Friday, December 6, 2013

9 Tips for Teaching in the Wild

Yes, I think I may have subconsciously borrowed "in the wild" from the title of Donalyn Miller's new book (which I haven't yet read), Reading in the Wild. I have the sense that she and I are on the same page (haha, pun intended) when it comes to teaching.

So, if you are a new reader, I will tell you that I am fresh back "in the classroom" after many years as an instructional coach/tech person, etc. I changed hats so often I lost track of my job title, but at the core (I only now realize) I was trying to change the culture of schooling to be more of a natural learning environment. After being told again and again why my ideas wouldn't work in a real classroom, I began to question myself. After all, the last time I had been a full-time classroom teacher was in the last century! So, when the opportunity presented itself to teach my favorite grades (4th/5th), my favorite subject (English language arts) and to pilot a brand new 1:1 iPad program...
I was scared. And it's been hard. And totally amazing. Now, with three months under my belt, I'm starting to really see the benefits of creating a "wild" learning environment. 

So, here are some tips I have for creating a natural environment where learning grows and flourishes.

1. Wait for it.
Nothing happens overnight. I started off with a million (seriously!) ideas. I wrote them down in a big book and then, I admit, I tried to make them happen as quickly as possible. When you plant seeds, they do not grow in one day. But they do grow. Have patience, little grasshopper!

2. Believe in it.
I have nourished and nurtured and developed my learning philosophy over years of reading, experiencing, growing, changing, watching and basically being passionate about what I do. I have a philosophy and I believe in it. This is not to say that I don't seriously question myself at times. But being rooted in a philosophy of learning is the soil in which the whole thing grows. The kids come to understand it and feel safe in the consistency of the environment.

3. Find your people.
There is no "I" in wild. Ok, so there is, but in my experience, nothing great happens without other people. I am blessed with phenomenal colleagues, a supportive administrator and many wonderful classroom parents. I also have developed a "PLN" that has developed me and continues to challenge me, connect with me and, at times, remind me that I am not crazy.

4. Trust kids.
I think that one of the biggest reasons that "student-centered learning" fails is that people are loathe to trust their students. After all, they are children, and they are going to make mistakes. And their mistakes might make me look bad as a teacher. Cultivating a student-centered mindset takes time (see #2), but it pays dividends. I have given my 4th/5th graders the keys to the castle, so to speak. It is a relationship based on trust and responsibility. I act as a coach and guide, but I also trust them to co-create the learning environment with me.

Exhibit A : This is their Twitter account, not mine.
They are logged in on their own iPads, decide who to follow/unfollow
and what to Tweet. A 4th grade student also designed the avatar.
Exhibit B: One example of what happens when you create the environment
and invite students to be co-creators of the learning. 

5. Be the lead learner. 
Everyone responds to passion. You can not find learning in the wild if you don't live there or at least visit often. Canned materials seem to offer comfort and structure, but they fail to ignite passion, nor do they meet the needs of diverse learners. The ONLY WAY you can discover all the opportunities for authentic teaching is to be an active, engaged, reflective learner. I also believe very firmly that you can not teach something that you do not practice.

Let me repeat, it is not enough that you graduated college and passed 4th grade way back when. If you teach reading, you must read. If you teach writing, you have to be a writer. If you think you are going to push kids to grow and take risks, ask yourself when was the last time you took a risk and tried to learn something new and challenging. 

6. Begin with the end in mind
Know the standards. Where are you trying to take your learners? What does growth look like? How you get there should not be predetermined because there are many paths. Flexibility and a spirit of exploration will enhance not detract, as long as you know where you are going.

7. Imagine it!I think the best teachers are blessed with abundant imaginations. Whether this comes from nature or nurture, I'm not sure. But I do think imagination, like every other trait, can be developed. We live in a time of abundance, where other people happily and freely share their own imaginative ideas for teaching. Pinterest offers a wealth of ideas.

8. When opportunity knocks, open the door!
When you hear about that great project, idea or learning opportunity, banish that little naysaying voice in your head that whispers, "There's not enough time" or "It's too much trouble" or whatever else it says. If it sounds like a great opportunity for your students, check it out. You know what learning looks like, right? Try something new. Even when things don't work out as we plan, there is always an opportunity for learning.

9. Enjoy the journey
You're allowed to have fun.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous post Andrea! I love your philosophy about teaching, but I know that the philosphy is always open to evaluating, re-evaluating, and adapting as you learn more - traits of a growth mind-set! Plus, you are not afraid to fail - the key to success!!
I especially loved your point about having a million ideas, but learning that patience is necessary; nothing happens overnight. You are a great teacher and the class is lucky to have you back in the classroom, even if it is loss for those teachers that you have coached and guided for years.

Andrea said...

Thanks for commenting, Kim! And thanks for all your support, too.

Michael at QuizBean said...

Wow! I love that your 4th graders have their own twitter account and they operate it. That's a great way to get students introduced to the power of social media. Next up? Hootsuite!

Anonymous said...

Class twitter account - great idea! Are you following or being followed by other 4th grade classes?