Wet Painting. Who? Me?

Here is my September post for Education Is My Life

Thirteen years ago I began working in education strictly as a school tech person, completely new to any philosophical approaches toward teaching and learning.  I had been hired to work in the hardware end of the digital world, keeping the school’s technology running smoothly for teachers and their students. I had no idea at that time that I was at the beginning of a major shift in my life, that over the years of this K-12 experience I would end up earning two degrees, and subsequently become a teacher as well as the assistant director of the school’s digital campus.

During those years of taking classes, while continuing to work in various aspects of information technology, I could not help but form view after view of education as I was developing a skill set and background knowledge for my current role and future. Initially, my understanding of education was based on a model where teachers and curriculum were the focal point of academics.  Over the course of the past decade, though, I’ve had the opportunity of supporting a variety of great teachers at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in their classroom efforts, thus continuing to deepen my own understanding of teaching and learning. Through these experiences I often wondered what happened to the traditional classrooms with which I had been most familiar…..chalkboards…rows of students…complete quiet.  I began to observe something very different: students having become increasingly active in their learning—creating, sharing, connecting, and collaborating with one another on a daily basis.  I witnessed teachers encouraging their students to take risks—reinforcing the idea that it’s okay to fail.

I’ll always maintain my roots in information technology.  I have now, however, a vastly different approach to education and the work of student learning, a much more academic one.  My philosophy has evolved into an increasingly student-centric approach—appreciating classrooms full of unique individuals.  Teachers and textbooks are no longer the primary sources of information.  On the contrary, teachers work with students to create environments where those same students feel a much more personal stake in their learning, where they’re eager to ask questions related to topics in which they’re interested, and where digital resources provide support in ways I never would have thought possible a dozen years ago.

It’s quite possible that not all of your students exude passion over the subject or content your teaching.  I’ve had students stare blankly at me as if I were a wet painting…waiting for me to dry.  In The Falconer, Grant Litchman writes that great teachers create opportunities for students to ask questions that excite them to self discovery.  If the students aren’t interested in what we’re teaching, it’s time for us to rethink the content and ameliorate the learning.

I taught my first class last year, spending months researching game design, a field in which I was none too familiar. I was nervous that students would recognize I wasn’t a hardcore gamer, spending hours each day playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.  I found myself subscribing to the model I had been accustomed to…focusing on becoming the knowledge provider…the primary source of information. I planned seventeen weeks of curriculum before stepping foot into the classroom.  A week into the class, I quickly recognized this was a flawed model—I was, indeed, the wet painting.  Several weeks passed before I decided to sit down with the students to find out what it was about game design that interested them. That day’s dialogue generated ideas for new classroom opportunities—lighting student enthusiasm. By the end of the semester they were teaching me how to play Minecraft!

This year I’m teaching the same game design class with a new group of students, embracing the completely new approach that I now see as critically important for student success.  I have goals and expectations set for the class, of course; this time around, however, the experiences of the students will be much more fluid.  Students will have strong voices, with the opportunity to help shape the learning experience. I’ll remind myself of Gary Stager’s words Less Us, More Them when I lean toward the Sage on the Stage approach.  I value the philosophy that allows me to guide students toward self discovery and rich learning opportunities…and they, in turn, will help me become a better educator.

Photo Credit: Tory Byrne

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