Administrators at my placement school routinely prescribed “engaging lessons” as a remedy for nearly every classroom problem. Yet so many teachers, who were well-liked and regarded as effective, leaned toward accountability or control as the panacea for off-task behavior, disrespect, or low achievement. Sadly, the children I taught were not accustomed to joy in learning, something that was so often rote, alienating, and painful. Yet, I knew then and know now that “engaging work” is the more enjoyable, more effective (especially in the long run), and more holistic medicine. In Montessori terms, good work normalizes the classroom (“normalization: a natural or ‘normal’ developmental process marked by a love of work or activity, concentration, self-discipline, and joy in accomplishment”). And so I’m thankful that these last weeks have brought joy not in spite of our lessons and work but because of them:
- I’ve laughed with the children as they creatively illustrated the Bill of Rights: 5 – “Yay! I’ll only be tried 1 time for stealing Granny’s cookie!”; 6 – Speedy trial depicted by a “vrooom”ing car; 2 – Defending against a scary monster; 9 – “I can eat fish!” (I guess I share the level of humor of my 10 to 12-year-olds?)
- We’ve marveled at the the Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 room, using scale drawings, surface area, and the divisor / dividend relationship to verify the hundred grand tacked on the walls and columns. We even imagined the smell of the room — gross!
- In biology, kids scurried to an online inventory that revealed their dominant brain hemisphere. As a tight-knit and self-aware class, it was awesome to see the kids verify their (and our) predictions about their strengths.
- When my kids compared and contrasted three methods for finding sample space (tree diagram, two-dimensional array, fundamental principle of counting) they knew as well as I that they had really understood it! This probability lesson had flopped a year before…just a little reworking, and introducing lots of cognitive dissonance, worked wonders.
- I laughed as hard as the kids as they acted out science words including surface tension, carbon dioxide, and nucleation sites to wrap up our study of the ol’ Diet Coke and Mento reaction. The kids were well-prepped with two articles and discussion questions that exposed them to the “why” of the otherwise thin experiment.
- Kids loved the meaningful task of making their moms Mother’s Day plaques from wood, nails, and embroidery floss…a toned-down version of string art. Not a single child missed this deadline, and each gift was so unique and heartfelt.
- Keeping a poker-face proved difficult as the kids got invested in a “healthy lunch” debate in a simulation of the separation of powers. The menu writers (Congress) didn’t much like to be told that their meal didn’t meet the head chef (president’s) expectations. And the menu writers liked it even less when the courts ruled their meal unhealthy because watermelon wasn’t a healthy enough fruit exchange (apples would have been better…)
Is my classroom a wonderful fairy-tale land of miracles? No. Am I learning my role in making it a great place to be? Yes.
- I can give my kids as many choices as possible, even when it means they drop one Mento into a bottle of Coke when I know a whole roll would create a more impressive fountain. It’s in their hands to correct that choice or stick with it.
- When I see a brief, harmless off-task behavior like a silly dance a lunch, I can choose to respond with eye contact and a smile…students redirect just as fast and with less hard feelings.
- Importantly, I can rely on others with great content knowledge and special talents in creating engaging lessons (Dan Meyer’s three act and blueprint and iCivics What’s for Lunch? from this month). And I can look specifically for opportunities for students to engage with emotions, drawing on a sense of wonder or encouraging healthy debate. The classroom is a place for people and should reflect the emotions and needs of people…this is how we learn and remember best.
- I can work to the best of my ability to create a classroom that changes my role from an evaluator to an observer and helper, and always strive to observe with the goals of guiding the children and helping students to do for themselves. I can let small errors go, especially when children can correct their own errors.
This way of teaching requires patience, humility, and a great understanding that it is the children’s time and space, not my own. Of course, the rewards are many…for both me and the children!
If Teach for America did one thing great, it was the Culture of Achievement pathway that came out in 2011 (and tormented me at the time because I was, and still am, so far from my goal!). Read, believe, Teach with Your Strengths, seek out professional development (I recommend becoming familiar with Rafe Esquith and Montessori lessons and philosophy), and strive for those moments of joy:
“This classroom has an exemplary Culture of Achievement because the incredibly high expectations, effort, and motivation are truly owned by the students. Students are passionate, urgent, joyful, caring, and ‘on a mission’ toward a destination that matters to them…Students know and trust their teacher and peers because they feel safe, cared for, and valued in the learning environment. They are excited to come to class and genuinely don’t want to miss a moment of class time because they feel the joy of learning in a positive classroom community. Students are actively building the intrinsic motivation, confidence, and character that will empower them to achieve enduring success.”
One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.