December 23, 2014

On the Possibility of a Perfect Learning Environment

The way I know I am still growing is this: I learn every day that I have no idea what I am doing.

And that's okay. The cycle of my learning life goes a little something like this:

I wonder how this works > I am so awesome at this! > I have absolutely no idea how this works > I wonder how to make this better > I am so awesome at this! > How did I ever think I understood this? > Okay, so how does this really work?

Ad infinitum.

Take for instance, my stance on learning environments. More specifically, departmentalized instruction versus self-contained classrooms. For years I attempted to convince my first principal to let me try departmentalized instruction. After four years of teaching 4th grade, I was convinced I knew a better way. And that, my friends, was to allow teachers to specialize in one content area so that students learned the material from teachers that knew and loved the content. My principal always refused the request, however, warning me that departmentalized classrooms suffer from a lack of teacher-student relationships. I assured her this wasn't the case -- I had research to prove my belief! Smart people with multiple degrees and eons more experience than me agreed that this was the way to go. She was not convinced, but I clung to my belief that departmentalizing instruction was best for students and teachers.

This belief eventually played a small part in my departure from that school and entry into a new campus where I taught reading, writing, and social studies to two classes of students. They would receive math and science instruction from my co-teacher across the hall. I went into this experience filled with optimism and eager to spend a year immersed in the subject I was most knowledgable and passionate about. And I was right, to a certain extent. Focusing on reading and writing helped me to spend more time honing my craft as a teacher in that area. My relationship with my students was solid -- stronger, perhaps, than it had been before. In part this was because of the need of the particular learners I worked with; struggling students in a low income area that craved learning and worked hard to grow. What I did not expect, but probably should have, was the immense time crunch that happens when you jump from having an entire day with students to only spending two hours a day with them. There is no time to shift subjects around, squeeze in extra learning, or spend an extra hour on something your learners are struggling with -- you have 600 minutes a week with students, the end. Every minute becomes crucial.

Just a couple years after that initial exposure to the departmentalized classroom, I've landed at a charter school with a focus on classical instruction. At this school, I still teach 4th grade, but instead of two sections of students, there are four. That's a little under 90 students I work with each day, teaching writing and social studies. I have sixty minutes with each class. We work on our writing craft, learn to be more efficient revisers and editors of our own work, and of course, tackle the history curriculum of the 4th grade Texas student. I love this new school, my students, and the teaching family I work with each day. I feel like I've found my new teaching home.

And in the first semester of my experience here, I've learned so much about why I was wrong all those times I tried to convince my old principal that departmentalized instruction was better for students.

I still believe my relationship with my students is solid. I know them as people. I can tell you all about their interests and their personalities. I know how to talk to each one to help them grow. And they know me; I share my life with them, both the successes and the struggles. It's not the relationship with them as people that suffers.

It's the relationship with the student as a complete learner that flounders. If I were only teaching math, I might not understand where the student is as a reader. Missing this detail could mean not seeing why a student is struggling in math. Sure, the reading teacher can share this information with me. I might have the background knowledge, but until I sit and read with this child, and walk side by side with him or her through the particular struggles, I won't truly experience the problem and work on the solution. I won't be a part of the process. And with only an hour to focus on my content area, the chances of ever having time to make this type of connection is slim, to say the least. Not for lack of want. There is only so much one human can do in 60 minutes in a room filled with different needs and learning styles.

So what now? Now that I accept that my original ideas were only half-formed, now that I know there is so much more to the story than focusing on the ability for a teacher to specialize? Well, I keep doing what I'm doing. Keep learning, keep trying to find a better way to reach all my learners. Some days the overwhelming amount of information I'm expected to share with students seems impossible. Other days it seems we're figuring it out, stumbling gracefully forward. I still believe relationship is everything, and will never stop focusing on building trust and community with each of my students. It all starts there.

Is there one best way to teach a group of students everything they need to learn within a year? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I am learning, what I see so much more clearly every year, is that there are infinite ways to reach our students. We won't always be in the best situation. We will rarely have all the resources we feel we need. But the most important factor in the classroom is not the curriculum or the technology available or even the physical space. The greatest asset a classroom has is the attitude of the teacher. There will be good and bad days, amazing lessons and total flops, days when every moment is like pulling a freight train along with you, and times when the entire room is alive as if filled with some otherworldly magic. The classroom is a living, breathing space. It is what we make it.

And as for me, I intend to keep on building my skill, honing in on my craft, and articulating my love for each of my students every day, regardless of whether we are self-contained or in the fast paced whirl of a departmentalized classroom. While no learning environment may ever be perfect for all learners, my attitude and compassion fill the gap. So I will continue learning and growing right alongside my students, and together we will create the space that is perfect for us. Every day a different classroom, week by week, until I send them off to their future and greet my new learners at the door and begin to build again.

After all, what is learning if not constantly building, tearing down, and rebuilding the things you thought you knew?

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