Saturday, April 30, 2016

Growing Learners

There is immense beauty in watching children learn.  Like a field of wildflowers, each one blooms in its own time and at its own pace.  You cannot rush the process.  To fully appreciate it, you need only to observe the intricate process unfold.  We are now eight full months into the school year.  It is Parent-Teacher conference time.  This week and next I have the opportunity to sit with parents and show them how much their child has grown this year.  For some, it is a tearful process as they realize that they need to set aside concerns and comparisons to fully appreciate that their child has gone from a tentative reader and writer to confident composer and literate child at their own pace.  I, too, find myself choked up showing them how much their child has progressed.  All the children have grown so much. Some have grown more "on paper" than others, but all have shown significant progress.  I assure parents that this is a journey that we have undertaken and not a race to finish at the front of the line.  Like Sunflowers, some of the children are still soaking in knowledge until the time and conditions are right for them to fully show what they know.  Others, like Snapdragons, bloom quickly and brightly, in a hurry to be noticed.

As the cultivator of these children, it is my purpose to enrich the soil, protect their growth during challenging times, and to provide space and sunlight which will allow them to fulfill their potential.  It is a much more complex process than just teaching curriculum.  Educating our students encompasses more than just presenting knowledge.  As teachers, we know that we are often surrogate parents to many of our students.  We are also confidantes, friends, mentors, guides, coaches and role models.  Our classrooms are biomes where the species and the environment work together to create a symbiotic relationship for children who are learning and discovering.

We have done much work this year on Learning Targets as part of our focus on the Common Core.  I have looked for research to show me why and how these are meant to improve student learning.  Most of what I have found centers on the work of one Education Reformer Robert Marzano.  The belief is that if you write and state a learning target for each lesson that is aligned to the standards where the students can view it, then the teacher and the students will start with the goal in mind and focus in on that goal.  I have an ongoing inner struggle with this as a primary grade teacher.  Over the past few years since Common Core arrived, the whole of my curriculum has essentially boiled down to learning targets for ELA and Math.  By narrowing this focus, we lose the opportunities for children to discover key learnings and understandings for themselves at a pace that is right for them.  We talk of differentiation but when the end goal is a single target for all, then diversity becomes a hindrance rather than an asset.  We tell the children what they will learn and when they will learn it.  We offer fewer and fewer opportunities for children who learn and grow differently than others. Creating a classroom that has balanced literacy, science, math and social studies curriculum that included hands-on learning allows children opportunities for self-discovery.  It allows them to look beyond the target and to find important learnings that are meaningful to them.

I long for the days when I had the academic freedom to create and implement curriculum based on a set of standards that were age appropriate.  Learning was more organic.  Although all my lessons were, and still are, planned with an objective in mind, often the students took the learning in a direction that allowed for more in- depth and spontaneous discovery.  There was room within the curriculum that allowed diversions based on student interest and inquiry that is lacking in the restrictive scripted mandates and modules that we see today in our classrooms.  Teachable moments were valued and cherished and professional judgment was respected and honored.  I still love those moments when the children's curiosity drives the learning.  The learning target pales in comparison to the insights that the children create.

At the end of the school day, I return to my desk to sift through the piles of love notes and drawings to locate my planbook.  These writings are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.  I save as many of these items as I can.  Looking back through the drawings I see the progress the children have made over the year.  The early notes and pictures from September and October usually say "I lik my tchr" and show me as a stick figure with huge eyes and no hair. April's drawings are more involved, with multiple detailed pictures of people, speech bubbles and words like "You are the best teacher ever.  I love you."  The handwriting is clearer, the spelling is better and there is even punctuation.  I now have hair and am fully clothed in the pictures.  They are heart-wrenchingly sweet in their innocence.  I have watched these children bloom before my very eyes, each in their own way and in their own time.  It is just as it is supposed to be.  As I prepare them to go on to the next grade level, my wish for them is that their future teachers continue to nurture the soil and appreciate each of them for their beauty so that they may bloom and be exactly who they are meant to be.

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