Pedagogical Autobiography: Learners

Please Listen to the story first.

This story is a moment of crisis in my career, and I had not even stood in front of my own classroom. The summer after graduating and before teaching, I had been hired as the tripping director at Camp Roger, just north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That same summer a good friend and fellow counselor for the past three summers, had been hired as the adventure director. We went into the summer with very different strategies. He went in looking to have fun with the the staff and through having fun with them and taking them on adventures he would build their abilities to have fun with kids and take them on adventures as well. My strategy was to tell them what to do and make sure it got done.

The tripping program was a success that summer in the sense that kids had fun, probably only a little less than the year before. Kids we safe, there were no accidents or runs to the emergency room. But as the story indicates, I spent the whole summer doing work that the counselors should have wanted to do. I was doing it because they were not even remotely interested in the camping that I had taught them. It was not fun or interesting. It was not a personal adventure. It was led, by me, as a "do it this way" and everything will work out fine. No one listened and I knew it.

That fall one of the most amazing moments of my career happened. I walked into class on the fourth or fifth day of the year and after a lecture I assigned the students to read a section of the textbook. I also gave them a worksheet to fill out to make sure the reading was done. The next day every student had completed the worksheet. Every single one of them. I was amazed. I was shocked . Why would they do that? I think looking back on it, I was a little sad that they had not rebelled against a silly assignment like that. I was amazed that they had not just copied all the blanks from a neighbor in study hall (some probably did). I was amazed at the power I had. I was more amazed later that week when I gave a test and many of the students got answers wrong that they had filled out on my worksheet just a few days before. The worksheet had been almost without value even though it was all completed.

A couple years later I read this poem by Robert Frost.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

I read it in a book by Parker J Palmer. It changed my teaching forever. Palmer described a classroom that I wanted to be a part of. He described a classroom where I was not the holder of truth. He described a classroom where God wanted us to all dance in concert around a subject, each looking for a unique perspective every day and every time we looked. Each contributing to that conversation in our own way. From that moment on I decided that I needed to fill my room with learners. No teachers, no students, all learners. Palmer himself describes it on the introduction to his book To Know As We Are Known when he says, "But what scholars now say -- and what good teachers have always known -- is the real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationship with the teacher, with each other, and with the subject." (pg xvi)

Palmer goes on to explore why this must be. He starts with who we are, "The deepest wellspring of our desire to know is the passion to recreate the organic community in which the world was first created." (pg 8) We are God's creation, all of us connected to the creator by the love of this same creator. Since we are each connected in a different way, in a uniquely created way, to God's love, then we must all be learners together in this journey. But the journey to know is not enough. True learning becomes part of who you are, "A knowledge that springs from love may require us to change, even sacrifice, for the sake of what we know. It is easy to be curious and controlling. It is difficult to love." (pg 9) If the learners leave the classroom one day and we have not changed some piece of who we are, or at least moved in steps towards that, then I, as the person who sets up the context of that learning, have not succeeded. If the lesson did not have a chance of changing me, then I have not succeeded, because I was not a part of the learning. "Truthful knowing weds the knower and the known; even in separation, the two become part of each other's life and fate." (pg 31)

So how does this practically play itself out each day in my classroom? First, I try hard to ask questions that I want to know the answer to. Rarely silly questions that all have the same answer for every person. This lends a level of ambiguity to the class that not all teachers are comfortable with. You have to be willing to put 'play' on the lesson plan. You have to be willing to branch out away from your chosen topic for a while because the connections other learners will make are not known to you. I aspire to be Bill from Vivian Gussin Paley's Article in Harvard Educational Review titled On Listening to What Children Say. I want to bring, "paper bags full of show-and-tell, and he and the children the children talked about a wide range of ordinary phenomena." (pg 122)

I try hard to take all questions, comments and concerns at any point. It took me a while to get to this point. Learners learn from each other. If I am to be a learner I need to understand why others around me are not learning and what I can do to improve my role. This was hard to learn, because I like to be in charge. This is actually a flaw of many teachers. We are comfortable with the doors to our room shut not open. Someone reading this not from education will think of this as elitist or arrogant, but I think it stems from the fact that we are vulnerable on any given day to make very public mistakes and no one wants their mistakes public. Any way that you may perceive this, I look to my classes as sources of knowledge about how to view the world differently from my own way. This has made me a little more comfortable with getting comments that are different than my own.

I look at my students as coequal learners. I set us all up in a room full of stuff or ideas and we all dig in and try to make sense of it. The more likely someone is to come up with a different answer than what I thought might be the answer the more I like the lesson. Palmer says that we need to make our classroom hospitable where, "every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome." (Pg 74)

If I am not learning new content myself, I challenge myself to learn a new way of looking at the the content. Content is important. I need to bring the people in the room to a knowledge of the language and thinking of science to ask bigger and better questions. The hard part of doing this is not all learners need the same content. They all need different parts of the content that I would like to see them explore and work with. I think exploring new ways of learning and knowing shows the other learners that there are big questions to look at. It models the dance of learning that Frost talks about.

In the story I told at the beginning, Jame dug in and explored having fun with the counselors he was training. The world was a place to have fun in and play games and love each other in. I modeled a world that did not exist in the woods, and that was probably my biggest mistake. Camping never goes the way it is supposed to. Why would anyone teach it from the perspective that you will have fun if you follow these rules. Now I take my counselors in the woods every spring. We walk, canoe or backpack out and have a wonderful time. I ask them what they know, what they have experienced. I forget stuff and have to make do with what I have. I tell stories around the campfire. The first night they camp alone in the woods I walk up and hide behind trees and see what is happening. Sometimes I teach something, sometimes I smile and walk past. They are learning, and sometimes that needs support and sometimes it needs space. I like to think I do the same in my class. Giving students room to explore the new language I have shown them. Giving us all a space to play with the subject that God has put in our room to explore.