Friday, January 3, 2014

Practice Learning Hard Things

In my last post, I wrote about pushing ourselves outside of the comfort zone in order to be better teachers by becoming better learners. I ended that post with:
In the new year, let's resolve to become better teachers by making learning a habit, the kind of learning that stretches us and feels uncomfortable. I believe this is the most important and vital thing you can do to become a better teacher. 
What will you learn?
I thought I would share two small, personal experiences with learning outside my comfort zone in the past year, as well as some reflections on how it impacted me as both learner and teacher.

First, I went to a Dance Trance class. This might not seem like a big deal, but you will have to take my word for it that this type of choreographed dance class is WAY far out of my comfort zone. It was extremely challenging, and, despite wanting to flow with it, I was absolutely awful. It is like I have a disability in this area.

Encouragement Leads to A Feeling of Possibility
I reflect on this experience, thinking about students I teach for whom reading and writing do not come naturally, just as learning choreographed dance moves does not come naturally for me.

What did I need in that situation? What would motivate me to continue to practice? What would help me overcome my difficulty and get better? What could the teacher have done for me?

No amount of critical feedback would have been useful for me at that point. I was trying very hard. What I needed was encouragement. 
The most helpful thing that a teacher could have offered to me would have been to notice and point out what I did right.

Encouragement leads to a feeling of possibility. At the outset, the most important thing for the struggling learner is to be motivated to return to this difficult activity and try again. A beginner is not helped by critical feedback. That comes further down the line. Grading my progress would not have been helpful at all. I already knew I wasn't getting it. What I needed was encouragement and a vision of myself that included possibility that I could actually learn this.

The Power of Practice

The second thing I learned out of my comfort zone in 2013 was to read Torah. I began this process right around the same time as the dance class. I had the same initial feeling of being overwhelmed with both activities. The difference was that with the dance class I only went once, whereas with the Torah reading, I continued to practice, taking it in small chunks and returning to it again and again. Ultimately, I was successful at learning the Torah portion.

What is interesting to me was how my enjoyment of the activity evolved as I began to become more competent. When something is highly challenging for me, I start out with timed practice. I force myself, using a timer, to practice for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes. As I experience the success of learning, that feeling
becomes its own motivation for returning to practice.

I also had a "due date" of my daughter's bat mitzvah by which I had to be prepared to share my Torah reading publicly. I think this helps as well in motivating practice.

Frustration and Struggle
Frustration is part of the learning process. We have to learn to stop fearing and fighting it. By continually pushing ourselves we come to understand what it means to try, to practice, to learn. Doing what is easy does not create the deep satisfaction that comes with true achievement.

Getting in touch with the challenges of learning makes us more compassionate and effective teachers.

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