On Being a Learner

Being students makes us better teachers.

It isn’t about being immersed in complex educational theory or discussing cognitive development.  It’s not even about writing coherent curriculum. More often, it can be  about leaving our comfort zones and letting ourselves step away from what we know best that helps us become better teachers.

Being  learners drops us directly into our students’ shoes, forcing us to rethink how we do business.  It reminds us what it feels like to not know the answers. As learners,  we have to find the voice–and the courage– to ask for help, be quick enough to follow directions and be focused enough to see the assigned tasks through to fruition.

This is what our students must do every day, in every class.

    For a second summer, I am resolved to learn to quilt. I yearn to piece together colorful scraps of fabric, to create an heirloom.  I have a heap of library books, some featuring intricate diagrams, others  offering carefully composed written directions and even one that came with an audio component. All the blurbs boast the fool-proof method for learning to quilt.  Yup, that’s what I need: fool-proof.  This time, I am determined to be successful.

Only it’s not that simple.

When my own two kids were little, I made their clothes. So I also have a reasonable expectation that I should be able to do this.  But I soon rediscover that this quilting thing, it’s not just needle and thread and colorful fabric.  It’s a complicated skill and I am laboring not to master it just yet, only to give it a good whirl.

Using my strengths

Because I think I am a something of visual learner, I first turn to the book featuring the illustrations. The cover is attractive and exciting, but the drawings are almost too well done, too intricate. I can’t seem to move from one diagram to the next and I find myself distracted by directions that don’t align to the pictures.

     Next, I figure that since I am an English teacher, maybe the written word will take me where I want to go.  This book proves to be a little closer to my style, but still I can’t make the necessary connections to piece a wedding ring pattern.  I am struggling to read while simultaneously attempting to cut and sew.  Can you spell frustration?   I am not at all accustomed to not “getting it.”   OK, I can read Shakespeare and Faulkner. So why am I struggling to read these instructions? This might be the point where last summer I quit, though I didn’t call it that; I consoled myself by saying I was just taking a break.

Finally, I pop the audio disc into the laptop and follow along with a  monotonous male narrator’s voice. Now I am “seeing” the process by hearing it.  But I also have the book in front of me and so I am learning through a combination of words and speech. OK, this is a little bit better.  Still, it isn’t easy, not for me anyway.  My sister-in-law has this down. She can quilt and talk at the same time.

But I won’t be “taking a break” this summer.  I see signs of progress.  My work takes shape very awkwardly and it isn’t anywhere near the “perfect heirloom” product I had in mind, but it does sort of resemble a quilt. Sort of.  I like to think of myself as a motivated self-learner, but I know I will need to ask my sister- in- law for some instruction.  I would rather not have to ask for help. I would prefer to do this myself.  I should be able to do this myself, right?

Being learners helps us experience how our own students may feel on any given day, about any assigned task. We may think our directions are flawless.  We may think we have modeled the skill deftly. But what we think we have done and what our students see can be–and sometimes are–two different things.  And though the end product may not look like the picture,  that should never, ever devalue the work.

Yes, being a learner definitely makes me a better teacher.

A Playground for All

This weekend, we were lucky enough to accompany our grandchildren to a playground in their town.  Even before we unbuckled their car seat straps, it was obvious this was a beautiful park: new equipment, resilient rubber matting, bright primary colors.

Then I read the dedication at the entrance and this playground became more than beautiful; it was the manifestation of a dream.

This playground was created to honor the memory of a child who had died, a child with special needs.  The swings and climbing apparatus were created to enable all children to share the joy of a day in the park. The swings have extra safety harnesses–which as a doting grandmother, I truly can appreciate. There are more ramps than there are steps.  Make no mistake. This isn’t just accessible; it is a sanctuary where every child can play, where every child can just be a kid, without being defined or limited by labels,  a place where all kids can play side by side.

My maternal side exulted in the obvious safety of this playground; a two year-old could successfully–and proudly– navigate the obstacles without too much intervention or adult angst.  The humanist in me celebrated the message of quiet equality standing tall among the  kid-sized slides and swings.

I left this playground with a deep and abiding sense that this is character education at its best.  We can talk earnestly, honestly to kids about kindness and equality.  We can model it in our daily interactions with them and with each other.  We can deliver explicit lessons designed to counteract bullying.  But this playground, funded by both private donations and by municipal contributions, is the ultimate example of giving kids chances to just be kids and to just play, practicing both large motor skills and respectful living.

The simple slogan on the sign?  “Because every child deserves a place to play.” Inspiring.

If we can provide more opportunities like this for our kids, we can help them see beyond appearances.  We can give them a new world where there are opportunities for all.