06 December 2011

Learning to see your students every day

In the film Smoke(1995) Auggie Wren, a Brooklyn cigar store owner, explains his "life's project" to grieving widower, and frozen writer, Paul Benjamin...
Auggie: "You'll never get it if you don't slow down my friend."
Paul: "What do you mean?"
Auggie: "I mean you're going too fast, you're hardly even looking at the pictures."
Paul: "They're all the same."
Auggie: "They're all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your summer light and your autumn light, you got your weekdays and your weekends, you got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you've got your people in T shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same, or the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle."
Paul: "Slow down, huh?"
Auggie: "That's what I recommend. You know how it is. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, time creeps on its petty pace."'

You walk into your school, into your classroom, and what do you see? Do you see the same place, the same students, the same children you saw yesterday?
Do you see the kids who is "always the screw up"? The one who "always understands"? The one who "never figures it out"? The one who is "always happy"? The one who will "cause a problem if you take your eyes off him" (or "her")? The one who is "good at math"? The "slow reader"?

Any student, and anyone who can remember being a student - K-12, primary, secondary - understands the assumptions the adults make about them. How students become "fixed" in description, and how hard it is - how impossible it often is - to change that reputation.
Last week @MissShuganah sent me a note about how one of her daughters suddenly did some thing for the first time. Something she'd been unable to do for years... and then, one day, one random day, something changed, and what was impossible became possible.

Working with Middle Schoolers the last two days, I watched kids amaze me. And sometimes they changed across the brief period I worked with them. Because kids, really all humans who are willing to learn, are like that. Constantly changing.

They're the same kids, but each one is different from day to day and sometimes hour to hour or minute to minute. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your tired days and your days filled with energy. You've got your sad days and your happy days. You've got your days when things click, and days when nothing does. Sometimes students make leaps, sometimes they move very slowly. The brain chemicals change, and connections link, or become elusive. The slow, the sad become quick and happy, the happy and fast have bad days and moments of intense struggle. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. And no student is exactly the same ever again as they are in that moment.
But teachers and school administrators, and yes, even parents, miss much of this. They see students as they see furniture and the walls of their classrooms - as permanent things. When you listen, they describe students with terms like "always," "every time," "never gets it," "always behaves perfectly."

When we do that, we give up on being educators, we give up on being the transformative adults we must be around children, and we surely miss out on the chance to intervene in so many moments.

So how do we see anew every day? First, we must want to do that, because it isn't easy throwing off years or decades of filters on our eyes. Second, we must give kids choices every day, because without children having choice, all you will see are patterns, all you will see is a repetitive scene.

If your classroom has real choices, children will do many things, and you will see them many ways. In the video below, Mike Thornton's third grade class is doing a familiar exercise - write five sentences about what you did over Thanksgiving break, put a picture with one - but, because they have choice in tool, in work environment, in many things, we not only see work and learning happening, we see it happening with individuals, individuals who have never been exactly like this before, and who will never be exactly like this again.
Once you have allowed your students to be the individual humans they are, rather than actors doing a performance for your benefit, you have the chance to see them in all their human differentiation, and they have the chance to stop playing their roles - the smart kid, the dumb kid, the disabled kid, the teacher pleaser, the kid with one skill set or one interest, the behavior problem, the silent kid - and start being the evolving human learners they are away from adult preconceptions.

Slow down tomorrow. Walk toward your school as if you haven't seen it before. Walk through your hallways as if you are fully "ADHD," sucking in every sight and sound. Look at you classroom as if you are a kindergarten student observing a place for the first time. And watch your students the way you look at a new group of friends, figuring out how you might approach each of them in a way which personally connects.

Then try to do that every day. You'll find you are in a new place every time our planet spins.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Matt Landahl said...

Ira, what a wonderful post this morning. As someone who is returning to my school in a few days after a couple of weeks off, what a great inspiration to try to see things with new eyes at our school. I have to also say that the scene from Smoke is one of my favorite in any movie, I will fast forward in Netflix Streaming just to watch that scene.