board and a qualified teacher and he felt that was acceptable. I sat and we figured out his math (some problems involving figuring out a missing number in an equation). When we had figured it out he asked if he could use a calculator. I asked him if he could “do minuses without borrowing” (obviously my math lingo needs work) without a calculator – he literally started doing them in his head and writing down the answers. I thanked him for the math and his time and we shook his pencil good-bye. We did chat about Sponge Bob – I am a Squidward fan and Aiden thought this was weird. He also told me that the pizza at the Krusty Krab was for you and me – “maybe next time” …he is remarkable – Ms. Chalmers knows this.
That was my first day of school. It was my #sitbeside. If I had ever wondered how we could possibly expect educators to learn with and from each other in the silos of their classrooms, the idea that I could possibly learn from home without the bumps from the real world is simply absurd. Everything swimming in my head about learning and assessment and feedback didn’t all of a sudden become clear, what it did was become real again – theories are important – the need to go figure out why and how is the only course of action for me. There will be more track pants and swell blouses – it’s the nature of the work and collaboration in 2018 but there will be more school. I have not learned, changed my mind or toiled with my theories alone for 27 years. I did it at school, during learning and with the other humans in the room with me. It’s where the learning actually lives.
A: Aiden invites the bounce. I know it was in the form of “help”, and I’m just thinking about how hard it has been to constantly remind myself to stay in a state of open – change my mind. It’s a consciousness worth rising to, but why do we set up camps, sides, and structures so quickly?
K: I sat here in the dark for a second thinking about your question…I was a camp setter upper and defender of what I believed and knew to the death – it was exhausting trying to convince people that if they only, if they just, they should… I remember the exact moment I knew I could not convince anyone of anything and that we actually, as learners, have to bring ourselves to the table and bump against what we don’t know. You were there – you asked me to sit in a circle and do a preview of a text with grade three teachers. I asked if you were sure? I am high school and they were not. You said do it as you would. I sat very humbly with 25 or so teachers and did it as I would with my students in grade 9 – guts out waiting for them to laugh at my high school self – I knew I was not going to convince them of anything – I just had me. They changed me. I will say this from my heart – reminding ourselves to stay in a state of open has been very difficult – I have moments when I want to shout and maybe stomp my feet just a little, or pack up and retreat because it feels hard. But, I remember how it felt to be me and my wide open self in grade 3 and that feeling is worth spreading.
A: You just had you. What you believe about reading is really who you are. Putting that out in the open is very different from telling and well – reading the slide. You intentionally told them that you might not know. So those Grade 3 teachers might not know. Maybe no one knows. The circle is the temporary construction site. You could easily sit at home and know or you could go out into the learning and then your return to home is a return to what you know.
K: Knowing feels like being stuck in cement to me. I can know a fact. But, if I share that fact with you and and ask if you care, wonder or know anything else about it – the fact seemingly ceases to matter as now it’s about us and the stuff we learn together. Aiden was doing subtraction and needed help. He needed my curriculum vitae before I could sit down. I gave him a 30 second story of who I was. I was acceptable “help.” We mucked around in the subtraction and chatted some. He tested me with the calculator question – we were working without one and I did not see one. I could have said sure or does your teacher give you one for these questions? We poked around a little more – he was dying to show me his math self – he mental math capability – but I had to work for it. I passed. He gave me Sponge Bob and pizza – I had to come home a google it – it took me to youtube. He had mentioned the song. I linked it above. 8 minutes and no pushing or telling…I am not sure it gets better than that. I have known Melinda (the educator) for many many years. She knew I was going to love that experience. I drove home and felt it – IT! Knowing does not teach anyone anything. No one can be taught who is not heard or whom we do not invite into the circle. There are varying degrees of compliance and being good at answering the question on the test. Listening is the only way.
A: This is more than an anecdotal note – a cute story about a quirky student. What we do with the learning and how it impacts what comes next is more. It was #sitbeside and by that I mean assessment. I just typed that word and felt the flip. It was #sitbeside and by that I mean assessment of the way knowledge was constructed together – the depth of thinking – what it means for both of you. Could you share this back to him at some point?
K: If I were Aiden’s teacher…yes. I think he would have been very curious about the to be continued as to how we sat there learning with and from each other. It would be important for Aiden to be handed back what happened to me for having sat down and having learned from him. For me and for us – I was dying to share it back with Melinda… I have not spoken to her since. I had to keep walking towards the car and carry on. Melinda – in directing to me to Aiden, gave me something and I was changed for simply having sat down. I needed to share it back with her. Kirsten was the same. She told me about her character sketch building. Making assumptions through what we hear from others is how we come to know people and create our bias. Students had bits and pieces about the character and they had to listen to each other in the form of gossip, then weave it all together and then draw some bigger conclusions together to create the sketch – they did this before even starting the book – now they have something to bump the book and the character against and it belongs to them…you know I couldn’t let that go. Students listening to each other and building knowledge that is theirs and this educator knowing there is nothing more difficult than convincing students to read a novel. NOTHING. I saw them getting the books from the book room – talking and holding the books and reading the cover and the back and leafing through walking back to class – it’s what caught my attention. It was already theirs.
A: They will use it and learn forward. More of an evolution than a checkbox I guess. I wonder how students feel the challenge of staying open. Do they have fewer camps to manage?
K: I think they have more camps to navigate. Secondary school is a place where a student may attend 4 different classes with 4 different teachers and they trying to assess how to be “successful” in that subject with each teacher. I am not sure they see themselves in the equation with the curriculum, the course outline and the 18 weeks to course completion. I walked into Amber’s class and she was rolling out 20time. She was explaining that 20 percent of the course was going to be their to choose to learn about something, explore something that might benefit anyone – including themselves. This educator holds true to the 20time philosophy – it really is theirs. She does not steer nor shift them to something she thinks will benefit them. It is very difficult to do as an educator. I watched their faces. They did not compute one thing she was explaining. They did understand 20 percent of the course and 20 percent of the time but I know she was going to have to spend the rest of the class time that day convincing them she meant it and helping them understand that it was their choice. I heard and watched her say – I am reading on your faces that you are not quite understanding what this might mean. They have already been in a colonial structure for 11 years and by grade 9 they think they have the give the teacher what they want figured out. 20time is tough. What do you mean me?
A: It would be a challenge to switch from the structures of compliance and assessment in their classes. I’m thinking about Amber’s colleagues and anyone for that matter. There are assumptions about inquiry and 20time and the lack of assessment and skill development. I do know that there is a great deal of #sitbeside going on. In fact, I think there is more assessment and skill development. Why do we polarize ourselves? This is what I mean by camps. We ask to stay home.
K: This is a juicy question. It begs about 46 more questions – including the purpose of assessment – I know that for many – inquiry is a very bad word. I know that folks will walk by, have walked by Amber’s class and shaken their heads. A sign on the door had to be created – 20time in progress – you may see us on our phones, talking in small groups, thinking out loud etc. to ensure that there was understanding that learning may look different than rows and that the class was not out of control and in chaos AND to justify the use of technology like phones. The students may visit one camp in period 1 – where assessment and feedback come at the end with a mark on a piece of paper and they may visit camp #sitbeside with ongoing feedback from Amber as they need it or want it…there is value in both – but I guess I am wondering if the checkbox worries us and getting the numbers for assessment may feel illusive with #sitbeside?
A: There is value in both. It’s not a choice I don’t think – one or the other or work harder and do both. Value. What do we love about assessment? It’s so meaningful to us. We think about it all the time. Why? What does it mean?
K: I don’t think you are exaggerating when you say “we think about it all the time.” The second I am having a conversation with someone about learning or thinking or history or minuses my brain starts listening – and I do not come close to your skill of listening and hearing and capturing what it means – I am rookie. Assessment, means I am sitting beside and I am listening to everything – not just what I have given you but what is handed back to me that is yours. What did I hear, see written, or communicated to me that was not mine and what’s different. If I get nothing but what I as the educator gave you – THERE IS NO LEARNING – let alone critical thinking or going deeper…assessment gives me everything and something to hand back to the learner that was built. It means we (the student and the educator) listened and changed each other. I cannot stay home and get that.
A: I like the word deeper. Someone told me the other day that, as a learner, direct instruction was a relief. I think that deeper is more challenging. I may be stating the obvious but it’s because I’m looking for the value in the checkbox. Knowing all that there is to learn about a subject might help you challenge and extend and create a space between. The difference is in the invitation perhaps. Might it come in the form of a circle? A checkcircle lol.